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Here’s what you can create with a 3D laser printer and 10 minutes of time on your hands


SAN FRANCISCO (Circa) - You’ve heard of 3D printing, and you’ve probably used a paper inkjet printer before, but Glowforge's device, what it's calling the first ever personal 3D laser printer, can cut, shape and engrave on all kinds of materials to create essentially commercial-quality trinkets or even pieces of furniture, right in your living room, in minutes and at the push of a button.

"Glowforge uses a laser beam the width of a human hair," founder and CEO Dan Shapiro told me at a demo of the machine. He says Glowforge will "print" on most materials of an organic makeup, so things like wood, leather, paper, acrylic are all compatible. "You can even engrave things like stone, glass or consumer electronics," he said while showing me a design his company printed on the back of an aluminum-cased iPhone.

After about four years of development and crowdfunding, Glowforge is now in the first weeks of its official launch. During my visit with Shapiro and the company, I got to try the $2,500 Glowforge Basic for myself. I started first with a test of its scanning feature, in which optical sensors read a photo or a hand-drawn sketch and then cut it into an item. I chose to sketch out a portrait of my dog, and Glowforge imprinted it onto a small 12-piece puzzle. (See below.)

The machines was able to, with amazing precision, replicate every bit of my inept drawing.

More fine-tuned designs can be sent to the Wi-Fi-connected device through Glowforge’s web app as simple image files. And those can be as sophisticated as Adobe Illustrator projects or MS Paint JPEGs, so no real design expertise is required.

This Circa logo we engraved and cut into a wooden luggage tag was impressively sharp and, like the dog puzzle, was printed in around five minutes. The same-size items on a 3D printer would have taken hours to make.

If you’re not into pulling in designs of your own, the company offers an entire store of them you can choose from to print.

Though Glowforge Basci is limited to printing materials that are 20” x 11” x 2”, the $6,000 Glowforge Pro, which sits in the same 38" x 20" body, has a passthrough slot and can be fed pieces that are 20” by however long you like. It also has a more powerful laser and can print 20-percent faster, making it a more attractive machine for small business use. Of course, performance-wise, either model would seem like an Etsy dealer's dream.

"Our customers do everything from jewelry to handbags, from furniture to model train miniatures," Shapiro explained. "They’re transforming their businesses and taking what used to be woodworking hobby and turning it into a woodworking company."

When you hear printer, you think costly ink refills or, in the case of 3D printing, plastic resin. But since Glowforge creates just by lasering over the materials its printing onto, there’s nothing to “refill.” And the company says that the machine’s laser should last a number of years before needing to be switched out for a replacement.

The money saved on print-by-print supplies doesn’t mean the still-pretty-expensive Glowforge is a slam dunk for your home or small design studio, but the results , I can attest, are impressive.

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