Glowforge: First Thoughts and Impressions

Disclaimer: I’m a minor angel investor in Glowforge. But more importantly, I’m a device nerd, hobbyist wood-worker and doodler. I’m writing this post as an enthusiast giving my early impressions.

Summary

The Glowforge is a consumer-friendly laser cutter for amateur hobbyists, craftspeople, and small-scale manufacturing. It is easy to go from an Inkscape or Illustrator design to a finished cut in a matter of minutes. The hardware mostly lives up its lofty aspirations, but the cloud software is missing some features. The Glowforge is fun to use and has a lot of potential.

The Unbearable Pain of Waiting and Wanting

I finally got my Glowforge last week. I had pre-ordered it almost 2 years ago, so to say this was a highly-anticipated delivery would be an understatement.

I NEED IT. I CONSTANTLY DREAM OF IT. WHERE HAS IT BEEN?

In part, I blame Glowforge’s too-effective marketing. Check out the Introducing Glowforge video. It promises you can make giant Earth-shaped lamps out of cardboard! Etch chocolate and sushi! Download plans to make a quad copter with gatling guns! Start your own Etsy business! With this device you can build anything you can imagine, out of pretty much any junk you have lying around — or heck, any food in the fridge.

Of course I pre-ordered one. The basic + air filter “Early Bird” pricing came to $2,395. (It’s now $3,745).

I wasn’t alone. The pre-order crowd-funding campaign raised a ton of money; in the first month, they received almost $27 million in orders. Pretty impressive.

What is the Glowforge?

The Glowforge is a laser cutter. 40 watts of energy (45 watts in the Pro model) are focused into a tiny beam of light that can cut or engrave a wide range of materials (wood, leather, plastic, etc). A precision 2D armature moves a cutting head (mirrors + lenses) to direct the beam down to the right place. It can cut materials up to 1/4" thick, and the print area is 11.5" x 20" (the cutting bed fits materials up to 18” x 20” which are up to 1/2" thick).

The Glowforge teams calls it a “3D laser printer”; I guess this is because (a) it’s easy to stack and combine materials to make things that aren’t flat, and (b) it sounds a lot cooler than a boring old “laser cutter.”

Why the hype?

Laser cutters have been around for a while. But they’re finicky devices that often require a lot of painstaking calibration, twiddling with power and focus settings, unfriendly Windows-only software, massive cooling systems, etc. Casual makers have to take a big detour to get anything done.

The Glowforge team promises a much more user-friendly experience: just toss a material into the print bed; upload a file; and press the big button. They’ll magically take care of all the hard stuff for you. In other words:

Some innovations of the Glowforge are:

  • A camera (fisheye, on the lid) lets you easily and interactively match your design against the position and orientation of the material. The camera can also read a QR sticker on the material (if present) to lookup what it is.
  • The cutting head manages the laser focus. It has a stepper motor to raise/lower the lens, and it also has a camera and point light source to precisely measure depth.
Bottom of cutting head (unmounted). Lens for laser in middle; camera on right, red LED light on left.
  • The print software is cloud-based so all the hard stuff of path optimization, raster processing, etc. is done off-device. This lets the software experience be updated and continually improved; and also, it reduces device cost because the Glowforge doesn’t need powerful computing hardware.

The device connects to your WiFi network. You use the Glowforge web app to do all the positioning, and to define cut order and settings. You can upload raster images (like JPG photos) to engrave, or vector files (like SVG) to cut or engrave.

First Impressions

The Glowforge is gorgeous. It’s an objet d’art. You could just leave it out in your living room to impress guests.

(Well, except for the drier tube you need to attach to the back to vent the smoke and fumes. It’s like a Mona Lisa, framed in duct tape).

It’s heavy (about 75 lbs).

It’s much larger than I thought. I knew it was 38" wide, I just didn’t realize what that meant. To give a sense of scale, here’s my cat on the Glowforge.

I’m impressed. The cat, not so much.

The components are solid. The plastic shell is thick and smooth. The armature is precision cut from slabs of metal. The print head is a heavy dark metal bit of mystery that satisfyingly thunks into place with magnets. There is nothing cheap about the glass top edged in metal. The laser tube has a glass spiral with bubbling liquids.

After unboxing, you just need to get the Glowforge onto your Wifi network.

It’s Insanely Fun

I waited for two long years for my Glowforge. When I got confirmation that it had finally shipped, I couldn’t sleep because I was so. Very. Excited.

Now, I don’t sleep because I’m up late every night cutting things out, dreaming up new designs, and just playing. It’s not the kind of device where you try it for a few hours, think it’s kind of nifty, then forget about it; this is addictively creative and really encourages you to engage with materials and design in fundamentally new ways. It’s especially fun to design 2D cuts that combine to make 3D objects.

I really love my Glowforge.

Software Design Process

While it’s possible to do your designs on a piece of paper and let the Glowforge camera transfer your doodles to laser cuts, most serious precision work will happen in a vector graphic program like Inkscape or Adobe Illustrator. You don’t need to be an expert in these programs, but you’ll definitely benefit from spending 1–2 hours watching tutorials first.

As you design your image, it’s important to keep in mind that the eventual goal is to take your 2D image and separate it out into a series of different laser cut layers, each with its own mode and power/speed settings. The three Glowforge modes are:

  • Engrave: the laser head moves back-and-forth like a dot matrix printer to slowly (slowly!) etch a filled vector graphic or bitmap image.
  • Cut: burn along the line of a vector to cut through material.
  • Score: a lower-power cut not intended to go through the material.

You can also choose to ignore a layer.

