Laser etching coming to a laptop near you

A new company in New York embosses gadgets with custom artwork, and it's going to give away the business plan. Photos: Laser-etched laptops

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
If you can't stand the idea of a cookie cutter laptop and you live in New York, there's a new option: laser etching.

Phil Torrone, an editor at Make magazine, and Limor Fried, a former fellow at the tech-focused art studio Eyebeam R&D, are working together on Adafruit Laser Services, a new, by-appointment-only business in Manhattan that etches custom artwork onto customers' laptops, iPods, cell phones and other gadgets.

Laser-etched laptops

Among the hip tech set, laser etching is a next step--somewhere after stickers and toting Timbuk2 laptop messenger bags--in adding personal flair to a laptop.

"It feels like a tattoo, and now I feel like I need to get more," said Digg founder Kevin Rose, on whose Apple Computer MacBook Torrone etched Digg's logo at Tim O'Reilly's Foo Camp conference earlier this year. "This is like a temporary tattoo (stickers) versus the permanent stuff."

For Torrone, known in technology circles for always having a series of clever tech-related schemes up his sleeve--for example, Roomba Frogger on the streets of Austin, Texas, last March--starting a laser-etching business is an extension of his own interest in gadgetry and do-it-yourself projects. Fried brings to the table a commitment to an open-source business model.

Adafruit, of course, isn't the first company to laser-etch gadgets. Etchamac, for example, specializes in laser etching for laptops and iPods. But it's likely Torrone's etching company is the first to go open source.

Indeed, Adafruit falls under Fried's Adafruit Industries umbrella, which sells kits for original electronics projects, he said. Torrone plans to give anyone who comes in for the service instruction on how to do it themselves, and following Fried's preferred ideal of sharing business plans freely, he expects to eventually give away to anyone who wants it the plans for how to start their own laser-etching outfit, even nonprofits.

"I think the thing you never expect to hear is, 'Oh yeah, we're going to post the spreadsheet of how this (business) worked out,'" Torrone said. "We're going to put it all out there and see how it happens."

"I'm a geek and my laptop is sort of an extension of myself, and it really was like getting a tattoo."
--Gina Trapani, editor, Lifehacker.com

He and Fried hope there will be solid demand for the company's services in New York, particularly because the laser-etching machinery, a 35-watt machine from Epilog Laser, runs about $15,000. The turnout at the Foo Camp was promising, with an estimated 150 people queued up to get their gadgets etched.

If the business takes off, in fact, Torrone hopes to expand to San Francisco, Tokyo and other cities. But no mail orders.

"I don't want people to send in laptops," he said. "I would never send in mine. I thought it would be cool to have it by appointment only, for artists and for people who want to do something different."

Torrone plans to charge $100 to etch a laptop and $30 for smaller devices like iPods. At that rate, he thinks that after 200 or so laptops, he should be at break-even, given the cost of the machinery and other overhead.

And he's already got fans like Digg's Rose and Gina Trapani, editor of the technology blog, Lifehacker, rooting for him.

Trapani, who was also at Foo Camp, found an image of an Irish knot, Photoshopped it and had Torrone put it on her PowerBook.

"I'm a geek and my laptop is sort of an extension of myself," Trapani said, "and it really was like getting a tattoo. It's really unique. People notice it."

She described how it worked on her blog. "The Epilog laser cutter was hooked up to a Windows machine running Corel Draw. I designed my knot in Photoshop, dropped it onto a thumb drive as a .bmp file, and loaded it into Corel Draw. We did a dry run on a piece of paper to line up the Apple in the space in the middle of the knot, but the process wasn't an exact science."

Rose, who had seen Trapani's etching at Foo Camp, was impressed by the accuracy of Torrone's machinery.

"There was this one artwork piece that took up the entire notebook (face)," Rose said of Trapani's Irish knot design. "That was pretty insane, because you have to be fairly precise once you set up the template."

Torrone's work is based on etching "templates" for different gadgets. They're probably the most valuable piece of the business, but he plans to give away even the templates as part of the open-source model.

Trapani applauds the idea.

"I love that he's talking about open-sourcing his business plan," she said. "That's awesome."