Glowforge

Glowforge

A Glowforge prototype from the Seattle company of the same name.

Photo courtesy of Glowforge

Glowforge Bag

Glowforge Bag

Glowforge is making a laser cutter geared for consumers and craftspeople. Example projects include this leather bag ...

Photo courtesy of Glowforge

Glowforge Seaweed

Glowforge Seaweed

... this design cut into nori seaweed ...

Photo courtesy of Glowforge

Glowforge Castle

Glowforge Castle

... this castle (some assembly required) ...

Photo courtesy of Glowforge

Glowforge Candle

Glowforge Candle

... this candle holder ...

Photo courtesy of Glowforge

Glowforge Invitation

Glowforge Invitation

... this wedding invitation ...

Photo courtesy of Glowforge

Glowforge Spice Jars

Glowforge Spice Jars

... and these spice jars.

Photo courtesy of Glowforge

If there’s one Seattle-area startup making something I really want, Glowforge is it.

The company just raised $9 million from Foundry Group, True Ventures, and leaders of 3D-printing company MakerBot to build a consumer-grade “3D laser printer”—more commonly known as a laser cutter and engraver.

Co-founder and CEO Dan Shapiro said Glowforge aims to have its eponymous device for sale to the public by the end of the year at a price of less than $2,500. That would significantly undercut current prices for a tool that typically has the longest queue in maker spaces, despite the greater buzz around 3D printing.

Glowforge enables anyone to easily produce the work of an accomplished wood carver, leatherworker, engraver, or printmaker, Shapiro says. He also sees potential customers in people who make and sell crafts in online marketplaces like Etsy, but have been unable to scale-up without going to a third-party manufacturer.

“I think about this as reinventing what it means to be homemade,” Shapiro says. “It means you get the low cost and speed and convenience of a factory, but you get the precision and personality and quality of something [made by] a craftsperson who spent decades polishing their work.”

Shapiro

Shapiro

At 20 inches deep, 30 inches wide, and 8 inches high, the Glowforge can sit on a desktop. Shapiro keeps his in the garage. It plugs into a standard wall outlet and consumes about as much power as a computer. He says it’s as safe as a DVD recorder or laser printer. “There is no possibility of the user being exposed to the laser beam,” he says.

The Glowforge he’s building today is a far cry from the first laser cutter Shapiro used: an industrial CO2 laser, which weighed 770 pounds, cost $11,000, took up most of his workshop, required auxiliary cooling and airflow systems, and was controlled by terrible software. Despite its shortcomings, the laser cutter at its core is “incredibly precise and quick and accurate magic,” Shapiro said.

He used the industrial laser cutter to build a 3D version of Robot Turtles, the Kickstarter record-setting board game that teaches kids programming fundamentals. That experience of making something of quality, quickly and easily, led directly to Glowforge, which he co-founded last year with Tony Wright and Mark Gosselin.

They aim to make a laser cutter and engraver that costs a fifth of the machine Shapiro first used, and to make it consumer-easy.

Shapiro describes the Glowforge as a very precise tool, capable of resolutions as high as 1,000 dots per inch. It can engrave a wide range of materials—wood, acrylic, leather, paper, cardboard, chocolate, nori seaweed paper, metal, stone, the back of your smartphone—and do so at varying depths to create a high-resolution grayscale image. It can cut through many materials up to a quarter-inch thick. (Shapiro declined to say what kind of laser the Glowforge will employ.)

The Glowforge doesn’t have a keyboard or screen. The controls on the unit itself consist of a single button on the front and a power switch on the back. It connects to the Internet and can be controlled with any cloud-connected device, cutting and etching designs made in software such as Adobe Illustrator and Autocad.

“The hard part is coming up with the vision of what you want to do,” Shapiro says. “From then on, it’s just printing.”

Shapiro says the company hasn’t decided whether it will market Glowforge with a crowd-funding campaign, direct retail sales, or another model. (A company called Full Spectrum Laser in Las Vegas, NV, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for a desktop laser cutter and engraver in 2012. It now sells the units for $3,500. Other potential competitors include Epilog Laser in Golden, CO; Trotec Laser in Canton, MI; and Universal Laser Systems in Scottsdale, AZ. Shapiro expects Glowforge to be dramatically less expensive than models made by these companies.)

“The competitor for the Glowforge, I hope, is not some other form of home fabrication. I hope it’s Amazon Prime,” Shapiro says. “There’s a whole host of products … Next Page »

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com.

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