When I was first searching for a CNC to add to my shop, I ran across an odd tool called the Shaper Origin. The tool was in essence a self-correcting router that works like a hand-held CNC machine. I spent some time watching the videos on their site and reading through the blog. It was a novel idea, though it wasn’t quite ready to ship (as I write the the first batch is slated to ship Fall 2017) and not really what I wanted/needed for guitar work. Still, it seemed absolutely incredible. Unbelievable really. Could such a thing really work?
These weren’t the sort of directions I was looking for, but I decided it best not ignore the advice of a beat cop.
Fast-forward to late February when I receive an email invitation (I had signed up on their mailing list, natch!) to come see a “private demo” and get a chance to actually try out the tool in their San Francisco HQ. Because I live in Chicago, this normally would have been filed away with a sigh. However, as luck would have it, I was signed up to attend the Strata + Hadoop World conference in San Jose that same week. To top it off, the demo was scheduled for 6pm on the last day of the conference (which ended by 5pm).
Done deal…sign me up!
On Thursday, March 16th, I rushed out of the conference a bit early to catch one of the evening express Caltrain’s up north to SF. Following advice I’d requested and recieved via email from the fine folks at Shaper, I transferred to a BART at Millbrae, taking that train up to 16th Street Mission station. I emerged from the BART via a fairly formidible flight of stairs, and immediately noticed a pair of SF’s finest watching over the active plaza.
“Can you tell me where Shotwell is?,” I asked. The initial look on their faces left me a bit uneasy. “What’s on Shotwell?” the male officer queried, shooting a sideways glance at his female partner. “Umm…a tool company” I replied.
Pointing down the street over my right shoulder, he proceeds to inform me it’s a couple blocks “that way” and that I should be sure to keep both straps of my backpack over my shoulders and not to walk around with my phone in my hand. These weren’t the sort of directions I was looking for, but I decided it best not ignore the advice of a beat cop.
Shotwell street – this block anyway – is basically industrial and not really intimidating. There’re typical buildings and a fenced-in parking lot across the street from Shaper HQ. Following a simple note taped to the door at 274 Shotwell, I walked on a bit until coming upon a small open garage bay. Inside were a handful of folks milling about (it was a bit before the 6pm start time – at least I think it was as I didn’t dare take my phone out of my pocket to look.)
I quickly slide the machine to the side to get a closer look at the point where the start and end of the circle met. My eyes and fingers couldn’t find any variation.
The shop is small and very cool. Next to a couple metal buckets of beer sat a table hosting the history of the Shaper Origin from initial prototype to its current inception. In the middle of the shop a live online demo was taking place. I watched the tail end of this before moving closer to the main work bench where Matty started putting the machine through paces.
Wow. It really did seem to work like their videos. He cut pockets in the form of some basic numerals – something like you might see on a mailbox or sign. We were then invited to give it a try. Someone cut the state of California. Another cleared out a pocket. When it was my turn, I opted to do something simple – a circle. Matty assisted with navigating the menus and I was able to set the diameter by clicking on the screen and dragging the tool outward until it reached the desired size – which was also displayed in decimal inches in the corner of the display.
The thing that struck me right away was the display also remembered all the other shapes that had recently been cut for earlier demos. These were outlined on the screen and couldn’t be missed. So I was easily able to specify a circle that would inscribe the various bits that had already been more or less randomly cut on the board. I could easily guarantee I wouldn’t run into a line at any point on my circle. Very very cool.
To operate I just turned on the trim router, (I was told the shipping version boasts a custom spindle with switched power from the unit itself), pressed the green button on the right handle, and followed the path on the screen. I purposely pushed it a bit, seeing just how fast I could comfortably cut with this thing and still track close to the line. In fact, I found myself playing a little game in my head – just how close could I track?
I closed the circle, pressed the red button to stop the machine and turned off the spindle. I quickly slid the machine to the side to get a closer look at the point where the start and end of the circle met. My eyes and fingers couldn’t find any variation. They appeared to meet perfectly, or at least close enough for any woodworking job I’d ever do.
This thing rocks
In conclusion, this machine really, really, works. I mean, it feels great, it cuts smoothly, the screen is responsive and bright, and it feels rugged enough for real use in a real shop. I could see myself using this to cut down large sheets of plywood in the garage to maximize yield while minizing strain of hauling them to the table saw.
And for any simple shapes you want to cut quickly, damn this would be incredible. I could cut out 10 perfect circles of varying sizes faster than I could find, install, and setup my circle-cutting jig on the router or band saw. And then there are the oddball polygons, curves, etc. For making fast jigs this thing would rock. If the price is right (and right now it’s rather pricey), this tool seems poised to launch a revolution in the average weekend warriors’ shop. If they can get the volume up and costs down to under $1,000 I could see this being the only cutting tool an average homeowner would need to have in their shop for common household stuff. Heck, for $1,000 I’d buy one to have on hand even though I’ve already got a shop full of tools and decent CNC.
I shot some video of Matty from Shaper guiding one of the visitors as he put it through paces: