In May of 2015 Dan Shapiro took the stage of MakerCon Bay Area to discuss his experience designing a board game and turning it into a successful crowdfunding campaign. What few of us in the audience expected though, was that he was there to drop a bomb; Shapiro was starting a company to manufacture a ground-breaking laser cutter, the Glowforge.
Shapiro explained that in the process of buying and using a laser cutter to make a prototype for his board game, he discovered all the pitfalls of traditional laser cutters (bad software, poor design, registration issues, etc) that have plagued laser cutter owners for years and have created the great purchase divide: expensive vs hard to use. The plan was to create a new system that would make laser cutting easy, while undercutting the price of even import lasers by thousands of dollars. As if this wasn’t good enough, he had an ace up his sleeve: the Glowforge would come with an embedded camera.
The camera idea was revolutionary. Not only could the user see the raw material inside the cutter and align their designs precisely on the stock, the machine itself was going to be able to recognize objects and adjust its settings to match the material. For a fun, almost gimmick feature, the Glowforge could scan a sketch on a sheet of material and then cut or engrave that sketch with minimal user input.
The announcement flew around the internet like wildfire, and thanks to some strategic marketing, their pre-order sold nearly $28 million in units in a mere 30 days. Their booth at World Maker Faire in September of that year was packed with onlookers excited to see the first prototypes of the device.
Then the delays began. It was originally promised by the first half of 2016, but that promise quickly became a firm June, which by April became December, and now sits between March and July of 2017. While they have offered some nice rewards for those who are being patient with them, that hasn’t stopped some of the rumblings. I talked to Shapiro many months ago and we agreed that when they were getting close he would send me a review unit.. and a few weeks ago it arrived. Let me say, it’s worth the wait!
Unpacking was quick and easy. While it’s not extremely heavy, be sure to have someone there to help you move it, as it’s big and awkward. Following the instructions, I had it plugged in, set up, and was making my first cut within 10 minutes. When it’s first started, the Glowforge creates its own access point. Once connected to it, you can easily give it the credentials to get it on your wireless network. There is no software to install — instead, a web app located on the Glowforge website allows users to control the machine and ensure software is always up to date.
If you are used to setting up a laser cutter, you may find a few things surprising with the Glowforge. Both the laser tube cooling system and the exhaust blower are located within the machine and do not require separate power sources. This means the only things you need to plug in are the single power cord and the exhaust tube.
When you start the software, you will have access to 10 (hopefully more coming soon) pre-made designs that you can cut right away. The manual will guide you through a few of these, starting with a simple but useful ruler.
The software will accept a number of image files for etching, but like most laser cutters, the mainstay is vector graphics — in the Glowforge’s case, SVG files. I’m an Inkscape fan, and while many other digital fabrication platforms stumble on Inkscape-created SVG files, the Glowforge handles them perfectly. (Pro-tip: color code different parts of your SVG so that it’s easier to apply different settings to each section, and easier to engrave and cut in one job.)
My first cuts were clean and easy. The Glowforge performed exactly as I would hope and expect from a laser cutter. This is the reality of laser cutters: Unless they are damaged in shipping or are of low quality to begin with, they just work. The real trick is in how easy they are to use. The built-in camera and the software work together to make the Glowforge the easiest digital fabrication machine I have used.
Of course, this machine is still beta and there are a few problems. I created a test piece to make it easy to test all the modes of the Glowforge (Cut, 3 levels of Engrave, and 2 levels of Score). The engrave sections show points where the laser didn’t start or complete lines at the correct position, indicating that the timing of the passes has not been worked out yet. The score lines have dots on each end, again showing timing issues caused by the laser coming on before movement had begun. Finally, I tried the drawing and scanning mode only to find that the interpretation of the design did not line up perfectly — likely from the mapping of the fisheye lens on the camera. The good news is that these are all software problems that the team can fix while they are still building your unit.
After completing my initial tests out of wood, I was having too much fun and decided to create some of my own designs. One of the show off projects Shapiro brought to MakerCon was a leather briefcase also featured in their launch video. I didn’t want to create something that ambitious for my first leather working project but I needed a leather loop to help attach my keys to my belt so I would stop ripping off belt loops. I bought a sheet of 6oz (1/8″) leather and a brass ring from Amazon and quickly designed the part I wanted to cut out of leather in Onshape, my CAD package of choice. While I could have done this in Inkscape, real CAD makes it easy to precisely position parts and Onshape’s parametric design made it easy to change the design if I had issues. Onshape only exports 2D designs as DXF or DWG files and the Glowforge software will only accept SVG files so I used Inkscape in the middle to convert them and color map the cuts.
After cutting the leather in a 46 second job on the Glowforge, I slipped the brass ring on and finished it with 3 wraps of polyester thread. I couldn’t be happier with my first leatherworking project and my belt loops are no longer in danger. If you would like to build your own, you can access my Onshape model here.
While I know a lot of customers and the community at large have lost some confidence in the Glowforge shipping, I would suggest holding out. It looks like the wait is almost over, and there is an amazing machine on its way.