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The Flux beamo is a $1,500 laser cutter with simple but powerful software – TechCrunch

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Laser cutters are in a fun place right now. Gone are the days when the cheapest machines were tens of thousands of dollars, and when the “compact” models were roughly the size of a freezer. They’ve gotten affordable enough, and small enough, that a DIY home hobbyist can add it to their toolset without taking out a second mortgage or needing much more than some desk space… but they’re still a rare enough machine that saying “I’ve got a laser cutter!” makes people look at you like you’re a friggin’ wizard.

One of the latest entries into this space is beamo, a compact, 30W laser cutter and engraver built by Flux — a Taiwan-based team you might remember for raising $1.6 million on Kickstarter with its Flux Delta 3D printer/scanner/engraver back in 2014.

As with Delta, Flux is turning to Kickstarter for the launch of beamo. They sprinted past their goal of $25,000 pretty quickly, currently sitting at roughly $350,000 raised with a little over a week to go. The early-bird models are going for $849, with the company pinning the final MSRP at $1,500. Shipping/taxes aren’t included in those prices, and can cost a couple hundred bucks, so factor that in to any purchasing decisions.

While I tend to be a bit hesitant when it comes to crowdfunded hardware (having been burned too many times by products that either never arrived or did arrive only to be total garbage), Flux has been down this road before; in addition to Delta, it also crowdfunded and shipped Beambox (a slightly bigger, pricier, but more powerful laser cutter) just a few months back. In the case of beamo, it seems like the Kickstarter is primarily meant to help get the word out, rather than literally “kickstarting” the process. Production is already underway, and units are already rolling off the line.

Flux sent me one of those early units to check out for a few weeks. I haven’t had it long enough to do what I’d call a “review”; with things like laser cutters with their myriad moving parts and… you know, lasers, new issues can pop up months after you open the box, as components wear and maintenance is required. So consider this more of a “first impressions” kind of thing.

My first impressions, though, are good.

For reference, I’d classify myself laser experience as… moderate. More than most people you’d randomly ask, I’d wager, but less than if it were my job. I’ve put a hundred hours or so into training/creating with those aforementioned freezer-sized pro lasers, making everything from custom etched pint glasses, to bespoke Christmas ornaments, to personalized rubber stamps over the years. I tend to look for excuses to shoot lasers at things.

Getting it running

My beamo unit came ready to go right out of the box, mirrors aligned, moving parts all lubed up. I plugged it in, set up some basic ventilation, ran through about 10 minutes of software installation and configuration and started firing away. It all just worked on the first shot.

Speaking of ventilation: you’ll need it. Laser cutting is basically a tiny, super controlled fire… and that means smoke. Depending on what you’re cutting, that smoke can be super noxious. Cutting wood? It won’t smell too bad, but it’s still not something you want in your lungs on the regular. Etching a logo into felt? It’ll smell like you’re burning a trash can full of hair. Beamo uses a 200CFM exhaust fan to pull smoky air out of the machine, dumping it out through a 4″ exhaust hose that you’ll need to run through a window (or, if you’re feeling extra fancy, a dryer exhaust-style vent through a wall.) Expect to need about 8″ of clearance between the machine and any wall behind it for the exhaust hose and its bends, unless the path to the window is a straight shot.

The exhaust system is decent, but you’ll probably need to fiddle with how the hose runs to get it just right. If you’re venting through a window, you’ll want to figure out a way of sealing up the open gaps around the hose to limit any fumes that might float back into the room. Put time into getting it right. If the room still smells smokey hours after you’ve cut, you’ll want to keep working on your ventilation. You don’t want to breath that stuff in, especially if you’re running the laser more than occasionally.

Beamo’s built-in touchscreen. You’ll mostly control it over Wi-Fi, but you can access some basic functionality and monitor job progress here.

If you’re new to laser cutting, you should also put the time into learning what you shouldn’t put in these machines. Some materials are safe to laser cut, but tend to catch on fire easily. Some materials will just melt and screw up your machine. Other things (PVC!) will straight up emit chlorine gas when you hit them with a laser. If you’re moving beyond the basics of cutting thin wood/acrylic/cardboard or engraving glass, research it.

So what SHOULD you cut? Woods are a good go-to (though you’ll want to limit it to less oily stuff — because, again, fire). Cardboard is fun to cut for things like spray paint stencils. Leather is good, with practice, and you can do all sorts of really neat stuff with acrylic. You can’t cut glass, but you can engrave it; same goes for rubber, though that’s one you’ll want to source from a place that sells materials known to be laser safe.

