Scott describing the Origami folding arm at Thrival Festival 2014

Ollie Olivieri, one of five people who make up the Red Ant Lasers team, made the initial pitch to David Whitewolf of TechShop.

“He had built a coffee table, sort of Amish-style, but he wanted to etch the skyline of Pittsburgh on the top. But you can’t do that. We didn’t have access to the kind of laser he needed,” says Whitewolf. For that, they would need a $30,000 standard-sized laser to do the job.

What they came up with was a laser cutter that met everyone’s needs: the Origami, the world’s first ever portable laser cutter–mid-range power, at 40 watts (half that of a standard laser cutter), mid-range price (between $5,000 and $6,000), and a wide range of capabilities, including etching on vertical surfaces as well as horizontal.

The Origami engineering prototype folded and ready to go
The Origami portable laser cutter

“Ollie told me he wanted the three biggest nerds at TechShop. So of course he came to us,” Whitewolf says with a laugh.

Whitewolf, along with Scott Ardisson, Mike Farmer and Liz Whitewolf, met at TechShop, a work space that allows members to reserve tools and take classes on technological development.

“TechShop is a magnet for people who have varied and wide interests. Once you have the magnet and people are flocking to it, it’s inevitable that those people would meet and work together,” says Whitewolf.

“It’s not that our skills were specific to a niche in the team,” Whitewolf explains. “Each of us is well-rounded enough to be in a shop that caters to many different areas of tech development.”

With the help of a prototype, Ollie got the Idea Foundry on board, and Red Ant still has an office address within their building.

Red Ant Lasers is now closing in on the end of a Kickstarter campaign that the team hopes will allow them to send 25 completed lasers to 25 local and international backers.

Many people are excited to have what Red Ant has created. Whitewolf says they’ve received interest from artists, educators, architects, and lab techs all wanting the same thing: the affordability and ease that a portable laser cutter can offer.

“We started to put the idea out and we heard back from a lot of artists. It’s portable, so they could actually take it to an art fair or to a client’s office and do work on-site. They could even etch art right in the street somewhere,” says Whitewolf.

The safety and portability of the laser also opens up opportunities for educators who want to use the cutter in a classroom setting. “This device is safe and can be made into a classroom device even for younger students. It folds up and you can put it away. It doesn’t have to sit in one space and eat it all up.”

Moving forward, the team is keeping their vision pretty local. “We’d like to get more backers in Pittsburgh. We’re not trying to start a major start-up with outside ownership. We want to work for ourselves, and just make something new,” Whitewolf says.

For Red Ant, this means finding local manufacturers and tech developers so overseas part-ordering can be as minimal as possible (although Whitewolf admits every developer knows it’s sometimes unavoidable).

For now, however, the company is ready to accept its 25 backers for its first 25 completed products, slated to be shipped out in May of next year.

But most exciting for Whitewolf are the uses and clients they haven’t yet thought of.  “It’s a tough question to answer, what type of people are going to be using the laser. It’s hard to know where it’s going to go. Ask me in three years.”

Rebekah Zook is a Duquesne grad and all-around story-telling enthusiast. A former fellow at WESA, she worked as a production assistant for their daily talk show. Most recently, she taught in the Propel Charter School system as a visiting artist. When she isn’t writing, Rebekah is a trip leader for the local non-profit organization Venture Outdoors. You can usually find her in a bright yellow kayak.