Origin Story: A Smart Router That Turns Virtually Anyone Into a Maker

Origin Story: A Smart Router That Turns Virtually Anyone Into a Maker

By Jenny Xie
The CEO of Shaper Tools takes me on a studio tour and explains how the startup's revolutionary power tool Origin came to be.

As the maker movement continues to take root, the personal technologies driving it are not only becoming more sophisticated, but also more practical and attainable. Case in point: Origin, a handheld CNC router that uses augmented reality to act as an "autocorrect for your hands." From chicken coops to derby cars to drones—projects that have already been completed with Origin—the tool has proven itself to be versatile and intuitive to use. I visited the headquarters of Shaper, the San Francisco startup behind it all, to see it in action.

Shaper Origin launches August 23rd, 2016 and will begin shipping in 2017. The company is limiting the number of units available to ensure delivery happens within a set time frame. Explains Joe Hebenstreit, "We're making sure we have a good handle on our manufacturing capacity. We’ve seen a lot of companies get crushed by their own weight, their own success in sales."

Located in the Mission District, the warehouse acts as both studio and office, containing a diverse array of Shaper-made specimens including, of course, the employees’ workbenches. At one of these stations, CEO Joe Hebenstreit demonstrated how Origin works. Using the brand’s playful domino-printed fiducial tape, you mark your workpiece so that the tool can map its own location. The display then shows your design superimposed over the surface; all you have to do is move the machine close enough to the line for it to adjust and make a precise cut. Stray too far, and the cutter retracts. With all of three minutes of training, I was able to carve the outline of Texas into a plank of wood.

A compact cam mechanism allows the cutting tool to make minute adjustments while you steer Origin in the direction of the arrow on the screen. When you're within range, you can press the green button for the tool to automatically make the cut without your having to move it.

"This is the future of how humans and technology interact," says Hebenstreit. "It’s technology enabling people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do."

Origin already has an impressive range of projects on its CV, including copper bracelets, a carbon fiber quadcopter, and an FM radio. Interested in owning the white oak cutting board? If you and your partner have the initials S.R. and A.K., leave a comment below, and Shaper will ship it to you within the continental United States. 

Shaper was founded in 2011 by MIT graduate students Alec Rivers and Ilan Moyer. During a leave of absence from his doctorate program, Rivers had been using woodworking tools inherited from his grandfather and discovered that he couldn’t reach the level of intricacy he wanted. This became the inspiration for Origin, a tool that would marry human creativity with computer accuracy.

There are three ways to get designs onto your machine. Origin is wi-fi- and cloud-enabled, so designers can drag and drop files through desktop. It comes equipped with a USB port for those who are going off the grid. Lastly, users will be able to browse projects through Shaper Hub and add plans to their tool with a tap of a button.

In early 2014, Hebenstreit met the cofounders at Solid, a conference dedicated to hardware, software, and the Internet of Things in San Francisco. Coming from Frog Design, Amazon Kindle, and Google Glass, Hebenstreit was blown away by the project’s potential and its impact on the physical world. He joined the company as CEO last year and was accompanied by several colleagues from Google, rounding out a team with deep backgrounds in design and engineering. "We’re really excited," says Hebenstreit. "We’ve been very careful to make sure that we’ve got our ducks in a row in terms of how [Origin] works, and not coming out too early. It’s been a mixture of the right kind of people and the right type of experience to help it get to market."

Origin cuts through a varied palette of materials. 

In addition to the Shaper team’s own experiments, a roster of beta testers and artists-in-residence have provided valuable insight into how the tool will be used in the real world. One of the first beta users who took Origin to his shop, for example, produced a kind of sawdust that clogged a mechanism. "We learned a ton from that and totally redesigned the system because of it," says Hebenstreit. "Once he got hooked on doing it, he was like, ‘I want to get more involved in the company,’ and now he works here developing solutions to the very problem he encountered."

Shaper's one-month residencies provide artists and makers with the studio space, materials, and tools for stellar projects. In the past, industrial design student Maya Kremien has created a foosball table that converts into a coffee table.

Users can download designs directly to the tool, but Origin also enables on-tool CAD creation, an unprecedented feature in handheld routers. Makers can select basic shapes on the screen and freehand designs as though it were a program like Illustrator. Rivers, one of the founders, used this function to trace the leg of a broken patio chair and create a replica. Says Hebenstreit of the machine’s capabilities, "We’re just scratching the surface."

While its easy-to-use interface makes Origin ideal for beginning woodworkers, those with experience have also expressed their enthusiasm. "Once they try it, they’re like, ‘I have all this knowledge, and if I apply this to that, I can do next level stuff.’ The overall reaction and ease of use have been really eye-opening for us," says Hebenstreit. 

Origin retails for $2,099, but you can snag one on presale for $1,499. Limited quantities are available. For more information, visit Shaper online.


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