The thickness of the material you can cut tends to be limited by a laser’s wattage, while height/width is generally limited by the size of the work area. At 30W, beamo’s laser can slice its way through wood about 1/8″ thick; its work area, meanwhile, comes in at 11.81″ x 8.27″. You can make a lot of cool stuff within those bounds, but be aware of them — buying a bunch of material only to get it home and realize you’re a few watts short of a complete cut is a bummer. If you foresee needing deeper cuts or bigger pieces, beefier lasers exist without too massive a leap in price. As examples: Flux’s other laser cutter, the $2,500 Beambox, bumps the laser up to 40W and the work area up to 15.7″ x 14.7″; the $2,500 base model from competitor Glowforge comes in at 40W with a work area of roughly 11″ x 19.5″.

Fire the lasers!

Got everything plugged in, ventilation set up and your materials purchased? Time to cut! Well, almost.

You’ll mostly be controlling beamo through Beam Studio, a free piece of software provided by Flux for Windows, macOS and Ubuntu. As far as laser cutting software goes, I’m really quite pleased with it so far.

Beam Studio is super straightforward, but darn powerful for a free companion app. If you’re looking to cut out basic shapes, etch text or lay down some bezier curves, it can do it. Want to etch a picture of your dog into some wood to make a keychain? Just drop an image onto the work area, scale as desired, then move a slider to tweak the black/white threshold until it looks right. You can work in layers, setting up a raster layer to be etched and then a vector layer to cut it out immediately after.

Beamo has a built-in camera system, allowing you to quickly scan the work bed before dragging and dropping your designs wherever you want them. The first time you connect to beamo, you’ll be asked to calibrate the camera — a process that was considerably simpler than I expected. Put a piece of paper on the work bed, and beamo will fire a quick test pattern into it. Beam Studio will then snap a picture of what it just etched, projecting an overlay of where it thinks the test pattern is versus its scan. Nudge the overlay around until everything is perfectly stacked, and you’re set. You’ll want to re-run this alignment process every once in a while (it’s quick) if you need precise placement.

The camera system here really is incredibly useful. After about 30 minutes with beamo, I was doing things that are at best annoying on camera-less cutters — things like etching a design, cutting it out, then immediately flipping the cut piece and etching on the other side without worrying about precarious placement. I just rescanned the work bed, dragged the image where I wanted it on the freshly cut side B, and fired away.

The camera is quick, but not instant. Scanning the entire work area takes about 60 seconds. If you only need a certain area scanned (like, say, the top half of the work area, or the rough area around something you’ve already cut), fortunately, that’s an option. Just drag the scanning boundary box accordingly.

If you need to do something beyond what the free software can handle (or if you just prefer working in apps like CorelDraw or Illustrator), Beam Studio can import JPGs, PNGs and SVGs.

While more capable than I expected, the software isn’t without its quirks. Beam Studio will try to keep you updated with a progress ticker, but don’t rely on it too much for predicting timing. I’ve had projects shoot up to 40% in the first 30 seconds, only to take five minutes for the rest to complete. There was an occasion or two where the software threw out an error in Mandarin that I didn’t want to dismiss without a quick pass through Google Translate… but for the most part, it was solid, stable and fun to use.

In its base configuration, beamo’s laser is manually focused, meaning you’ll need to focus things by hand each time you place new material inside the machine. Fortunately, focusing it is super straightforward: put material in, rotate a piece of acrylic attached to the laser head, lower the laser head until the acrylic is just barely touching the material, then lock the laser head back in place and lift the acrylic out of the way.

Flux says that it’ll ship a $250 add-on module that introduces autofocus to the mix, but I didn’t get to test that. They’re also working on a $499 rotary add-on that will let you etch designs onto cylindrical items (think shot/pint glasses), but out of the box, it’s flat stuff only.

As with every single laser I’ve ever worked with, working with a new material — or even, sometimes, the same material from a different source — requires some fiddling. You’ll be tweaking the speed at which the laser moves, the power of the laser and how many passes it makes over the same path; you want to keep the power low enough to minimize scorching and maximize the life of the laser, while making sure you’ve done enough repeat passes to cut completely through. Beam Studio comes with a bunch of presets for different materials that can get you pretty close (and you can save your own favorites, once you’ve found them), but expect to experiment a little when you’re working with a new material for the first time. Buy extra material.

