Mini-Review: Glowforge Plus

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.

Resources

Why we post what we post

There will be a wide range of posts on this blog, from absolute beginner stuff (like our Building Custom Cables post) to product reviews (like our mini-review of the ShopVac Micro Vacuum) to build videos (like the Pimoroni Keybow build) and many things in-between.

Sometimes we’ll post affiliate links to purchase items used in a post (and will disclose as much, not just because we’re required to by law, but because it’s the right thing to do) along with direct links, sometimes we’ll post links to purchase our own products, sometimes we’ll just talk about things related to Making a wide variety of things–from code to 3D printing to laser cutting to designing to… you get the idea: all things Make-y.

Let us know if there’s something you’d like us to cover: we like building, explaining, teaching, and yakking about this stuff. We do it all the time anyway–we’d like others to join in the conversation and create tons of wonderful stuff.

If you like our posts you might be interested in our upcoming book series, the Maker’s End Inspiration Series. Right now there are at least four books planned:

  • Arduino Inspiration (covers “typical” Arduino parts)
  • Adafruit Inspiration (covers Feather and Gemma boards and parts)
  • Sparkfun Inspiration (covers some QWIIC parts)
  • Building Inspiration (kind of a catch-all at this point)

Each book will include 4-6 projects designed to both teach, and inspire moving beyond what’s shown and taught. Along with these projects, the books will include a bunch of “general” advice around coding, organization, and creative tools used in the projects. We’d like to think we’re capturing the “on-site” Maker’s End “look and feel” in written form. We’ll also be producing a series of accompanying videos to further illustrate and demonstrate things in the book.

We’ll also have parts kits available with enough parts and materials to create each book’s projects–these kits probably won’t be suitable for folks that already have most of the parts just laying around (like us), but for schools, teaching camps, or seminars, they might be just the ticket to get people “up and running” without having to source everything personally.

Stay in touch!

Skill: Custom Breadboard/Molex Connectors

Disclosure: There are both affiliate and direct links to some of the tools and consumables used in this project at the bottom of the post.

We connect a lot of things to a lot of other different things. When prototyping, we use breadboards. A wire salad may look pretty, but it’s hard to debug and diagnose problems: let’s clean some of that mess up by creating some custom connectors to keep things a little bit neater.

(Okay, this is a contrived example, but when we start adding multiple components on a full-size breadboard, it all starts to make sense. Trust us.)

As part of our upcoming Maker’s End Inspiration Series of books we’re going to be doing a lot of prototyping on breadboards. Since many of the parts will be the same across projects, we thought it might be cool to have some pre-made jumpers for some of those parts. So we made some!

We’ll turn some pins, wires, pin holders, and heat-shrink tubing into a cable that’s exactly what we need: a double-ended three-pin jumper.

We’ll also need the usual suspects of tools:

  • Wire cutter
  • Wire stripper
  • Crimper
  • Pliers (maybe two)
Tools used
Tools

The operation will proceed much as you’d expect (but we made a video anyway, because we’re chatty, and sometimes it’s more inspiring to hear someone blab on instead of just looking at some pictures.

The pins themselves vary by manufacturer. These pins looked to be press-stamped, so instead of a “pin” it’s actually more of a U-shaped “channel”. This isn’t ideal: we’d prefer a higher-quality actual pin. They’re easier on the breadboard, stronger, and just all-round more pleasant to work with. But these aren’t awful, and they get the job done.

When you look at the non-pin end of the pin you’ll see some flared triangles: they grab on to the insulation and keep the wire from coming out. They often come too flared, though: we sometimes “pre-process” the pins so they’ll grab the insulation a little easier (makes the crimp go easier) and actually fit into the crimping tool.

Fixing flared pin by squeezing it
Fixing flared pin by squeezing it

Each pin is inserted (once it’s attached to a wire) into a “receiver” (the chunky part of jumper cables) that look roughly like this (we’ll get a better image).

pin receiver, what the pins are inserted into
Pin receivers

Let’s wire one up. We’ll also wire up a single-pin jumper in parallel in case you’d like to try your hand at a less-complex attempt first, before jumping into a complete jumper: basically a breadboard jumper wire instead of a set of wires.

Step One

Cut the wires to whatever length you want your jumper to be. Note that if you want to “bundle” up the cables (as we’ve done here with bits of heat-shrink tubing) you may want to make the “inside” wires a bit shorter, but it’s not that important.

Step Two

Strip the wires so they’ll make contact with the pins. Every pin has its own specification for how much wire to strip; these particular pins were about 1/4″ or so, but we mostly just eyeballed it.

After stripping the wires you’ll need to twist them together, tightly, especially if you’re working with one of the super-flexible “crazy” wires, otherwise it’ll be difficult to seat the wire in the pin correctly.

Step Three

Lay the wire in the pin. The large “wings” on the back of the pin grip the insulation, keeping the wire in the pin. The electrical contact is made further up the pin by the next, smaller “wings”.

The wire should be inserted into the “channel” near the end of the pin. This ensures good contact (and is where the precision stripping comes in to play). It’s often easier to strip a little bit extra and trim to fit.

