From Desktop Publishing to Desktop…?

I’ve mentioned the Makerbot before, which could be called an affordable 3D printer. It’s also a desktop printer, which I think is important, because in the old days of our industry, printers were very large, and very expensive, and when “desktop publishing” came along, we saw printers get smaller and cheaper, to the point where you could buy one and put it right on your desk.

So while not everyone is ready for a 3D printer (it comes in a kit you have to assemble, and costs over $1,200) there are some other interesting desktop tools out there that just a few years ago, didn’t really exist.


The Silhouette looks like a printer, but it’s a desktop cutting tool. These are used by scrapbookers and crafters, but for designers who want to mock-up a die-cut business card, cut their own vinyl, or do short-runs of things that you couldn’t justify doing with an outside vendor, it’s an affordable solution. It can even be used to etch glass! You can get one today for less than $300.


Since we’re taking about machines that cut, there’s another machine that caught my interest recently. The ShapeOko is best described as a “CNC Mill” which is a device that can cut away at materials (typically wood or plastic) to create various things like signs, art, templates, etc. If you’ve ever used a router, think of this as a similar device, but controlled with a computer, much like your printer.

One of the interesting things about this project (and it is a project not a product yet) is that the person behind it is attempting to raise funding to complete the project using Kickstarter, which is a web site that helps people with ideas get funding for them, directly from people who like the ideas.

ShapeOko has already raised 5 times what they had hoped for, which tells you that people are definitely interested in a small, affordable CNC mill. Once the project is complete, anyone will be able to download all the plans and build their own, or even start a business selling them. Right now the best-guess is that it would cost you about $300 to build the ShapeOko, and you’d be able to use free/open source software to run it.


CNC mills are neat, but if you want the epitome of cool, you’ll want a laser cutter. These machines can cut through a variety of materials, including paper, fabric, wood, plastic, and in some cases, metal. Laser cutters are not yet to the point where they’ll fit comfortably on your desk, and they are not cheap! Commercial laser cutters probably start in the range of $10,000 or more. People have built their own, but you really need to know what you’re doing, and yes, it is dangerous. (If you’ve got a laser that can cut through wood, imaging what it can do to your skin.)

Laser cutters aren’t just for cutting, and can also be used to engrave things. If you’ve ever used a drill or a saw or a hand-held engraving tool, imagine the precision of a laser controlled by a computer. They can do some pretty amazing things.

Just like the ShapeOko, there’s a project called Lasersaur which hopes to create a “cheap, safe, and highly-capable machine” for all your laser cutting needs.

So should you starting clearing some space on your desk? The Silhouette is something a normal person can buy and start using today. As far as having a CNC mill or a laser cutter on your desk, we’re not quite there, but we’re getting closer. Seeing these tools coming down in cost (and size!) and being made available to everyone is an exciting thing for creative folks.

July 14, 2011 · Posted by in art, design, misc  


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