ThinkLaser Director, Adrian Norton, takes a closer look at Glowforge

We’ve been following the progress of the boys at Glowforge with interest – we’re potential competitors so it makes sense to keep an eye on what’s going on with their work across the pond. Just a quick search online will show you the volume of articles that have been excitedly written about the Glowforge concept. And there have been plenty of trials and tribulations surrounding the product development and delivery too.

During my recent states-side trip, I attended the Bay area “Maker Fair” for a couple of days, which is an absolutely bonkers concept that attracts thousands of enthusiastic Americans every year. I’m struggling with how to describe it without sounding rude, but let’s just say it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been to before and it deserves all the plaudits it gets. The reason for the visit was to look more closely at Glowforge and perhaps pick up a few quality products for distribution within the UK.

A strong Glowforge presence

Glowforge were out in force at the show and certainly tabled one of the top attractions. Apart from their own stand, they’d also let a few members of the Glowforge community get their hands on the product, so they could demonstrate and talk about the whole Glowforge journey.

So how did the product measure up in light of all the hype it’s received?

First thing’s first, Glowforge should be congratulated for a job well done. It’s by no means a perfect product but it still looks great, although a little bit bigger in real life. It’s well-finished and they’ve managed to create a loyal, enthusiastic community that loves the product. In their eyes, the company can do no wrong.

We thought we’d take the opportunity to quiz their stand staff with a few questions. Although they sold the product well, they still struggled to give more than marketing information, which isn’t ideal for a product like Glowforge.

What did Glowforge have to say?

We questioned the team on tube cooling to start with. While there is a water reservoir, it seems very small and we couldn’t understand how it’s supposed to prevent overheating of the laser tube and instability in the power output.

After some further investigation, we found that it uses a closed Loop with Peltier device which is a type of solid state refrigerator. Basically, it transfers heat from one side of the device to the other. So, the hot side will be attached to a heatsink / fan while the cold side will be in contact with the cooling fluid. They are not very efficient and are relatively expensive.

Here’s what it comes down to:

On one hand, this is a great feature, but it does mean that the duty cycle (i.e. the running time before thermal shutdown) at 90% power is estimated to be 23 minutes in a 72F (22.2C) ambient temperature. It’s not expected the system will operate in temperatures of 80F (26.6C) or higher.

This type of operational design could get frustrating over a period of time. The pro version seems to have a different operation on the cooling front.

Process capability is restricted, to an extent. The suggestion was that the maximum thickness of materials was about 12 mm. You can remove the honeycomb base and increase this dimension but you’re effectively restricted to sheet based materials. This might not be a major issue when you look at Glowforge’s target market. In some of their literature they recommend that for the best possible results, you don’t go above 6mm.

The camera system is cute and does exactly what it says on the tin. It’ll be invaluable for users who wish to point and fire and would not be able to format manually. We only saw vector based files being processed during the exhibition so we were unable to see how the product copes with png files etc. The jury’s still out on this one.

We still had more questions…

Most of Glowforge’s other functions are available on similar plotter based products, but the feature I think really is unique is the cloud processing. Having the ability to send your design somewhere up into the heavens, where it’s dutifully converted and sent back to you has many pros and cons.

Younger users embrace this kind of technology, but those of us over the age of “you should know better” can easily view this with an air of caution and healthy scepticism. Security and privacy are more important than ever and does Glowforge reach the standard we’ve come to expect? It was impossible for us to test the product first-hand to find out, so our cloud-based questions are still up in the air.

And our final cheeky question – where’s the product made?

We asked this because of our inside info about the cost of building in Europe and North America. The pricing structure and the value for money involved are pretty extraordinary.

The answer we received from an employee was, “I don’t know, somewhere in California”. Unsurprisingly, this still left some lingering questions in our mind. Do we assume that Glowforge is assembled in California and sourced elsewhere? Whatever the answer is, the team deserve the support of their community and every success in the future.

Final Thoughts

Reverting back to my original question – I don’t think Glowforge will be a competitor amongst other plotter-based laser cutters and engravers. There are too many restrictions in the design for it to be anything other than a home/office based hobby product. There will always be exceptions to this, but the cost means that some people will buy Glowforge as an entry-point into this area of technology, which is encouraging.

Let’s see where it goes!

– Adrian Norton, Director, ThinkLaser