Most 3D printers on the market, with their sharp, shiny innards exposed, look like they could put your eye out if you make one wrong move.
Compared to those clunky, industrial-looking competitors, the Glowforge — a device that uses lasers to slice through materials and create objects of your design — is the Easy Bake Oven of 3D printers.
The simple silver and white box lets users craft everything from leather wallets to chocolate bars by carving into a particular substance, rather than layering plastic goop into precise piles, like most traditional 3D printers do. Users need only lift the lid, drop their material inside, and load a pre-fab template or custom design.
Dan Shapiro, CEO and cofounder of Glowforge, tells Tech Insider that most 3D printers are like robots with glue guns. The Glowforge, on the other hand, is “a robot that has a lightsaber,” he says.
Here’s how it works: Users can design coasters, toys, leather-bound journals, and more using software like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or Sketchup. They can even draw an image by hand. When they’re satisfied with their concept art, the user then uploads the image to the Glowforge printing app and places the appropriate material into the machine.
A bird’s eye camera inside the Glowforge autofocuses on the material. The device can recognise what it is — be it wood, plexiglass, fabric, or food — and orient the laser head accordingly. The camera also allows the user to preview and edit a design before the laser begins sculpting.
When everything’s ready, just push the print button. A coaster is made in fewer than seven minutes, while more complicated projects may take a few hours.
When I discovered the Glowforge in May at the Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, it was surrounded by the fruit of its loom: custom game pieces for Settlers of Catan and a Victorian-style dollhouse made of salmon-coloured plywood. There was also a picture frame that Shapiro made as a last-minute Mother’s Day gift for his wife.
But each piece on display required additional assembly. Because Glowforge uses subtractive 3D printing technology instead of additive, it can only produce relatively two-dimensional designs. Those objects may be stacked or stitched together, of course, but hobbyists looking to make more complicated hardware or figurines will be better off with a traditional 3D printer.
Still, the Glowforge has racked up major support from amateur makers. It became the most successful 30-day crowdfunding campaign in history when it raised $28 million last fall.
Glowforge has twice delayed shipments, but hopes to start shipping in December. Users will then be able to buy raw materials for the Glowforge from the company’s online store as well. It will likely mark up prices for those, however, trading cost for convenience. In most circumstances, designers can gather the materials they need at Home Depot.
While 3D printers may be going mainstream, they remain a luxury item — the Glowforge is currently available for pre-order for $2,395, and will run about $3,300 upon launch. That’s not chump change for a family looking to foster their kids’ creativity, or for a young professional who runs an Etsy store on the side.
Shapiro hopes the Glowforge will nonetheless attract all sorts of makers.