Author(s): Peter Bryer
Machining for the masses.
Laser cutting uses lasers to carve and etch into existing materials for precision forms and designs. In many ways, it's the opposite of 3D printing.
The process goes back to the 1960s for high-end industrial uses, but, as with laser and 3D printers, laser cutters are now approaching consumer pricing levels.
Last week, start-up Glowforge introduced a 3D cutting device that the firm calls a "3D laser printer" — a misnomer given that it works more like a surgeon making very fine slices. The Glowforge laser cutter can cut and engrave into materials such as wood, leather, glass, plastic, paper, cardboard and even foods like chocolate to create artworks out of chunks of stuff. The device uses computer- or hand-drawn designs to carve out specific shapes from material or etch particular motifs into existing products like laptops, and relies on its cameras for precision.
Glowforge is selling its basic model for a pre-order discount price of $2,000, with higher-end versions available for $2,500 and $4,000. The company is reporting sales of almost $3 million after four days of orders, an impressive achievement for a first-generation version of a product that won't begin shipping for a few months. Customers are willing to take a risk based on the fascinating demonstration video.
It's easy to envision a long series of uses for these desktop laser cutters, including the creation of artistic foods, customized leather goods and cases, individually tailored greeting cards and personalized etchings. The starting price of $2,000 should attract enterprise customers like print and design shops, schools, libraries, restaurants, bakeries and even start-ups looking for inexpensive, rapid prototyping. The prices are at the high end of most consumer budgets, but it's worth keeping in mind that reasonably configured laptops cost a few thousand dollars a decade ago.
Glowforge isn't the first entry-level laser cutting unit. Early in 2014, Cricut introduced a $250 laser cutter for 3D crafts. Glowforge is expanding the category.
These 3D laser cutters reinforce the wider "maker movement", bringing down the barriers to entry for personalization and mass customization. Like 3D printers, low-level machining devices are now available to hobbyists and DIY enthusiasts. These aren't industrial-strength, but are part of the trickle-down effect of product cycles taking professional-grade equipment to the desktop level over a several decades. Consumers are becoming difficult to impress, but enabling creativity could be part of the next wave of wow. Everyone can cut.