Step Four

Crimp it! The channel side should be in the “receiver” of the crimping tool: it has bends in it that force the “wings” down into the insulation and over the wire. It’s basically a stapler, where the pin is the staple, and the wire is the paper.

Just squeeze the handles to crimp.

If you see what’s in the image below, try to remove the wire and pin from the tool–here the wire has crept out of the pin; this will lead to a bad crimp, and poor (if any) connection, and the wire is likely to pull out.

shows the wire falling out of the pin right before crimping
The wire is falling out 🙁

Revel in your handiwork. The black wire was a good crimp, the red wire got inserted a bit, and some insulation has gotten into the connection area. When this happens the connection may or may not be solid (in this case it was).

Step Six

Once you have pinned all your wires they can be inserted into the connector. The connectors (usually) have a little arrow showing which direction to insert the pins. Sometimes the pins stop where they’re supposed to, sometimes they don’t.

We usually start them by hand, possibly nudging with a pair of pliers, then often (usually) need to pull them the rest of the way through by gripping the receiver with pliers, gripping the pin with pliers (gently, especially these cheap ones), and pulling until we see the “channel” part of the pin in the little window.

If you’re making a simple jumper wire you might want to add some heat shrink tubing. It provides a little bit of strain relieve, provides a handle to grab on to, and just looks nicer. Here the size we chose is probably a little large.

For the connector block you can add some heat shrink tubing at strategic locations to help keep things neat.

completed jumper cable
A little heat shrink tubing keeps wires together

Lather, rinse, repeat. We made a half-dozen three-pin jumpers that we can use for NeoPixels or servos and several four-pin connectors for I2C devices. The four-pin I2C connectors only have a connector on one end (power, ground, SDA, SCL) while the other end are normal breadboard pins: this lets us hook up I2C devices all neatly on the component side, and hook up the Arduino side where we need to: on the component, already breadboard-ready, the pins are right next to each other. On the Arduino side the pins are separate.

Product Links

We’ve used all of the products below. The Hakko tools come highly recommended. The connector sets are adequate (and cheap) but we prefer higher-quality pins. For the price they’re okay. The affiliate links come first, followed by direct links, and are labeled appropriately.

Affiliate Links

Direct Links

Quick Look: Shop-Vac® Micro Wet-Dry: An Itty Bitty Vacuum

Disclosure: Post includes Amazon Affiliate and direct product links.

Continuing our trend of sucking, we picked up new under-desk vacuums and have to say–this is our current under-desk vacuum of choice, and includes a mounting plate that lets us stick it just about everywhere.

It’s not a full-power vacuum like our Rigid vac (which we’ll review, and was briefly mentioned in our Print: Vacuum Dust Collector for Wall Drilling post) but for our main desks (e.g., computers, some soldering, and an inappropriate amount of sanding), it’s pretty great.

It’s a one-gallon, 1HP, 1.25″ hose (but as noted below, it has a long taper, so some accessories might not fit without tweaking) and takes a filter bag if you’re not using it for wet stuff.

ShopVac Micro

It’s small, so very small. It ships with a bag installed–so while it’s totally a wet/dry vacuum, go ahead and remove that bag before resolving your Pepsi Syndrome with this little guy.

It ships with only flat and crevice tools, which is mostly-okay, although a few more tools would have been nice. We’ve also hooked it up to a number of micro-vacuum attachments with a 3d-printed adapter (yup, we’ll post about that as well) and sort-of works out-of-the-box with the afore-mentioned vacuum dust collector attachment–but the stock hose tapers from ~1.21″ to >1.25″ so it’s a bit floppy. We’ll have to modify the attachment to have a longer hose attachment area (or just cut the stock hose). It’s powerful enough to stick the DC attachment to the wall even with the non-fitting host diameter, so it’s more than sufficient for our desk vacuum needs.

(In fairness, when we’ve discussed this with other folks, they’re unsure why a desk needs a dedicated vacuum. IT’S OBVIOUS, OKAY????)

There’s also a convenient handle that folds on top–it’s not a nice flat surface like the Rigid (boo, we like things that stack) but it’s handy. The only thing we find lacking are mount points for the tools on the vacuum itself: there’s a bracket that (apparently?) is meant to mount on the wall next to the vacuum–we might repurpose it and stick it on to the vacuum itself, or just print something we can epoxy on the side so we don’t have to screw into the canister.

At ~$34 on Amazon we grabbed four, two of which are already mounted and in consistent use. It’s micro, it’s a vacuum, it’s really convenient. It became even more convenient with a quick remote switch so all we do is grab the hose and start sucking.

Product Links

What’s Coming?

We’re going to kick the blog off with a few microcontroller reviews followed by some quick projects powered by those boards, and a few tool reviews.

We have an awful lot of things in the pipeline that we’ll try to push out at soon as we can: some woodworking projects for the office and home, some craft projects, and some EBTKS (Everything But The Kitchen Sink) projects that combine pretty much everything we know how to do here (and a few things we’re still figuring out).

In the meantime, you can peruse our 3D designs at Thingiverse (with an unhealthy focus on pen holders, but there are workshop and electronics projects as well) and stay tuned: there’s tons to come.