Glowforge Plus

Mini-Review: Glowforge Plus

This unit was purchased by us; no demo units, remuneration, etc. took place. Which is a bummer, considering the results of our Glowforge usage. A hint of things to come.

To match the hardware of a local Maker education classroom we decided to purchase a Glowforge Plus (plus our Epilog needs a new tube–any excuse to buy new hardware!) Here’s our high-level overview.

Overview

Glowforge Plus
Glowforge Plus

The Glowforge Plus is a 45W unit (compared to 65W for our Epilog) for $3995 without a filtration unit. We already had venting set up so we didn’t feel the need, and $6k for the Pro was $2k too much for what it offered.

It has a fairly small cutting area, approximately 19.5″w by 11″ deep, although the bed itself is 18″ deep. This is perfectly fine for small projects as long as your material isn’t very thick–there’s ~2″ clearance, although we haven’t yet used any material over 0.5″. Again, perfectly adequate for much of what people use laser cutters for, but a non-starter for many small laser businesses.

Also note that the Glowforge Tech Specs page states both:

  • Maximum material height: 2″ (50mm)
  • Completely Internal — Lens moves internally up and down inside the head to print on materials up to 0.5” (13mm) thick

It’s unclear to us what, then, they actually mean.

Using the Glowforge

The Glowforge connects to its home base via WiFi–but 2.4GHz only. This is a major problem for us as our 2.4GHz network suffers from arbitrary, but consistent, interference–and the machine is very bad at reconnecting during an outage. Strike one.

There is no way to use the device without WiFi. No USB, no wired ethernet, no nothing. So if we’re suffering from higher-than-normal 2.4GHz drops, we simply cannot use this $3k piece of equipment: it’s a brick. Strike two.

In addition, there is zero way to determine what types of problems the machine may be having with a given print job. For example, our workspace is very hot, and while we can use fans to cool the area around the printer, if it’s a thermal problem stopping a print, the only way to know that’s what happened is by contacting Glowforge’s customer support, where they’ll troll your logs looking for information.

While their support was prompt (at least when we had our most current issue) and courteous, not providing any local insight into potential issues is a time-suck, potentially a major time-suck if no customer service representative is available, and, at least in our opinion, antithetical to the Maker Movement in general. Putting up artificial barriers to the creative process is out of line.

When the Glowforge is working, while it’s not particularly fast (compared to both more powerful lasers, and somehow lasers like the Glowforge Pro that boasts of 20% increased cut speed with the same 45W laser), it’s pretty decent. We’re not sure what else we can say beyond that–there’s nothing terribly remarkable about the unit.

Our materials of choice are cardboard (for prototyping and models), 3mm and 0.14″ (~3.5mm) MDF and plywood, paper, and the other typicals like fabric, acrylic, etc. So far we’ve only been doing cuts on 0.14″ MDF and their supplied “Proofgrade” materials (draftboard, which seems to be just MDF) and maple plywood. Almost all of our cuts have been very precise and clean, as one would expect from a 45W machine.

The Software

That’s a bit of a stretch: it’s really just a way to communicate with the machine, and (roughly) move pieces around in the workspace. You can translate X/Y, resize (but with no feedback, so no real work in here), rotate (hold down <SHIFT> to lock to 45 degree increments), bring in additional artwork, and… maybe there’s more, but we can’t find much else.

There’s a maintenance page, or at least one for the fan, but if there are others, there’s no direct link from the default UI. The only reason we found out about that fan one is because their support person determined (by looking at the logs, which we cannot do ourselves) that it was too hot. There may also be others linked to in the support docs, but we haven’t looked.

If you go through the Glowforge forums you’ll find multiple posts regarding “Stuck in Focusing” or “Stuck in Centering” or “Stuck in Homing” or “Stuck in Scanning”. There’s a reason for that–it gets stuck in all those things frequently enough that it’s very annoying. In fairness, with our 2.4GHz network issues, and the Glowforge’s lack of 5GHz support (what year is this again?!), it may be due in no small part to networking–which is one reason why networking-only devices and apps are antithetical to Making.

The resolution to those problems are largely cargo-cult-ish, black-magic, animal sacrifices: turn it off, wait 30 seconds, turn it back on. Or move the head to the home position. Or make sure everything is clean (that one actually makes sense, but has never solved our problems). Or leave the lid open for twenty minutes… or overnight.

TL;DR

When this machine was Kickstarted (that’s when our nearby Makerspace ordered theirs, they received it last fall, a few years late) we didn’t buy one (you know how hardware Kickstarters go), and after using it, we’re glad we didn’t: the letdown after such a long wait would have been even more irritating than this closed machine has turned out to be.

We want to like it. We want to like the company. And maybe someday we will–but until then, our workhorse will continue to be our Epilog and some upgraded cheap 40W+ Chinese units.

The Epilog cost much more (~5x as much, but we have much better depth capacity and a rotary unit), and have at least some ability to diagnose problems, repeat jobs (which we do a lot), and so on.

The cheaper Chinese units are just that: cheap, and they can be fiddley–but we have total access and the ability to actually diagnose and fix problems, and run our own software, at about one-half the cost.

It’s just too much work for a device that pretty much just moves around and throws light onto a surface, especially considering code that does all that is trivially available. As are boards that support 5GHz networking and can actually reliably reconnect when the network is being stupid/

So Who’s This Machine For?

That’s an interesting question. It’s too pricey for the merely-curious. The non-merely-curious are probably fiddle-capable. The merely-curious could buy a cheaper, smaller unit, likely without cutting capabilities.

It’s a curious proposition: pay a premium price for a system you can’t diagnose, won’t work without WiFi, and cannot hack (trivially–more to come on that front). Schools, perhaps, that want a closed system with daytime support? But as a Makerspace tool, with their host of… well, Makers, it’s a tough sell–at least for us.

Followup with Props to Glowforge

Glowforge reached out with a brief email indicating that they’d found and fixed a big regarding vague error messages–I’m not sure which one was addressed (or if they all were), but props to Glowforge for their QRF (that’s Quick Reaction Force for the non-military types out there) helping users figure out what’s gone wrong when. We’ll definitely update the software and heap further abuse on the machine.

Resources

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