We’re not quite at the stage of a 3D printer on every desk just yet, but a new product with a different technical approach is aiming to capture the imagination of small startups and creators.
Unlike a traditional 3D printer, the Glowforge 3D laser printer is subtractive rather than additive: It cuts away at materials, rather than constructing new objects layer by layer.
You supply the materials, and the Glowforge does the cutting. It can cut wood, acrylic, cardboard, leather and various other materials, and engrave glass and metal (it’s even capable of etching a custom design on the back of your MacBook Pro).
But the hardware is only half the story—it’s also been built to be user-friendly and simple to use, with no specialist software required. It can work from doodled sketches on paper, Adobe Illustrator files, and everything in between. For nondesigners, there’s a community-built catalog of products to pick from. Everything can be operated from a Web browser and a smartphone app.
The examples on the Glowforge website give some idea of what the machine can do: There’s a plywood iPhone stand, a papercut wedding invitation, a customized leather satchel, a recycled cardboard lamp, a miniature wooden model of a building, and much more besides.
“Glowforge is most useful for practical projects—so think of things that you can buy in a store, but customized to your needs and liking,” a Glowforge representative told us via email. “We’ve seen inventors and other creatives make remarkable things with Glowforge: products like elaborate lamps, office furniture, art installations and much more.”
The use of smartphone components and cloud-based software have helped to bring the costs of the device down, the company says. The Glowforge is available to preorder for $1,995. The retail price is expected to be double that, but the cost is still significantly lower than splashing out on a full-sized, traditional laser-cutting machine (and you’d need a garage or a basement to put it in).
Glowforge CEO and cofounder Dan Shapiro was inspired by existing laser-cutting technology, but felt he could improve upon it.
“When I got access to a laser [for developing the Robot Turtles Kickstarter project], it changed the way my family and I thought about the things we use every day,” he says. “My kids started asking me to make things instead of buy them, like costumes and furniture and birthday presents for their friends. But the laser was slow, hard to use, and far too dangerous for kids! I wanted one for my own home, and there were no affordable choices on the market.”
Shapiro, who formerly worked at Google, says he spoke to many individuals in the maker community to gauge the level of interest in 3D printers and laser cutters—and people were much more enthusiastic about the latter.
Thanks to the high-precision scanners inside the Glowforge, it knows the exact size and shape of the material it’s dealing with, and can therefore make very precious cuts and etchings. Some of the work done by hardware components in existing laser cutters has been offloaded to the cloud, reducing the size and cost of the Glowforge (though you’re still going to need a fairly large desk to hold it).
It’s a machine with a lot of potential, from making toys for the kids to selling crafts on Etsy to prototyping designs for a Kickstarter campaign. And unlike a conventional 3D printer, users aren’t limited to the often uninspiring plastic shapes created through additive techniques in your designs.
The first Glowforge is available to preorder starting Thursday for a period of 30 days, and the company has plans for additional models further down the line.
Images courtesy of Glowforge