When I lifted the lid on the Glowforge laser cutter to reveal the family portrait engraved on a wooden jigsaw puzzle, it brought a smile to my face like few other tech products I’ve used before.
This simple project—enabled by a very complex machine—was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait.
I pre-ordered a Glowforge from the eponymous Seattle startup on the first day of its 30-day crowdfunding campaign in the fall of 2015, which brought in a record $27.9 million. Like other early backers, I waited through delay, after delay, after delay.
While some people found this unacceptable and cancelled their orders, I viewed it as the inevitable risk of buying something new to the world from a startup.
I was put at ease by the fact that Glowforge had raised a deep stack of venture capital from investors with a reputation for doing the right thing, and seemed to be led by people with integrity. I never got a sense that the company and the crowdfunding money was circling the drain—a distinct possibility given the track-record of other high-profile campaigns that wound up being flops for early backers. To the contrary, as I wrote in December 2016, when a clearly pained Glowforge co-founder and CEO Dan Shapiro announced a second delay in the production schedule because of quality concerns: “I’d rather wait for a laser cutter that works well than have a crumby one today.”
By early December 2017, my 70-pound box of laser was wending its way north from Glowforge’s contract manufacturer, Flex, in Milpitas, CA, to my home in Seattle. It arrived at my house, a full 26 months after I placed my order. That’s a long time, yes, but I felt the company has been fair in compensating customers for the delay with warranty extensions, credits to use for purchasing designs and materials (it recently launched its Proofgrade line of materials intended to make calibration of the laser for cutting and engraving a no-brainer), and other recompense.
I traded e-mails with Shapiro in early January, when Glowforge announced that it had crossed $70 million in total sales. I was curious to know how many of the more than 10,000 pre-orders Glowforge received during the 2015 pre-order campaign remained undelivered. Shapiro would not be specific. “We’ve got thousands of units in the field, with all domestic pre-orders scheduled for delivery in the next few months,” he said.
The excitement of unboxing the Glowforge in my neighbors’ garage—we share things and they had better space for this rather large appliance—was quickly doused. There was condensation inside the plastic bag protecting the unit and coating its metal sides and glass top. I’m not an electronics expert, but I was under the impression that lasers are generally supposed to be dry. There was at least one other reference to this particular packaging problem in the Glowforge forum, though it doesn’t appear to be widespread.
Shapiro told me via e-mail that very few units are reaching customers damaged. “It’s very rare (single digit percent),” he wrote, referring to damaged units in general, not my specific issue, “but with thousands of units, it still happens from time to time.”
We sent it back without taking it all the way out of the box. Another one was promptly shipped my way. A hassle, yes, but after waiting this long, I wanted to ensure my Glowforge was in good shape from the start. Glowforge customer service was excellent throughout the exchange process.
The second unit was appropriately dry on arrival. Out of the box, the Glowforge is sturdy and well-built. It looks and feels cool and sleek, as you’d hope a laser cutter would.
Setup and calibration were easy and took about 30 minutes. At long last, it was time for my neighbors and me to make our first print: a simple plaque commemorating the Glowforge and the community we share.
Step-by-step instructions were included for this and two other simple projects as part of the set-up tutorial. In a few more minutes, we had uploaded some text to the Glowforge app, dragged the digital design on to the piece of maple hardwood Proofgrade material positioned inside the laser cutter—cameras inside the unit make positioning designs on the material a snap—and confirmed the engrave and cut settings. Everything was ready to go and the single button on the Glowforge itself glowed invitingly. I pressed it, and the machine whirred to life and began to do its thing.
It is mesmerizing to watch the laser head move precisely over the material. Rapid bursts of laser burn away the material, leaving behind the design you’ve created. Puffs of smoke and the occasional flame-up are sucked away by the machine’s fans—which are not quiet, something to be aware of if you plan to have one of these in a space where you or others will be working or hanging out while the machine is running. Outside the garage, the pleasing smell of maple smoke wafted from the exhaust tube, giving this decidedly modern activity a rustic campfire feel. (I’ve yet to cut other materials, some of which will produce less-pleasing odors, I expect.)
After that first successful project, we left the Glowforge in the garage for a few days, distracted by the rush of the holidays. The temperature fell. The next time I went to use it, I received an error message: The unit was too cold. We moved it to a warmer location inside my neighbors’ house. It took two full weeks before the Glowforge was ready to work again. I’m not sure if this was a sensor fault that just took some time to reset, or if it was really that slow to warm back up.
For my second project, I wanted to make a jigsaw puzzle of a family photo (see image above). I found good discussions on how to prepare photos for engraving in the Glowforge forum—crank up the contrast being the most useful piece of advice. The company has also upgraded its Web-based software to create default settings for photo engraving. I’m looking forward to more improvements like this, and the company seems to be delivering them.
In general, I’ve found the Glowforge app straightforward to use, as far as it goes. But there are simple tasks—cutting out a rectangle, for example—that seem like they should be easier to do directly within the app. After engraving the family photo on the maple hardwood, I wanted to trim the edges to the exact aspect ratio of the jigsaw puzzle template included in the Glowforge catalog. The work-around for this involved creating a rectangle in another graphics program and uploading that image—essentially an instruction set for the laser—to the Glowforge app.
I should note that I’m coming to the technology with a limited background and skill set in creating digital graphics. There’s a lot to learn—particularly as I eye more complex projects that involve fitting together cut pieces to form 3D objects—but there is also a wealth of resources in the Glowforge forum, and a community of users and Glowforge employees that seem eager to help and share experiences.
Your acuity with design and graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator, AutoCAD, and Inkscape will have a big impact on the results you can obtain with the Glowforge. My neighbors, who are software and design professionals, have taken to it much more quickly, creating a protest sign for the recent Women’s March in Seattle, and a beautiful and unique “Circle of Fifths” spinner they can use to randomly select what key to play in when they’re making music with friends (see image below). But even they have encountered a learning curve in understanding how the Glowforge app will translate their designs into instructions for the laser—where it should cut, where it should engrave, and how deeply?
The designs in the Glowforge catalog, paired with the Proofgrade materials, save a lot of effort in this regard—and point to an ongoing revenue stream for Glowforge as a company.
After trimming the engraved family photo, I flipped the wood over (so that burn marks from the cuts in the next step would not mar the finished product) and refreshed the image in the Glowforge. I pulled up the jigsaw puzzle design in the app, positioned it over the piece of wood, confirmed the pre-set cut instructions, and hit the glowing button.
The jigsaw puzzle pieces were cut in a couple of minutes and fit together beautifully. The finished puzzle—which took about 30 minutes of laser time, plus another hour and a half spent learning—was a hit with the family (see below).
I’ve only just scratched the surface of what can be done with this technology. The creativity of other Glowforge users on display in the forum is inspiring. I’m looking forward to experimenting and learning more, and, most of all, seeing what my kids will do with this amazing tool that brings together the digital and physical world.