An Introduction to CNC Machine Control

We recently gave you some tips on purchasing your first milling machine, but what we didn’t touch on was CNC (Computer Numerical Control) systems for milling machines (or other machines, like lathes). That’s because CNC is a complex topic, and it’s deserving of its own article. So, today we dive into what CNC is, how it works, and ultimately if it’s right for you as a hobbyist.

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A Machine Shop in A Toolbox: Just Add Time

You don’t need any fancy tools. A CNC machine is nice. A 3D printer can help. Laser cutters are just great. However, when it comes to actually making something, none of this is exactly necessary. With a basic set of hand tools and a few simple power tools, most of which can be picked up for a pittance, many things of surprising complexity, precision, and quality can be made.

Not as pretty, but worked just the same.
Not as pretty, but worked just the same.

A while back I was working on a ring light for my 3D printer. I already had a collection of LEDs, as all hackers are weak for a five-dollar assortment box. So I got on my CAD software of choice and modeled out a ring that I was going to laser cut out of plywood. It would have holes for each of the LEDs. To get a file ready for laser cutting ook around ten minutes. I started to get ready to leave the house and do the ten minute drive to the hackerspace, the ten minutes firing up and using the laser cutter (assuming it wasn’t occupied) and the drive back. It suddenly occurred to me that I was being very silly. I pulled out a sheet of plywood. Drew three circles on it with a compass and subdivided the circle. Under ten minutes of work with basic layout tools, a power drill, and a coping saw and I had the part. This was versus the 40 minutes it would have taken me to fire up the laser cutter.

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Maslow Brings The Wall Plotter Into The Woodshop

Hanging plotters, or two steppers controlling a dangling Sharpie marker on an XY plane, are nothing new to our community. But have you ever thought of trading out the Sharpie for a wood router bit and cutting through reasonably thick plywood sheets? That would give you a CNC machine capable of cutting out wood in essentially whatever dimensions you’d like, at reasonably low-cost. And that’s the idea behind [Bar]’s Maslow. It’s going to be a commercial product (we hope!), but it’s also entirely open source and indubitably DIYable.

[Bar] walks us through all of the design decisions in this video, which is a must-watch if you’re planning on building one of these yourself. Basically, [Bar] starts out like any of us would: waaaay over-engineering the thing. He starts out with a counterweight consisting of many bricks, heavy-duty roller chain, and the requisite ultra-beefy motors to haul that all around. At some point, he realized that there was actually very little sideways force placed on a sharp router bit turning very quickly. This freed up a lot of the design.

His current design only uses two bricks for counterweights, uses lighter chains, and seems to get the job done. There’s a bit of wobble in the pendulum, which he admits that he’s adjusted for in software. Motors with built-in encoders and gearing take care of positioning accurately. We haven’t dug deeply enough to see if there’s a mechanism to control the router’s plunge, which would be great to cut non-continuous lines, but first things first.

Taking the wall plotter into the woodshop is a brilliant idea, but we’re sure that there’s 99% perspiration in this design too. Thanks [Bar] for making it open! Best of luck with the Kickstarter. And thanks to [Darren] for the tip.

Making an Espresso Pot In the Machine Shop

[This Old Tony] was cleaning up his metal shop after his yearly flirtation with woodworking when he found himself hankering for a nice coffee. He was, however, completely without a coffee making apparatus. We imagine there was a hasty round of consulting with his inanimate friends [Optimus Prime] and [Stefan Gotteswinter Brush] before he decided the only logical option was to make his own.

So, he brought out two chunks of aluminum from somewhere in his shop, modeled up his plan in SolidWorks, and got to work.  It was designed to be a moka style espresso pot sized around both the size of stock he had, and three purchased parts: the gasket, funnel, and filter. The base and top were cut on a combination of lathe and mill. He had some good tips on working with deep thin walled parts. He also used his CNC to cut out some parts, like the lid and handle. The spout was interesting, as it was made by building up a glob of metal using a welder and then shaped afterward.

As usual the video is of [This Old Tony]’s exceptional quality. After quite a lot of work he rinsed out most of the metal chips and WD40, packed it with coffee, and put it on the stove. Success! It wasn’t long before the black stuff was bubbling into the top chamber ready for consumption.

