SEATTLE The desk space next to PCs first welcomed paper printers and later made room for three-dimensional printers that could conjure any shape from spools of plastic.
Now new devices, including laser cutters and computer-controlled milling machines, are coming out of industrial workshops and planting themselves on desktops. The wave of new machines is bringing a new level of precision to people who make physical objects from leather wallets to lamps to circuit boards as a career or hobby.
It is part of a familiar theme in tech. Computers help transform expensive, complicated machines used by the few and make them more accessible to the many. The creative types designers, craftsmen, tinkerers take it from there.
Your creativity is no longer limited by tools, said Dan Shapiro, co-founder and chief executive of Glowforge, a start-up in Seattles industrial SoDo neighborhood that is developing a laser cutter.
Glowforge operates out of a cavernous warehouse, next to a marijuana processing center, where it has created a prototype of a desktop laser cutter that it plans to sell for around $2,000, much cheaper than comparable machines. Glowforge says the device, which Mr. Shapiro calls a 3-D laser printer, will come with software that makes it much easier to operate than laser cutters usually are.
Laser cutters have been around for decades, used in industrial manufacturing applications to engrave or slice through almost any material you can think of, including steel, plastic and wood. The computer-controlled lasers in them make precision cuts that would be almost unimaginable by hand, except by highly skilled artisans.
Over the years, the machines have become a bit smaller and more available to ordinary people, largely through so-called makerspaces, open facilities aimed at designers, do-it-yourself enthusiasts and others that are sometimes housed in schools and sometimes privately owned. The machines have developed a strong following among jewelry makers, print makers and other artisans, many of whom have hung shingles out on craft sites like Etsy.
In fact, makerspaces report that they are often overwhelmed with demand for their laser cutters and see far less use of 3-D printers, which are slow, more limited in the materials they can work with and sometimes fiendishly hard to operate.
Nadeem Mazen, chief executive of DangerAwesome, a makerspace in Cambridge, Mass., says his facilitys three laser cutters do 20 to 30 times more business than his two 3-D printers.
That laser cutter is going all the time, said Chris DiBona, an engineering director at Google, describing the makerspace at his daughters school. Laser cutters are so fast, he said, it was easy to to produce an object, tweak its design and create something new.
Mr. DiBona is a personal investor in Glowforge, though Google is not. The start-up has raised more than $1 million.
Mr. Shapiro, who used to work at Google and Microsoft, says he is determined to make laser cutters much more accessible. Good ones typically cost around $10,000, though its possible to find cheaper laser cutters from China online that Mr. Shapiro says lack adequate cutting power and safety features.
To cut costs, Glowforge has found ways to substitute sophisticated software for expensive hardware components. A camera inside the laser cutting chamber and image processing in the cloud will take the place of a part called a motion planner that normally determines how the laser cuts material.
Mr. Mazen said he had been searching for a device like the Glowforge, which he hadnt heard of, without success. In my experience, he said, not only would this be eminently useful, its the primary thing Im looking for now.
To demonstrate the creative possibilities of the Glowforge, Mr. Shapiro last week whipped out his wallet, a handsome leather case with hand stitching around the seams. He created it himself on the laser cutter using about $2 in materials.
Then, he placed a piece of cowhide inside the Glowforge and sent a design for a cover for a Moleskine notebook from an iPad to the machine. Pulses of light began to glow inside the laser cutter as it burned stitch holes into the leather, followed by a rectangular cut that formed the outer edges of what would become the notebook cover. The machine, which Mr. Shapiro says is about a year away from shipping, is about the size of a wide suitcase.
Laser cutters are best suited to creating 2-D objects, though they can also be used to produce more intricate 3-D objects like lamps or sculpture by cutting flat pieces that are assembled later.
Another start-up, the Other Machine Company in San Francisco, has created a device, the Othermill, that acts like a reverse 3-D printer.
Rather than building up a 3-D object by creating layers of material, as a 3-D printer does, the Othermill uses spinning bits to cut away at blocks of, for example, wood, metal or plastic. The machine, which costs $2,199, weighs about 16 pounds, so it can be carted around in a car.
Danielle Applestone, chief executive of Other Machine, said the company had sold the machine to chocolatiers who milled wax molds for their candies on the device. There is no technological reason why everyday people dont have access to manufacturing tools, she said.
Gregg Wygonik, a designer who works for Microsoft, bought an Othermill to tinker around on personal projects in his garage. He has cut circuit boards with it and milled a sculpture out of wax. Mr. Wygonik said computer-controlled milling machines were normally aimed at hard-core engineer types, but not the Othermill.
Theyve taken that edge off and made it very accessible, he said. Its more about using these tools for artistic purposes and being inventive.
Its difficult to imagine desktop manufacturing tools becoming true mass-market products, especially when they are still relatively expensive. How many people will really want to buy them to make their own tote bags and iPhone cases when its so convenient to shop for them?
Mr. Shapiro says he believes there are plenty of people hungry to make more of the things in their lives but who simply lack the tools.
Its like were all eating fast food, he said, and weve forgotten how to cook.