As for noise: operating with fans running full force, it’s not what I’d call “quiet,” but it’s not so loud that it’s uncomfortable to sit next to. The company’s specs pin it at around 65 db — louder than your average conversation, but a bit quieter than, say, a vacuum. The fans do whir endlessly when the machine is idling, so you’ll probably want to cut the power between cutting sessions.

If for some reason you need to open the lid while the laser is operating, beamo’s built-in automatic kill switch will cut power to the laser to protect your eyes. Close the lid again and the job can be resumed right from where you left off. While the company says that the acrylic lid provides sufficient eye protection for beamo’s 30W Class 1 laser (though they note that you shouldn’t stare right at the laser beam, lid or not), I absolutely recommend picking up and wearing a pair of CO2 laser safety goggles, especially when it comes time to pop the machine open and do any maintenance. Speaking of…

Foreseeable maintenance

Maintenance is an inevitable part of owning a laser cutter. As noted, I’ve only had the laser set up for a few weeks and everything came well configured, so I haven’t had to go digging under the hood yet. If something suddenly breaks on me during my time with the cutter, I’ll update this post accordingly. But either way, maintenance will be part of the process for owners.

Even if nothing breaks unexpectedly, some of the parts involved are “consumable” and thus expected to wear down with use. The lens, mirror and laser tube, for example, are expected to last about a year with regular use, according to the company’s estimates. The team says those parts should cost about $19, $9 and $139 to replace, respectively, and you’ll be able to buy them through their online store. Plan ahead for those recurring costs, and make sure you’re comfortable with the idea of eventually tearing the machine apart before you dive in.

You’ll also need to keep things clean to keep them operating well. Burning stuff dirties the optics, and dirty optics lead to weaker cuts and faster wear. You’ll want to pop the work bed out regularly to get rid of any debris, and keep all the moving bits lubed. There’s more to keeping a laser cutter working well than say, an inkjet printer.

Overall, though, so far so good. The machine looks pretty great on a table; it’s not quite as shiny and Apple-y as a Glowforge, but it should blend into a home office or studio pretty easily. It’s light enough to be easily moved by two people, and took me all of a few minutes to get up and running. If you don’t mind the occasional software hiccup, can figure out sufficient ventilation, are mostly working on projects that fit within beamo’s wattage/work area capabilities and are down to get under the hood for maintenance, beamo seems like a solid machine so far.



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Despite big Marvel and Star Wars shows, Disney+ falls short of targets

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Enlarge / Meta-sitcom/adventure series WandaVision was one of Disney+’s most successful recent shows.

YouTube/Disney+

Analysts expected Disney+ to reach 109 million subscribers in Disney’s most recent financial quarter, but the streaming service fell short, landing at 103.6 million. The shortfall resulted in lower revenues than expected for the company and a small stock price stumble.

Alongside word that Netflix also saw fairly slow growth in its quarter, the news suggests that there is, in fact, a limit to the explosive growth that streaming platforms have experienced amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, Disney is staying the course with its current strategy of pumping out TV series in established Disney brands like Marvel and Star Wars, as well as releasing new motion pictures on the platform at the same time they premiere in theaters.

Speaking to investors, Disney CEO Bob Chapek pointed to the Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian as evidence that launching new properties on streaming services can be successful, noting that merchandise sales related to the show were “extraordinary.” (In other words, people are buying a lot of Baby Yoda plushies and the like.)

As such, live-action Disney film Cruella, Marvel movie Black Widow, and Dwayne Johnson vehicle Jungle Cruise will be released simultaneously on Disney+ and in theaters, even as most theaters in the United States have now reopened as vaccination rates in the country rise.

At least on the business side of things, this subscriber tally is widely seen as a significant disappointment and a worrying trend for Disney’s goal of streaming dominance. For example, financial publication CNBC described Disney’s slowing subscriber growth as “Netflix-itis,” given that Netflix also has struggled to keep the wheels turning as fast as they used to.

Disney+’s situation is arguably more concerning, because Disney+’s monthly fee is already quite low at $7.99 per month, inclusive of UltraHD streaming—less than Netflix’s $8.99 for SD, $13.99 for HD, and $17.99 for UltraHD. That doesn’t give Disney a lot of flexibility.

Still, Disney+ is one of the most successful streaming services, and it’s a testament to that success that it is even compared directly to Netflix. Most other services like HBO Max or Paramount+ have far fewer subscribers than either Disney+ or Netflix.

Content offerings and prices are obviously the biggest factors in competition between these platforms, but tech plays a part, too. Streaming services have attempted to outdo one another in a sort of bitrate arms race. For example, HBO’s platforms used to be infamous for poor video quality compared to Netflix and others, but when HBO Max adopted 4K HDR streaming for the premiere of Wonder Woman 1984 in December, the company also significantly improved streaming quality overall.

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TSMC is considering a 3 nm foundry in Arizona

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Enlarge / In a few years, Phoenix residents will be seeing a lot more of this logo.

Reuters reports that TSMC—Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the chip foundry making advanced processors for Apple, AMD, and Qualcomm—is beefing up its plans to build factories in Arizona while turning away from an advanced plant in Europe.

Last year, TSMC announced that it would invest $10-$12 billion to build a new 5 nm capable foundry near Phoenix, Arizona. According to Reuters’ sources, TSMC officials are considering trebling the company’s investment by building a $25 billion second factory capable of building 3 nm chips. More tentative plans are in the works for 2 nm foundries as the Phoenix campus grows over the next 10-15 years as well.

US President Joe Biden called for $50 billion to subsidize US chip manufacturing facilities, and the US Senate may take action on the item this week. Strong domestic manufacturing capacity is seen as critical, since US chip firms such as Nvidia and Qualcomm rely on Asian manufacturing facilities. TSMC would be competing with Samsung and Intel to secure these Biden administration subsidies.

Intel and Samsung are also increasing investment in US manufacturing facilities. Intel is building two new fabs in Arizona near its existing Chandler facility, and Samsung is building a $17 billion plant in Texas.

The European Union is also courting domestic chip manufacturing facilities—its industry commissioner Thierry Breton has spoken to officials from both Intel and TSMC. The talks seem to have gone better for Intel than TSMC. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger proposed a $10 billion deal to build a new European factory, while TSMC officials say that although European possibilities aren’t ruled out, they have no plans to build there.

TSMC’s focus on the US rather than Europe may have a lot to do with the company’s market—in Q1 2021, 67 percent of its sales were in North America, 17 percent were in Asia Pacific, and only 6 percent came from Europe and the Middle East. The majority of TSMC’s European clients are auto manufacturers who buy cheaper and less-advanced chips.

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Google Pixel 6 leak shows off distinctive new design

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The Pixel 6 promises to be a landmark device for Google, as it is expected to mark the debut of the Google-developed “Whitechapel” SoC, instead of the Qualcomm chips the search giant has shipped in all of its previous devices. To go along with the revamped insides, it appears the outside is seeing some major design changes, too—if the newest leak is to be believed.

This first look at the Pixel 6 design comes to us from YouTuber Jon Prosser. Prosser claims he was sent live, hands-on images of the device, and while he isn’t sharing the actual images, he teamed up with a render artist to depict the device based on those images.

Prosser’s track record when it comes to Google leaks is not the greatest. Just last month he claimed the Pixel 5a was “canceled,” but that assertion was publicly shot down by Google. This leak has a bit more believability to it, as it was also backed up by Android Police’s Max Weinbach, though he says the colors aren’t accurate.

The most striking thing about the design is the back, which now features a big horizontal camera bump that stretches edge to edge across the phone. It’s definitely distinctive. The renders show two sizes, which Prosser says will be called the “Pixel 6” and “Pixel 6 Pro.” Previously Google named the bigger phone “XL,” but the Pixel line, which has always been about chasing Apple, naturally had to align with Apple’s naming scheme. Prosser doesn’t have exact specs, but the Pro model has three rear cameras, and the base model has two.

Google is reportedly teaming up with Samsung to build the Pixel 6’s Whitechapel SoC, and maybe that’s why the front of the Pixel 6 looks kind of Samsung-y. The Pixel 5 had shallow corners, while the Pixel 6 has sharper display corners, making it look more like a Galaxy Note. The Pixel 5 had a hole punch off to the left side, while the Pixel 6, like a modern Samsung phone, puts it in the center. Prosser also said that “the glass curves around the edges a bit,” which would also make it more like a Samsung phone, as the Pixel 5 display was flat. Another change is an in-screen fingerprint reader; Google has previously gone with a rear capacitive reader.

Nobody knows the specs of this phone yet, and unlike most flagships, there is actually a potential for variance here, since the Pixel 5 was a mid-range phone with a Snapdragon 765G SoC. Is this still a mid-range phone? Will Google’s SoC make any noise from a performance standpoint, or is it just a play for more control over the SoC kernel and a longer window for software updates? We still have a ton of unanswered questions about this phone, but fortunately for us, Google’s hardware team is not great at keeping secrets.

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