Desktop Laser or Traditional 3D Printer?

Ask yourself these four simple questions to find your dream device.

Here at Glowforge, we are creators like you. We love to bring ideas into the world, and want you to have the same delight that we do — giving a personal gift that means the world, or creating a business from a spark of an idea. 

There are two technologies at the heart of the making revolution, and it can be hard to decide which is right for your home, makerspace, or business. With prices starting at $2,500, it can feel like the “Apple or PC” decision at the start of the personal computer revolution. 

For that reason, we’re going to convince you not to buy our product.

Well, we might convince you not to buy our product. We want you to have the perfect tool to satisfy your unique creative appetite, whether it’s from us or someone else. For that reason, we wrote this article to help you choose between two different technologies: CNC laser cutter and engravers like the Glowforge Basic, and traditional, additive 3D printers like the MakerBot Replicator+

Both the Glowforge Basic and the MakerBot Replicator+ sell for just under $2,500. Both let you create physical objects from your dreams and ideas. But the two printers are very, very different.

A MakerBot Replicator+ 3D printer. “MakerBot-Replicator-Plus-Pic01” by Creative Tools is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
A Glowforge 3D laser printer.

To help make the right decision for you, we’ve put together four questions to ask yourself before making a purchase. 

Before we start, it helps to be familiar with how each one works.

What’s a traditional 3D printer, and how does it work?

Traditional 3D printers are produced by companies including Makerbot, Prusa, and Ultimaker.

Most traditional 3D printers use a tiny plastic extruder to build up an object one layer at a time.  Imagine a robot with a hot glue gun, squirting layer upon layer of melted plastic. This is called “additive manufacturing,” since material is added to create the final product.

A Flashforge Finder 3D printer building a vase out of plastic at 200x speed. 

What’s a laser cutter/engraver, and how does it work?

Laser cutter/engravers are produced by companies including Glowforge, Trotec, and Epilog. 

These desktop lasers use a focused beam of light to cut and engrave materials. This is called “subtractive manufacturing,” since material is removed to create the final product.

Glowforge Basic printing a vase out of Walnut plywood at 50x speed.

Traditional 3D printers and laser cutter/engravers are very different, and it’s important to figure out which one is the right choice for you. To find which is right for you, consider these four questions.

1) What materials do you want to use?

Desktop 3D printers print in plastic, most commonly PLA or ABS. Most 3D printers print one color at a time. To use a different color, you’ll choose your printer’s filament unload option, clear the hot end, and then choose the load filament option to install the new color. 

Examples of creations made with a 3D printer. “3D printed objects” by westonhighschool library is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Lasers print with a variety of materials including wood, cloth, paper, leather, acrylic, cardboard, and food. You can also engrave metals, stone, glass, and some consumer electronics devices like laptops and tablets. To use multiple materials, each one is placed in the laser and printed. The final product is then assembled from the materials. 

Examples of creations made with a laser cutter/engraver. 

2) How fast do you need it?

Traditional 3D printers must move the head through the entire volume of the object to deposit all of the plastic. Higher quality prints extrude the plastic more slowly and take longer. It took 14 hours on the Makerbot to print the vase below.

With a laser, cutting goes quickly as the laser only moves around the edge of the cut lines. Engraving images takes longer, as it goes back and forth over the surface. It took 50 minutes on a Glowforge Basic to print the vase below. 

The vase on the left side of each image was made using a Glowforge Basic desktop laser. The vase on the right side of each image was made using a MakerBot 3D printer.

3) What design tools do you want to use? 

Both lasers and 3D printers let you print designs you find online, but the joy of owning one of these tools comes from creating things yourself. That can be easy or difficult, depending on what you know already and what you like to learn. 

3D printers use volumetric files such as STL and OBJ. To create these, you’ll need to use CAD software like SketchUp, Fusion 360, Blender, or TinkerCAD. 

High-resolution 3D printed object modeled in SolidWorks. “Miniature Queen Anne Chair – Replicator 2 – 3D-printed at 0,1 mm-layer v01” by Creative Tools is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Lasers use vector and image formats like JPG and PDF. Most software can create these files, including Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, and Adobe Photoshop. It’s also easy to use software like Microsoft Office or Google Docs, or any other software that saves photos or PDFs. Lasers can also use designs from CAD software.

Laser-engraved photo edited in Microsoft Paint.

4) What are you most excited about printing?

3D printers can create almost any shape, but the surface is always rough plastic. 

This is perfect for some uses, like:

  • Prototyping something that will be made in a factory by injection molding, casting, or milling
  • Creating projects where function is more important than durability or appearance, like a science experiment
  • Creating one-off knick-knacks for entertainment, like bobbleheads and fidget toys

These all take advantage of 3D printers’ biggest advantage: complex 3D shapes.

Some 3D printer projects that just can’t be done on a laser cutter/engraver:

  • Involute spline gears
  • Vases with complex curves
  • 3D printing something from a 3D scan

To see some examples of what 3D printer owners are doing, check out the #makerbot hashtag on Instagram.

Lasers can create almost any shape in two dimensions, and can carve many shapes in three dimensions. Larger 3D projects are usually assembled from laser-cut and engraved pieces.  This is perfect for uses like:

  • Printing products for yourself, like wallets and furniture
  • Creating custom gifts for others, like engraved slate coasters or deluxe versions of favorite board games
  • Producing unique items for a small business, like jewelry or trophies

Some examples of laser projects that can’t be done on a 3D printer:

  • Hardwood furniture
  • Custom leather and rubber shoes 
  • Engraved laptop or phone

To see some examples of what desktop laser owners are doing, check out the #glowforge hashtag on Instagram.

In summary…

Tools can be transformative. They enable us to bring our ideas into the world, create things that make people happy, and create joy in our lives and in the lives of others. We want you to have the very best tool for your needs, whether it’s from us or someone else.

Whether you decide to purchase a laser cutter, a 3D printer, or something else entirely, we hope this has been helpful. We can’t wait to see the amazing things you create!

A version of this article was first published in Emerging EdTech