I know a lot of people here are pros with multiple lasers under their belt (hmm, that sounds weird), but the only experience I had prior to owning a Glowforge was a dying Full Spectrum machine at a maker space at work. It took a dozen passes to cut through 1/8" acrylic and shortly after gave up the ghost.
We got a new one, though, an Epilog Mini 24, and last week I spent a very short time trying to help set it up. It was an interesting experience, so I thought I’d share my impressions here. This is by no means a fair comparison or a review or anything like that. Just what I noticed straight out of the box and during our first run attempt. Also worth keeping in mind, I believe this machine costs a fair bit more than the Glowforge. I was not involved in the purchasing, and it’s one of those “call a distributor for a quote” things, but some web searches suggest it goes for something like $19,000. That’s not including the huge BOFA filter which I think alone costs more than my Glowforge.
Anyway. First things first. It’s a boxy box. It’s not an object of art, but it’s not quite as bad as the scrapyard sheet metal look of the Full Spectrum. It has quite a bit of z height. I don’t know the specs, but certainly can handle taller objects than the Glowforge. It has a motorized bed that moves up and down to focus, which seems straightforward compared to the complex focusing in the Glowforge head. Autofocus too, via a mechanical probe that touches the material as the bed raises up. And of course, limit switches to find its zero position. Mechanically, it seems simpler with fewer overengineered parts to break down.
One thing that surprised me was that it’s air cooled. I thought that was fairly unique to the Glowforge, and the thing I hated most of all about our old machine was the bucket of water and aquarium pump it used for cooling. Messy and gross. But this one doesn’t have that problem. I don’t know what the environmental parameters are, so it’ll be interesting to see if it overheats like the Glowforge does. It has quite a few fans on the top. On the topic of fans, I don’t think it has an exhaust fan. I could be wrong, since it’s hooked up to the BOFA, but I think if you want to exhaust it outside, you need to supply your own blower. Finally on the topic of fans, the air assist is also external. It has a small port in the back that you need to supply an air feed to. Ours came with a small air pump to plug in there, not sure if that’s standard equipment. The whole contraption is very loud between the fans on the laser, the air pump, and the air filter.
There’s a small control panel where you can do basic things like turn on and off the red dot, raise and lower the bed, and start and stop jobs. It has the most unusual method of setting a new home position: you toggle an option in the menu to power off the stepper motors, then grab the head and move it to wherever you want. It’s certainly fast, but if the Glowforge is overengineered, this feature goes a bit too far in the opposite direction IMO. Speaking of low tech, how do you preview a job? Turn on the red dot laser via the control panel, then run the machine with the lid open. This prevents the main laser from firing, but it still runs the job. I works, but seems like it should just be a software option to run a preview.
And now we get into the meat of the thing. The software. Oh my god. I thought the software for our Full Spectrum machine was horrible. I had two hours available to help with this machine, and the entire time was spent fighting with their horrible print driver to try to get it to do what we wanted. Literally, I went down to help, we spent a solid two hours on failed attempts to cut something, and then I had to leave. I’m 42 years old, I have spent all my waking hours with computers, I own a laser cutter, and I work as an engineering manager at Google. Another Google engineer and I spent two hours trying to get a piece of software to work and we couldn’t do it. Getting the damned thing working is only the first step. This is in a shared-access maker space, so we need a way for people, with only basic safety training, to be able to walk in and use the machine. I am seriously worried about whether that’s going to be possible. It’s that bad.
With all the complaining about Glowforge’s cloud service and people clamoring for it to be a print driver like every other laser, I was not expecting to have such problems stemming, fundamentally, from it being a print driver. The problem with that approach is that the API for printing on Windows isn’t designed to transport vectors losslessly, it’s designed to get ink onto paper. Printing from Inkscape causes the output to be rasterized. All of our vectors turned into rasters. And the Epilog software makes it very hard to understand what’s going on or control what you’re going to get. The documentation is miserable, and there’s no provision for understanding what’s going wrong. Surprisingly, for such a basic failure mode, searching the web for answers turned up very little, most of which was conflicting or incorrect. It’s clear that you can’t just print from Inkscape, but there’s an extension that’s supposed to work. But printing through that extension just caused the machine to beep and say “Done”. Except for the times it caused gibberish to appear on the display. We tried variations of stroke widths suggested by various web sites, and we tried exporting to PDF and then printing the PDF, from Chrome, from Edge, and from Acrobat Reader. We tried sample files from the manufacturer. We tried creating a plain circle in Inkscape. Somewhere we read that you can’t use circles (what?) so we tried making a square. One of our attempts worked, but we don’t know what we did differently and couldn’t reproduce it on demand. I wish I had written down some of the useless error messages that popped up, when anything was displayed at all. I would take the cloud issues over this any day. Times a thousand.
Finally, having described the biggest downside, I’ve saved the biggest upside for last. The speed. The speed is astounding, for someone used to a Glowforge. I used to be satisfied with my machine, but now I realize how serious of a limitation it is to have that giant head. Take a look at this first search result to get an idea for how fast it goes: https://youtu.be/Q5xLzZbhheo. I’m not saying that’s worth $13,000 more to me, but I do wonder if Glowforge had gone with a more conventional design whether this type of speed would have been within reach.
All in all, it seems like a fine, but overpriced, bit of hardware that is completely hobbled by a software experience straight from hell.
When we get it up and running, if we get it up and running, I plan to do some tests of things I’ve made with my Glowforge and see how the quality and real-world speed compares.