Glowforge: From ‘Robot Turtles’ to Actual Lasers

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Glowforge prototype
Glowforge prototype. Photo: Glowforge, used with permission.

This translucent box sitting on a lab table may not look like much, but according to Dan Shapiro, what’s inside is a maker revolution.

First, let me back up a bit. I first met Dan Shapiro a couple years ago, when he was gearing up to launch his Kickstarter campaign for Robot Turtles, a board game he designed to teach basic programming concepts to his kids. The Kickstarter was wildly successful, ultimately bringing in over 13,000 backers, and Robot Turtles is now published by ThinkFun and can be found at major retailers.

Dan Shapiro Robot Turtles
Dan Shapiro with a prototype of Robot Turtles in 2013. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

When I spoke with Shapiro this week, he said that while he was testing Robot Turtles, a friend of his said he loved the game but he knew his toddler would want to just keep the turtles in his pocket and play with them all the time. Since the game uses cardboard tiles for the turtles, they wouldn’t last–his friend asked if there were any way to make some turtle figures that his son could hang onto.

So Shapiro looked into various options. He knew he couldn’t get molded plastic turtles in the game itself, not for the price point he envisioned for the game. He looked into 3D printing but wasn’t thrilled by the single-color, slightly lumpy look. Then he discovered laser cutter/engravers, and thought laser-cut turtles would be particularly appropriate for a game about turtles with lasers on their backs. He bought a laser cutter and set it up in his garage, and set about making some turtles.

Laser cut robot turtles
Robot Turtles prototype featuring laser-cut acrylic pieces. Photo: Dan Shapiro

What he discovered was that, although the laser cutter can make some really cool things, it’s also incredibly difficult to get everything set up properly. He spent months getting it set up, calibrated properly, and learning how to go from an idea to a finished product. It’s particularly difficult to align the laser cutter with a printed design on a material. But once you’ve got something you like, he explained, you can just push the button and make as many as you like. It was, he said, “magical but painful.”

Glowforge bag
The Glowforge cut and pre-punched the sewing holes for this leather bag. Photo: Glowforge, used with permission.

Once he got it figured out, though, Shapiro loved using his laser cutter. He said he’d always been somebody who “wanted to want a 3D printer,” but wasn’t sure what exactly he’d use it for. With his laser cutter, though, he’s never run out of ideas.

But, of course, not everyone can afford a $10,000 laser cutter. (That’s one of the advantages, I suppose, of creating a company and selling it to Google, and then creating a top-selling board game.) Shapiro wants to bring the laser cutter to the masses–well, at least down to a price point comparable to 3D printers. He thought about what makes laser cutters so expensive and so difficult to use, and formed Glowforge to make a better, cheaper laser cutter.

With the Glowforge, he made a leather bag with pockets perfectly sized for his stuff, and a replacement lamp when he couldn’t find exactly what he wanted on Amazon. When his kids come up with an idea for a toy–for instance, a sheriff’s badge–he can whip something up in minutes. And, as a dad, Shapiro loved the moment when he saw his kids shift gears from “will you go buy this?” to “I wonder if we could make this?”

Glowforge castle
A toy castle made from pieces cut by the Glowforge. Photo: Glowforge, used with permission.

Shapiro said that, for him, 3D printers are fascinating but so far their results look like prototypes. You use a 3D printer to make something as proof of concept, but then you’ll find some other way to mass produce it. It takes a long time to print something big. On the other hand, a laser cutter/engraver turns out things that are finished products. As he says on his blog:

If you push the print button once, you’re going to have a unique item that belongs to nobody else in the world.

If you push it ten times, you’ve got gifts for all your friends.

If you push it a hundred times, you’ve got a business.

He sees the laser cutter as something that designers and artists could use to create better homemade goods. Parents can use them to make toys for their kids. Game designers can prototype game pieces (like, for instance, the 4 the Birds! pawns I mentioned in my review today).

Glowforge Settlers of Catan tiles
Laser-cut Settlers of Catan tiles. Photo: Glowforge, used with permission

Personally, I think I’m of a similar opinion as Shapiro: I like watching 3D printers at work but I don’t know that I would really use one a lot. But if you gave me a laser cutter, I’d be using it all the time. I have rented time on a laser cutter at a local makerspace, but it was pricey and took a lot of back-and-forth to get the files exactly right, and it was expensive enough that I considered just getting out my hobby knife and spending hours cutting things myself. I’ve seen plenty of Kickstarter prototypes made with laser cutters, and I can appreciate the million things you can make out of laser-cut wood, let alone other materials.

I did ask Shapiro about the term “3D laser printer,” because that called to mind something that could run the laser in three dimensions, which I was having trouble picturing (not to mention the safety issues involved), but the Glowforge is technically a CNC (computer numerical control) laser cutter/engraver. However, for people new to the maker movement, that terminology is confusing, and Shapiro found that when people saw what the Glowforge does, they thought of it as a printer–so “3D laser printer” is his layman’s term for it. (I suppose the “3D” is necessary to distinguish it from the laser printer you have at your desk.)

The Glowforge will have a 12″x20″ cutting area, and can cut through up to 1/4″ material. (It can engrave much thicker materials.) He wants the price to be under $2,500, comparable to the MakerBot Replicator, one of the most popular ready-to-use 3D printers. The hope is to have the Glowforge ready for market by the end of 2015.

Right now, a lot of laser cutters require a PC with Windows–the CNC software is often designed for older Windows machines, and they’re not intuitive to use. Glowforge will be able to connect to the internet, and much of its processing power will be in the cloud–it gives access to much more powerful computing, while at the same time reducing the cost of the hardware in the machine itself. For instance, one expensive part in a typical laser cutter is the motion planner, which converts the lines and curves of a design into the back-and-forth pulses of light. The Glowforge has replaced that by using smartphone sensors and cloud software to do the heavy lifting, which cuts perhaps $1,000 off the selling price.

The other advantage of being internet-connected is that you won’t need a dedicated computer hooked up to the Glowforge. You’ll be able to print from your laptop, or a tablet, or even (ideally) your phone.

The big news today is that Glowforge has secured $9 million in Series A funding–among the investors are Bre Pettis and Jenny Lawton, both former CEOs of MakerBot. Glowforge is currently hiring (attention, Seattleites!) To be notified when the Glowforge is available, visit the website and sign up for the email list. I may get a chance to visit the Glowforge office next month–if I do, I’ll be sure to follow up with more information.

$2,500 is still probably out of my price range if I weren’t making something to sell, but it certainly makes it much more feasible for makerspaces and businesses, and puts it in the realm of possibility. (The next cheapest laser cutter I’ve seen is Full Spectrum Laser, which ran a Kickstarter a few years ago to develop a $3,500 laser cutter, but I don’t know enough about the specs to compare this to the Glowforge.) Still, I guess I have time to save up–maybe if I’m very good this year I’ll find one under the Christmas tree?

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