Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Glowforge

Glowforge describes their product as a "3D laser printer," but it is the same class of device as what the rest of the world refers to as a CO2 laser cutter and engraver. The Glowforge originally went on sale as a pseudo-crowdsourced project by soliciting pre-orders in Sept. and Oct. of 2015 with an "expected delivery" by Dec 2015. They received $28M in fully-paid pre-orders during the phase.

Many delays and feature-changes ensued, and the first finished units were not shipped until July 2017. Most of the backlog was fulfilled over the following year, but some international orders still lingered.
The Glowforge Air Filter, a HEPA exhaust air scrubber, that was pre-sold as an option had yet to ship as of January 2019. Glowforge is now offering a 3rd party exhaust air scrubber in lieu of this commitment.

The Glowforge employs a plastic housing and has a 11" deep by 19.5" wide cutting and engraving area. The Pro model has access slots to allow long ¼" thick materials to be manually fed through the machine for multiple cut or engrave operations. The Glowforge has no height adjustment beyond focus, nor is there any rotary option for engraving glassware and similar operations.

The Basic and Plus models are Class 1 certified which means they may be used in some environments where Class 2 and 4 CO2 laser cutters may not be allowed or feasible. Because the Pro model has the ability to open an access into the cutting bay where the laser is unshielded it has a Class 4 certification.

The Basic and Plus models have limited cooling capacity for the custom-manufactured 40W or 45W CO2 laser and can be operated in an environment up to 75-degrees F (24C). The Pro model also uses the 45W laser and employs a Peltier cooling device for additional cooling capacity for operation in a maximum 81-degree F (27C) environment. None of the models can employ an external chiller. If the laser overheats the system will temporarily shut down.

The Glowforge uses a Internet-based webapp to control the laser. So the machine must be online via Wifi to start a laser cutting or engraving job. The control software can input JPG and PNG raster images. Vector "cut" files are limited to SVG and PDF. There is no support for DXF "cut" files. But programs like Inkscape and Adobe Illustrator can translate DXF files to SVG format if care is taken to manage the dimensions. It's a good idea to run a test cut with unimportant materials.

The Glowforge is very easy to set up because it has no external air compressor nor cooler. The machine is controlled through your computer browser, smartphone or tablet. So software installation, if any, is a trivial app store download and typically no more complicated than logging in. The only system requirements are Internet connectivity via Wifi, AC power and proximity to an exhaust filtration system or a window where a 4" dryer hose can be used to vent the exhaust output containing the toxic laser-generated airborne contaminants (LGACs). (Never run a CO2 laser cutter without adequate ventilation.)

The machine has two integrated cameras which are used for autofocus, material alignment and cut and engraving registration and image tracing. There is no red laser for manual visual material alignment.

The Glowforge is available in three models:
Basic model ($2495) - 40W laser, Class 1 laser product.
Plus model ($3995) - 45W laser, Class 1 laser product.
Pro model ($5995) - 45W with Peltier cooling and pass-through slot for longer materials. Class 4 laser product.

Glowforge is a Seattle-based company. Machines are assembled in the US from China-sourced parts.

The Basic and Plus models have a 6 month warranty. The Pro model has a 12 month warranty. The machine must be shipped back to Glowforge for service including replacing the proprietary CO2 laser.

Glowforge Pros:
  • Product is supported by a well-funded US-based startup company. (They have received millions in venture funding.) 
  • Service is available in the US.
  • Easy setup of hardware and software.
  • Class 1 laser rating for Basic and Plus makes the Glowforge an option for some situations where it may not be permitted or possible to run a Class 2 or 4 laser cutter.
Glowforge Cons:
  • Very limited, and non-expandable cooling capacity may result in shutdowns in a warm environment. e.g. a garage in summer. 
  • No manual/visual material alignment option. Relies exclusively on camera.
  • Small cutting area -- 11" by 19.5" (279mm by 495mm)
  • Proprietary software - Glowforge works only with their cloud-based control software. Glowforge does not work with LightBurn. Glowforge has not yet followed through on their commitment to release some limited device control firmware as open-source.  There are no plans to open-source release the software to control the full feature set. 
  • Proprietary laser tube and parts - The Glowforge uses a custom-designed and manufactured glass CO2 laser. All glass CO2 laser tubes are consumables with a limited shelf-life. You should not expect a glass CO2 laser to last more than a couple years.
  • Limited cutting power - 40W and 45W represent the low-end of CO2 lasers and have a limited cutting ability compared to more powerful lasers available from many other vendors. 
  • Plus and Pro modes are very costly. 
  • Doesn't handle DXF cut files. 
  • Limited material height -- max 2" (50mm).
  • No rotary engraving option.

Disclosure: I ordered a Basic Glowforge in Sept. 2015. I cancelled my order after additional delays were announced in December 2016, and I received a full refund which I applied to the purchase of a different laser cutter