Mobile Manufacturing: Traveling With a Laser

digital nomad Glowforge laser cutting life on the road mobile manufacturing universal laser

 

Glowforge Laser Printer in an RV

Just over a year ago, Rio and I hit the wide open road and headed west to do something that sounded really awesome at the time… something that no one else seemed to be doing — mobile manufacturing - honest to goodness manufacturing while on the road. We’ve met a number of digital nomads along the way that have figured out various ways of making a living and traveling: some are Instagram stars and just need their smartphone and wit, and some can survive on a laptop and hotspot connection writing code. Rio and I brought along an entire mobile workshop — our Glowforge laser cutter, a huge wide-format printer, automated glue machine, tons of boxes needed to package puzzles and ship them in, puzzle board, and other materials to support our wishful endeavor.

Over the past year of manufacturing from the road, I’ve learned quite a bit. Sometimes it was a brilliant idea, more often it was from learning the hard way — from mistakes, or even more often perhaps, it was learning from, “Oh damn, I didn’t anticipate this.”

I’m not sure if people aren’t doing mobile manufacturing because they haven’t thought of it, haven’t had the guts to do it, or because it’s hard. Because - it is hard.

For a year, I traveled with the Glowforge laser. To transport it safely required boxing it up in its original packaging each and every time that I moved. When getting to a new location, I’d slide the box out, use every bit of stretch that I had in my arms to get around the machine, and lift it up to the top bunk onto its working location. After that was setting up the rest of the workspace. It wasn’t too bad - I could be up and cutting within an hour. But, it does make you want to stay in one place for a bit longer so that you didn’t have to repeat the process in reverse and put everything away — which I did. I’m bad at keeping logs of where I’ve been, but my average stay has been somewhere around 6-7 days, which is a far slower pace than essentially everyone else that I’ve met traveling around.

Here’s some of those lessons learned.

Travel

Travel is obviously a big part of mobile manufacturing. Ya know, mobile. One of the differences I’ve experienced versus many others that I’ve met, is that I don’t need or want to travel a lot. I wanted to experience the areas that I’m visiting in more depth than just a run and gun approach would let me. Been there, done that - set up the tent in a new place every day of the week. Also, packing up the laser and workspace every day or two sucks and to top it off, is really unproductive. I try and stick with a (moment of brilliance, I think) 1111 Travel Rule: On the road by 11am, maximum of one tank of gas, and stay for 1 week.

If you’re living on the road, and making a living on the road, what’s the rush to see everything as fast as you can?

Places to Stay

This is a big one. One of my least anticipated problems before heading out was having a place to stay. A lot of it’s my fault - I hate making reservations. I enjoy the freedom of being able to stay a few more days, or leave a few days early if somewhere wasn’t really tripping my trigger. I’ve also slept at places like Walmart or Shop the Tree House on occasion as a result of poor planning. I *really* didn’t think that finding a place to camp would be as difficult as it has been though. Especially Texas! New Mexico was nice because they leave a certain percentage of campsites as non-reservable first-come/first-serve. You get the spot and it’s yours for up to two weeks. Texas has been difficult because all of the sites are reservable and sometime you just end up SOL.

Sure, you can always find an RV park - but it’s generally way more expensive than it oughta be for the amenities that are provided. Ironically, I’m at an RV park right now as I write this. It’s expensive, but at least the amenities live up to the price — hello, hot tub. It also has a great place for Rio to play off-leash.

Don’t be like JB. Make reservations and eliminate some stress from your life.

Power

Power has been less of an issue than I thought it would be. One of the things about mobile manufacturing is that you are reliant on having good power - and that power is much more limited than what you would experience in your house or workshop. You’ll have either 30 or 50-amp service. Fifty-amp service is no problem. Run the air, run all the things! With a fair amount of machinery needed for making puzzles and warm temperatures requiring AC (not to mention, keep the temps in range for the Glowforge Pro), I’m typically right at the threshold of 30-amp service a lot of the time using just one air conditioner. One can always cheat and run an extension cord from the separate 15/20-amp plug on the box, I suppose. But, one just needs to be mindful of how much power you are actually consuming.

All of that said, usually parks are fairly remote. A lot of things can go wrong in the lines between wherever you are and whatever far away, remote location the sub-station is at. Expect the power to go out randomly. And expect it to possibly take a while for it to come back on. I learned this lesson at Manzano Mountains State Park in New Mexico, one 20-degree night; cutting puzzles was the least of my concerns that night.

Internet

From my reading, having solid internet is one of the biggest hurdles for full time RV’ers - and it’s also a big challenge for mobile manufacturing. The Glowforge is reliant on having an internet connection to work. That might sound like a pain, but it’s not really a huge deal — to work from the road you are pretty much reliant on having working internet anyway.

Don’t even think about campground wifi. It just doesn’t work.I wonder who is actually using it - it has to be working for someone to be that slow, right?

