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TMCNet:  Laser cut designs combine style and technology

[November 14, 2012]

Laser cut designs combine style and technology

Nov 15, 2012 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- From a distance it looks like a giant copy machine, but the laser cutter that sits in the MakeATX workshop in an East Austin warehouse has the power to engrave and cut with a laser beam. As it slices a design into construction paper on a recent afternoon, it looks oddly similar to a tattoo machine in action. With light flickering from the tip of the laser cutter's head, it quickly but precisely perforates the paper in the silhouette of a woman's face. These particular designs appear as stage props in the theater production of "Ragtime" at the Zach Theatre, but as those who work with the machine know, the possibilities are endless.

Among all the ingenious projects that have been born at the artist haven that is the Pump Project Satellite, perhaps none are as unique as those created at the member-based digital fabrication workshop MakeATX. It's there where clever folks get to play with lasers -- well, actually, the workshop's laser cutter that's lovingly been named Patty Princess of Power.

With the laser cutter machine's multifunctions, MakeATX members are constantly discovering new ways to create everything from wall art and jewelry to teaching aids.

A strong do-it-yourself movement coupled with a growing popularity of digitally driven design tools means we're in the midst of an exciting new era for the next generation of fabricators who from a desktop can control the making of their creations.

So it's no wonder when MakeATX co-owners Kristen von Minden and Eve Trester-Wilson opened their member-based digital fabrication workshop a year ago that word quickly spread among Austin's creative circles. By making the software, computers and laser cutter publicly available, MakeATX brought technology and art together and made manufacturing more accessible for Austin hobbyists and artists alike.

Nationally, digital manufacturing is growing with more fabrication workshops similar to MakeATX popping up. With the way innovation is heading in this area, it might not be long until fabrication machines are affordable to many of us.

But for now von Minden and Trester-Wilson know they are on the verge of something special. They see it every day in their workshop and in all the projects they and their group of about 20 members make. In addition to memberships, they also design their own products and offer custom laser cutting.

MakeATX originally grew out of a funny email exchange between the friends and former colleagues. After von Minden graduated from Harvard's Graduate School of Design, she asked Trester-Wilson about architectural-related job prospects in Austin.

"Yeah, job prospects aren't so good," Trester-Wilson wrote in June 2010. "What if we start our own firm Maybe we should buy a laser cutter " A startled but excited von Minden started dreaming of the possibilities.

As trained architects, both women were familiar with laser cutting technology, which operates a lot like a desktop printer, von Minden says, except that it "prints" with a laser beam. Using graphics software, digital images can be sent to the laser cutter. But at MakeATX, they convert hand-drawn images as well.

Early on, it appeared there was a market for the laser cutter. Von Minden and Trester-Wilson noticed that many of their acquaintances in the architecture world were dependent on it and had a rude awakening when they graduated.

"They relied on the ability to rapidly fabricate almost any idea they could wrap their head around," von Minden says. "And all of a sudden there was no 3-D printer, laser cutter or other equipment people were using in the world of architecture." So the two crafters began testing the market by designing and creating their own laser cut products from jewelry to bookmarks. Because they didn't have the machine yet, they outsourced the laser cutting and sold their products at craft and holiday shows, eventually participating in the East Austin Studio Tour, which continues this weekend. The infectious enthusiasm for all things laser cut prompted a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the down payment of a laser cutter, which can cost upwards of tens of thousands, depending on the machine's quality. Even before MakeATX opened, the workshop already had members signed up.

Making things in a collaborative environment extends to similar member-based workshops like ATX Hackerspace and the recently opened TechShop in Round Rock. "Sometimes I feel momentary panic at the threat of other fabrication workshops starting in the area or other opportunities starting online, but then I always come back to the idea that there's so much room for this kind of thing." von Minden says. "It's kind of a budding world of crafting and entrepreneurship. We're different than anyone else, and there's so much room for people to do different things." Most MakeATX members come with a business idea, von Minden says, whether it's designing a product or making a prototype, and then get it manufactured elsewhere. Some want to buy a laser cutter and do their own laser cutting some day.

"They'll feel bashful about saying that," von Minden says. "But ultimately that's what this is about. "And that's what we wish we could have had -- a chance to test out our (design) ideas." MakeATX member Steven Mattern has gotten that chance. He has an online Etsy shop filled with the unique products he makes at the workshop -- from wooden map puzzles to intricately-designed smoking pipes.

Mattern says he made early prototypes of the products while he was in school but wasn't able to fully develop the ideas until he joined MakeATX. He was one of their first members who secured his spot before the doors opened.

Aside from teaching laser cutting basics, von Minden and Trester-Wilson also have some project-based classes showing folks how to make fun things such as laser-etched notebooks or customized luggage tags.

The duo plan to expand MakeATX beyond the laser cutter and get more high and low-tech fabricating equipment that will open the door for nearly limitless craft or artsy projects.

"There's so much flexibility as far as how much (laser cutters) can do that I feel it's not subject to trends really," von Minden says. "Our business model will probably have to evolve at some point. Right now we're on the cutting edge, but that will not be the case forever. The industry is still exploring what this equipment can do. And whether it's this equipment or other equipment, the idea of making things will continue to be a popular idea as it expands into a computer controlled world. I sort of feel like we're on the cusp of something." ___ (c)2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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