Laser cutters are machines that cut shapes out of flat material. Because laser cutters use digital files and the cutting is very precise, it’s possible to create multi-component parts with tight tolerances and ornate patterns. Laser cutters are used to make everything from jewelry to furniture. I’m much more excited about laser cutting than 3D printing as a tool for making stuff.
Laser cutters are becoming affordable (some sell for under $1000) but they require ventilation systems (to get rid of the combustion fumes), which add to their expense and complexity. I know a few people who have laser printers at home, but for most people (including me) it’s not practical. A better option is to use Ponoko, an online laser cutting service. You design your part using any 2D vector program that exports EPS or SVG files (like Adobe Illustrator, which is what I use), upload the design, select the material you want to use (cardboard, fabric, leather, metal, paper, plastic, rubber, or many different kinds of wood), and submit the design. In a few days, your order arrives in a brown paper package.
I’ve used Ponoko to make a white acrylic art frame in the shape of a giant eye (for one of my daughter’s paintings) and for an Arduino-controlled peanut butter mixer I invented (photo above). I laid out the design for the peanut butter mixer on a 384.0 mm long x 384.0 mm wide template (image below) and ordered it to be printed on a sheet of 3-ply, 6.7 mm bamboo (which was large enough to fit four mixers). It cost $40, including shipping. It turned out great.