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lasersaur Interview: Lasersaur's Addie Wagenknecht

Lasersaur is an open-source laser cutter under development by NORTD Labs, with funding provided by Kickstarter. With 35 days to go, 150 people have contributed over $11,000, surpassing the original funding goal of $10K and guaranteeing the project will go forward. Recently I had the chance to interview one of NORTD’s principals, Addie Wagenknecht.

John Baichtal: First, can you tell me a little about your team? It’s just you and one other person, right?

Addie Wagenknecht: The team is myself and Stefan Hechenberger. We work under the collaboration name NORTD.

We started working together in 2006 while we were students at NYU’s ITP Masters Program. At ITP we developed CUBIT (the open source multitouch system) as a thesis project. We gave ourselves 3 months and $1000 (we split the cost two-way) to develop the platform and software including documentation. After graduation we were invited to be Fellows at Eyebeam Technology Center in NYC for the year to follow. At Eyebeam we developed the TouchKit and VirtualAwesome framework. We received international attention immediately for ‘demystifying’ multitouch and creating an open source option in a world of 15k+ systems, we did it for less then 3k.JB: Why a laser cutter?

AW: We are into personal fabrication for the same reason people were excited about personal computers, desktop printers, camcorders, and cd-burners. All of them democratize the means of cultural production. People with ideas should be able to realize them without having to depend on the guy who owns the super computer, printing press, or CD burner. Personal fabrication can completely change the dynamic of consumption and consumerism- for the better. Further more, thinking about how society changes when more and more things can be made locally fascinates us.

We believe that the diy/maker/hacker movement will have a profound impact on how societies function in the future and laser cutters are a key tool for these communities.

JB: Beyond price, why would someone want to buy a Lasersaur cutter rather than a commercial laser cutter?

AW: Lasersaur isn’t a black hole- where I feel a lot of commercial systems can be. Many commercial systems make you dependent on the vendor. Something breaks? You often have to wait for a technician to come look at the machine, order the part and then wait for them to return to install it. You can lose weeks of production time.

We’re interested in not only open sourcing the machine that can make cool things for you, but also we want you to get an education in personal fabrication, a community of like-minded users, software (which is insanely cool) and a cornucopia of cutting files.

This isn’t about building the cheapest machine. We are more interested in building a platform that is sourcable worldwide. We want a platform that is safe, simple to build, reproduce, duplicate and understand. We want you to truly own it, and have access to all the designs that went into it. We also are writing software and plug-ins from the ground up which will do things you have never seen before (open source software or not).

JB: There are DIY, open-source laser cutter projects already out there. Are you planning on referencing their work or are you starting from scratch?

AW: The general principle of laser cutters is well established. They are not exactly a new technology.

The big challenge for us is to simplify all the information that is out there, add a few good ideas, and present it in a way best suited for the diy/maker/hacker community. We really see it as a documentation project with a reference design. The reference design brings everybody on the same page and lets people participate as a community.

We are designing from scratch but hardly reinventing the wheel. People from buildlog.net, reprap.org, and cnczone.com, etc. are the real pioneers.

JB: What will you offer that this other OS cutter can’t or won’t?

AW: I think the whole point is that other OS cutters can build on our work and vice versa so it’s hard to say how this will pan out in the future. How can we contribute with Lasersaur, what is our focus? Personal fabrication is really in it’s infancy and while 3D printers and mills are a bit further ahead, OS laser cutters are at best a sporadic phenomenon. We feel there is uncountable things to improve about this situation. One thing that strikes us to be especially important is reproducibility. It is still very hard to build a laser cutter yourself. Until we change this fact nothing is really going to change.

Other immediate things we want to tackle are proper software integration. Having to use some obscure proprietary application or converting you file two or three times until the data can be sent to the cutter is not an optimal situation. We really want to push for a machine that can be controlled directly via a simple open protocol (eg: OSC over Ethernet) and/or can understand an open format (e.g: SVG) directly.

Smaller items on the list are a push-through cutting area to allow extra long work pieces, and solid up-to-date supplier list for the US and Europe (worldwide eventually).

JB: You’ve already made your funding goal with 5 weeks to go — presumably you’re going to go way over. How will you spend the extra money?

AW: Most opensource projects are done out of love and not because we are sitting in our hot tubs all day drinking Cristal (although, I have to admit that would be nice). Ten Thousand sounds like a lot but when it comes down to it, it barely covers research and development cost or the time we have already put into it. With that being said- we are doing this out of love, and out of the belief that big things can happen with even small like-minded communities. We want laser cutters and personal fabrication systems to be as mainstream as CD-ROMs or desktop printers but it takes a big movement (and I think that time is now) to push personal fabrication into ubiquity in the American home.

So- with that being said, with the extra money we’d like to develop the project further. Make the community bigger. Develop a platform which all users can be created equal (no version issues or operating system compatibility issues, for example). We have big plans and the more capital raised the more time we will have to do even more for this project in some really big ways. We are extremely interested in creating real time fabrication software which allows the user to use a tablet- like a Wacom or iPad – and allow for real time cutting controlled by the finger or pen.

JB: How will you proceed once you get the check from Kickstarter?

AW: More R&D! We’ve been researching the plausibility of building a laser cutter for months. The kickstarter support basically allows us to keep doing this. From now on it is all about building the Lasersaur prototype.

JB: How much will a Lasersaur cutter cost?

AW: We are shooting for 3-5k for ~1.2×0.7m bedsize. People who are willing to hack a bit and source wholesale components will be able to push the price even further down. For the official kit we want to make sure to use components that are easy to get worldwide. We also think the 5k figure is on the safe side.

JB: Let’s talk safety. How will you ensure that people don’t get blinded or their houses burned down by your lasers?

AW: The key is to start with the laser you are comfortable with. Our goal is to design the system for lasers up to the 100W range. We will make this very clear in our documentation. Maybe you start with a low powered laser diode and then upgrade to a 15W laser tube, and so on.

One of the real challenges is to get people into responsible engineering mode and realize the hazards of these systems before and during their builds. We are not the first people to develop kits with risk factors. At the same time we think building your own machine gives you a very deep understanding that allows you to operate it safely.

In terms of technical safety features we will have to postpone the details to a later time. Will the laser switch off if you open the lid while it’s operating? Most definitely yes.

John Baichtal

My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal nerdage.net


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