I’ve tried a number of different things. And I’ve cussed a lot. Internet is really important for watching Netflix and Hulu. When I set out, I thought that I’d just pick up a Verizon hotspot and be good to go as long as I checked the map for service. Within about day 3, I had used up my “unlimited” data allotment and was throttled down to something like internet would have been in the 1890s. The throttling is automatic… hit the limit of… unlimited (what the hell?), which is 15gb and you’re pretty much done.

Eventually, I couldn’t stand it and using free McDonald’s wifi, I searched around for a viable solution. It wasn’t horribly difficult: I ended up switching the Verizon hotspot off of my post-paid (normal contract) plan over to a pre-paid account. It costs $50 more a month, but they use a different approach to restricting your data. Rather than just throttle you at a certain amount of usage, the pre-paid plan uses data deprioritization. Basically, after I use up my “unlimited” data, I go to the bottom of the totem pole in priority: 99% of the time, the data speeds are extremely useable. 

Before heading to a place that I know is out of the way, I always check the Verizon coverage map. It offers street level service detail and hasn’t failed me yet. Thankfully, Verizon coverage is strong and I’ve only avoided going to a place once or twice because of lack of signal.

One thing it doesn’t tell you is how strong that signal will be. Sometimes it’s piss poor. But, at least if you have a signal you can do something about it. I’ve picked up an external Netgear antenna that works well and also picked up a WeBoost signal amplifier that I can transfer between the truck and the trailer. Both options have made life better.

More recently, I’ve ditched the Verizon hotspot entirely and picked up a Netgear 4G modem. You lose the battery portability, as it must stay plugged in. But, that’s much better than having to remember to unplug the JetPack when it’s fully charged.

Package Deliveries

What a pain! This is on the list of tough things. If you’re staying at an RV park (which kind of eliminates a big part of the allure of mobile manufacturing), mail isn’t bad. Just have it delivered to the office. If you’re staying at various state or national campgrounds, it will require some planning.

First, where will I even be? This is where staying a week will help you out. It’s much easier to figure out the logistics of having a package delivered if you are somewhere more than a day or two.

Second, where will I even have it delivered to? This has been somewhat challenging. A friend, a cousin (lots of stuff has gone there), the post office (General Delivery - look it up), the UPS store, Amazon lockers, are all options that have to be considered. It gets especially interesting when you’re in the middle of nowhere and have a semi on the way full of puzzle board.

Companions

The dog? The wife? Kids? I’ve met a number of families traveling with their kids, and many husband and wife teams. One thing you don’t run across often is someone traveling just by themselves - not even a dog. I can’t imagine traveling with kids like this. Those folks that do travel with kids tell me they can’t imagine traveling with a dog. At least I can leave the dog in the kennel! But, you’ll want some kind of companionship… even a cat might work, but that’s better you than me.

Space

Space is a valuable commodity inside of an RV. Companions take up that space… Rio’s kennel is constantly in the way. Just figure it out. I have boxes and board stored under the fold-out couch, under the table, on top of the other bunk that the laser doesn’t go on. Get creative and you can actually find lots of space - RVs are designed that way.

How big of a company can do this? How long can a person do this?

I don’t know.

Recently, with a number of new wholesale clients that I’ve picked up, I felt like I may be nearing the limits of what I can manufacture from a mobile set up. I realized that I didn’t have an actual expansion plan and that seems like one of those things that could bite you and hurt relationships.

I had a few options: 1) An additional Glowforge, 2) Stop traveling and set up shop somewhere, 3) Stop traveling temporarily and set up a small manufacturing base and have someone operate it, 4) Contract out the manufacturing 5) A new laser.

  • An additional Glowforge would be difficult to pull off. Space is limited, as mentioned above, and I couldn’t see a creative enough way to pull off having two desktop lasers in the space.
  • Setting up shop somewhere wasn’t extremely appealing - it kind of ruins the mobile manufacturing aspect. It would be difficult to generate new content and meet potential retailers along the way.
  • Setting up a manufacturing base and having someone operate it is a fairly expensive. Plus, I’d probably lose the signature series/artist-signed aspect of the puzzles
  • I don’t even know how to start with contracting it out, but it would require a capital expenditure, an increase to Cost of Goods Sold, and trust that far exceeds what I want to place, and I’m not at that kind of capacity yet.
  • Another laser was potentially an option and would be a good stop gap in this awkward phase of being bigger but not really big. Something that was a little faster, that had a bigger bed?

A few days ago, the traveling Glowforge went on its last ride.

Glowforge Laser Cutter

In its place, is this big, kinda shiny, hunk of blue metal.

Universal Laser VLS4.60

It’s not sexy and modern like the Glowforge. But, the Universal Laser Systems VLS4.60 is bigger and faster, sexy in its own way, and is already helping make things more efficient around here. It's definitely not as easy as the Glowforge laser, but we know how to make things work around here. Ironically, once I cleaned up the mess from installation (please pardon the mess above, btw), I have more usable room to work than with the smaller Glowforge. 

Rio and I aren’t sure where the next year of mobile manufacturing will take us, but it’s been a pretty great ride so far. Right now though, we need to make some reservations.

Or, check out and buy one of my newest puzzles (and ornaments!) - since we have the extra manufacturing capacity now. :) 


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