A Closer Look at the Glowforge Laser Cutter

CNC & Machining Digital Fabrication Laser Cutting Workshop
A Closer Look at the Glowforge Laser Cutter

glowforgeTested_1Dan Shapiro beams over his very promising creation. Photo by Norman Chan

I had the pleasure of being at the launch of the Glowforge laser cutter (or “3D laser printer” as they are wont to call it) at this year’s MakerCon in New York. I was extremely impressed with what I saw, as were many others at the convention and the ensuing World Maker Faire. It was obviously a prototype and they had their wrenches and soldering irons out more than once, but it was very exciting to see technology this potentially game-changing up close and personal. This device really does represent a significant leap forward, in terms of ease of use, broadening the user base, the available feature set, and of course, the significant reduction in price relative to what’s currently on the market.

Rather than do conventional crowdfunding, Glowforge decided to run a 50% off pre-order sale on their website for 30 days. That pre-sale has already garnered close to $20,000,000 dollars in the past 28 days. But along with the constantly ringing cash register on the Glowforge site, there has also been a chorus of skepticism and cries of “It sounds too good to be true!” and “They can’t possibly deliver on all that for those prices.” In the last days before the end of the pre-order period (Friday, 6pm Pacific), where you can get the base unit for $1995, we thought we’d look at some of what’s being said in the technosphere about the device.

Last week, Norm Chan at Tested posted an interview he did with Glowforge founder Dan Shapiro, addressing some of the questions and reservations people have. You can see the full interview here. Below are a few of the Q&As from that exchange.

I have to imagine that for a lot of people looking at the Glowforge, this will be their first laser cutter. They’re going to look at factors like the laser power, software interface, and how big the bed is. How did you guys end up at that 12×20″ bed size, and 40 watt laser? And how does that compare to something you would otherwise spend 10 thousand dollars on?

That’s another great place where we thought about trade-offs. We’ve seen really high quality lasers which are as small as 12×16″ in terms of the cutting area, and it’s great when you can get something like 20×24″. There, we just came up against logistics. Again, as expensive as it is to ship, if we added just two more inches of X, it would have ballooned in terms of the shipping cost. So it’s as big as we could make it while still maintaining shipability.

We also decided that we wanted it a little wider and narrower, which is why it’s not more square. Because that means with the Pro pass-through, you have 20 inches by infinity, instead of having like, 16 inches by infinity.

For the laser tube, we played around with a lot of different designs, and it came down to how much power can we pack into 800 millimeters of space. Because once we’ve established the size of the shipping box, we knew how big the laser had to be. So, the first thing was, what’s the most power we could pack in an 850mm tube. We actually had one custom made because it’s an unusual size, and because with the custom treatment we can actually get better beam quality which gives us higher power density. Basically the same as turning up the power.

There are basically two choices of laser–metal tube or glass tube. Metal tube lasers are great; they’re what Epilog and I believe Trotec use. You can hit them with a hammer, I’m told, and they’ll run fine. The problem is they’re ridiculously expensive. The laser alone would have cost us the price of the entire Glowforge. The RF transistors that are necessary to drive the power supply are on the order of a hundred dollars each. So there’s just no way we could get something to the price point we wanted for that.

Using a glass laser tube means we have to be more careful about shipping, more careful about transport. But it means we can get down to our price point, and there’s an extra bonus. With RF lasers, if you cut acrylic, you get not quite as nice of an edge finish, because RF lasers are pulsed. But with CO2 lasers, you get a continuous beam, so you basically get a flame-polished edge.

glowforgeTested_2.jpgPhoto I took at the MakerCon launch of the Glowforge. This Settlers of Catan map was drawn right on the wood, scanned, and then cut.

A big fear people may have is what happens if they can’t connect to your Glowforge servers, or if the Glowforge service goes away? What happens if you guys aren’t around in five years?

This is something that came up on the first day, loud and clear. We sat down and thought about this. On the one hand, we don’t want to split up our development resources to make local clients and standalone server packages. On the other hand, if you bought it, you own it, and you should be able to do whatever you want with it. And if we disappear there should be some fallback plan. So what we decided to do is open-source, basically publish one version of the firmware under the open source license so people can go mess around with it. If we disappear, they can go modify that and flash it back. Now, the unfortunate thing about that is we have to void the warranty if you do that, because we destroy Glowforges here at an amazing rate when we’re tweaking firmware parameters. It’s really easy to damage your Glowforge if you’re playing around with firmware, but it’s not designed as a primary use case, but as a backup. And there are some good solid jumping off points to make it a good standalone G-code driven laser if that’s what people need to do.

Here is the video interview and product demo that Norm did with Dan.

YouTube player

Yesterday, Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing (and former Make: Editor in Chief) sat down with Glowforge’s Dan Shapiro and Dean Putney to get a last-minute tour of the machine and its capabilities. This was a sponsored video, basically an ad for Glowforge, so salt to taste.

YouTube player

Also be sure to check out Maker Pro‘s co-editor DC Denison earlier piece about the Glowforge and its MakerCon launch. It includes a nice interview with Dan Shapiro by Make:‘s Dale Dougherty at World Maker Faire.

So, have you already pre-ordered one? Are you tempted? What questions and reservations do you still have? Post in the comments below.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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