The Glowforge software will automatically separate your image into layers by color. For example, here’s the vector graphic I used for the silly mixed wood-and-plastic thingy you saw at the start of this post:

I drew this knowing that I’d use the hearts as one cut, the blue logo for another cut, and the red outline for another cut. The text and face are different shades of gray, so I can tweak their engraving settings separately. Note that the text needs to be converted to a path.

I uploaded this file as an SVG to the Glowforge web app, which automatically separated the image into these layers:

The background image you see is the material in the bed, so you can position and scale as appropriate. If I click on a layer I can change it’s mode between pre-sets or manually choose my own settings.

The pre-sets depend on the type of material. There is a small catalog of known materials you can choose between, mostly hardwoods and acrylic. You can toss your own material in, but you’ll need to do some test cuts to figure out what works well.

Tips & Tricks

  • Engraved images can look great, but the burning process is incredibly slow as a function of area. Use engraving sparingly.
  • The laser will leave burn marks around unprotected surfaces. Most of the nice material you buy comes covered in contact paper for this reason; but you can also use blue painter tape in a pinch.
  • Related to the above: getting the contact paper off your project can be laborious and annoying, especially for intricate designs. I find duct tape often does the trick.
  • For some materials, the Glowforge’s default cut settings won’t quite make it all the way through. Always do a small test and figure out if you need to cut slower, or do a 2nd pass, etc.
  • Hardboard is a great test material for early-stage design work because it takes a nice edge, it’s super-cheap, and it doesn’t pose the fire hazard of cardboard. Be aware that hardboard varies wildly between manufactures (different glues, etc) so you won’t necessarily get a reliable cut — but it’s still good for design tests.
  • Wood looks beautiful but acrylic gives more consistent results.

Glowforge Improvements

Overall, I’m very happy with my Glowforge; but there are a few things that drive me nuts. I’m sure the team is working on these, but here’s my list of suggestions.

Can’t Save

When you upload an image, the Glowforge web app saves that as a new project; but the app won’t save further work on image resizing, rotation, and fine-tuned power/speed settings. If you close your browser tab, there’s no way to get the exact same sizing again, which is frustrating if you’re working on an intricate project where bits need to snap together.

Suggestion: let me save my project.

No Explicit Sizing

When you upload an image, Glowforge honors the image’s actual dimensional size. For example, I designed a 6" x 3" rectangle in Inkscape and printed it out without any changes. I measured to confirm that it was, indeed, 6" x 3" (minus maybe 1/64th of an inch from the width of the laser). That’s great, but any further resizing and rotation is then done by hand (clicking and dragging) so it’s anyone’s guess what the new dimensions are.

Suggestion: provide the UI to explicitly scale and rotate an image, e.g. to 3" x 1.5" with 30 degree rotation; and allow reseting the image size and orientation.

Device Overheats Easily

In a 75 degree room, after just one moderate cut, I got a warning that the device was “running a bit warm” and needed time to cool down — which took over half an hour. The Glowforge really doesn’t like being in a warm environment.

Suggestion: I’m not sure to what extent this will be a persistent hardware problem, or if a firmware fix will help. Either way, I’d love to see a bit more feedback about how long the Glowforge thinks it’ll take me to get back up and running.

[Update 7/27: the team confirmed this is being fixed]

[Update 9/20: I haven’t run into this problem for several weeks, even during a recent heat wave. I’m going to call this fixed!]

Improve the First-Time Experience

Unboxing the Glowforge is magical; the device is bad-ass and huge and beautiful. But the first-time experience is lacking in two key areas:

  • There is no “wizard” that pops up to step you through removing the packing screws, attaching the print head (it’s scary to hold something that expensive!), etc.
  • You’re tossed into the web application without any kind of tutorial.

Suggestion: the first-time experience on the web app should start with unboxing instructions, then offer to step you through a tutorial.

Some Proofgrade Materials Don’t Cut

The Glowforge team promotes their “proofgrade” materials which are precisely calibrated and identifiable with a QR code so the device can automatically pick the right cut and engrave settings. However, the wood materials often don’t cut all the way through which is frustrating; and it’s especially frustrating if you pick up your material after a long session, discover it didn’t cut, and then your heart sinks as you realize that you won’t be able to precisely re-do the cut because the material was moved. I know this is a really hard problem because wood is inconsistent, but: I was promised a magical “it will just work” solution.

Suggestion: when using Proofgrade materials, the default “cut” should always make a complete cut.

[Update 7/27: the team confirmed this is being fixed]

[Update 9/20: I haven’t had any recent problems cutting through materials, including walnut, cherry, maple, and hardboard]

The Lid Camera Isn’t Super-High Resolution

I really love that the camera on the lid sends a picture of your material to the web app so you can position your design, scale, etc. The camera is pretty good, but it would be even more useful if it were much higher resolution so you could zoom in to line up cuts more precisely.

Suggestion: in the next version, use a higher resolution camera.

$500 Laser Tube Replacement

I hadn’t realized that I’ll need to replace the laser tube at some point, at $500 a pop.

Suggestion: I guess it is what it is, but… sigh. Maybe I can buy into a Glowforge insurance plan? :)

Will this be a mass-adoption hit?

I can’t wait to see what happens when Glowforges are common-place; what does it mean for design and manufacturing when anyone can download a design, press print, and get a high-quality product out of strong and beautiful materials? Obviously the maker/crafts/Etsy communities will be the first users, but will this cross-over into mainstream consumer and small-scale commercial applications, too? I can only hope!

But for now… The plywood is calling, and I must go back to cutting.

It’s easy to make your own designs, or download vector graphics like the whale from the Seattle Children’s Hospital logo.