Inventables Releases Improved X-Carve CNC Router

Introduced last year as an improvement on the very popular Shapeoko CNC router, the X-Carve by Inventables has grown to be a very well-respected machine in the community. It’s even better if you throw a DeWalt spindle on there, allowing you to cut almost everything that’s not steel. With a recent upgrade to the X-Carve, it’s even more capable, featuring the best mods and suggestions from the community that has grown up around this machine.

The newest iteration of the X-Carve features higher power drivers, better rigidity, and a heat sink for the spindle. That last item is an interesting bit of kit – routing takes time, and a 1¼HP motor will turn electricity into heat very effectively.

X-CarveIn addition to the 500mm square and 1000mmm square routers previously available, there’s a new, 750mm square machine available. All machines feature a new electronics box for the X-Carve, the X-Controller. This ‘brain box’ is a combined power supply, stepper driver, and motion controller built into a single box. The stepper drivers are able to supply 4A to a motor, is capable of 1/16 microstepping, and has connections for limit switches, spindle control speed, a Z probe, and outputs for vacuums or coolant systems. The underlying controller is based on grbl, making this brain box a very solid foundation for any 3-axis CNC build. The ‘brain box’ format seems to be the way the hobbyist CNC market is going, considering the whispers and rumors concerning Lulzbot selling their Taz6 brainbox independently from a 3D printer.

The new X-Carve is available now, with a fully-loaded 1000mm wide machine coming in at about $1400. That’s comparable to many other machines with the same volume, unlike the Chinese 3040 CNC machines, you don’t need to find an old laptop with a parallel port.

High-end Headphones Fixed with High-end CNC Machine

Warranty? We don’t need no stinking warranty! We’re hackers, and if you have access to a multi-million dollar CNC machine and 3D CAM software, you mill your own headphone replacement parts rather than accept a free handout from a manufacturer.

The headphones in question, Grado SR325s, are hand-built, high-end audiophile headphones, but [Huibert van Egmond] found that the gimbal holding the cups to the headband were loosening and falling out. He replicated the design of the original gimbal in CAM, generated the numeric code, and let his enormous Bridgeport milling machine loose on a big block of aluminum. The part was drilled and tapped on a small knee-mill, cut free from the backing material on a lathe, and bead-blasted to remove milling marks. A quick coat of spray paint – we’d have preferred powder coating or anodization – and the part was ready to go back on the headphones.

Sure, it’s overkill, but when you’ve got the tools, why not? And even a DIY CNC router could probably turn out a part like this – a lot slower, to be sure, but it’s still plausible.

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Impressive Junkyard CNC Made From Fancy Garbage

We’ll just come out and say it, [reboots] has friends with nice garbage. Sure, some of us have friends who are desperately trying to, “gift,” us a CRT monitor, hope dropping like a rock into their stomach when they realize they can’t escape the recycling fee.  [reboots] has friends who buy other people’s poorly thought out CNC projects and then gift him with the parts.

After dismantling the contraption he found himself with nice US and Japanese made linear motion components. However, he needed a CNC controller to drive it all. So he helped another friend clean out their garage and came away with a FlashCut CNC controller.

Now that he had a controller and the motion components whirring nicely, he really needed a frame to put it all in. We like to imagine that he was at a friend’s  barbeque having a beer. In one corner of the yard was an entire Boeing 747.  A mouldering scanning electron microscope with a tattered and faded blue tarp barely covering its delicate instrumentation sat in another corner. Countless tech treasures were scattered about in various states. It was then that he spotted a rusting gamma ray spectrometer in the corner that just happened to have the perfect, rigid, gantry frame for his CNC machine.

Of course, his friend obliged and gladly gave up the spectrometer. Now it was time to put all together. The gantry was set on a scavenged institutional door. The linear motion frames were bolted in place. Quite a few components had to be made, naturally, of scrap materials.

spindletest2Most people will start by using a handheld router for the spindle. The benefits are obvious: they’re inexpensive, easy to procure, and generally come with mounts. But, there are some definite downsides, one of the most glaring of which is the lack of true speed control.

Even routers that allow you to adjust the speed (a fairly common feature on new models) generally don’t actually regulate that speed. So, you end up with a handful of speed settings which aren’t even predictable under load. Furthermore, they usually rely on high RPMs to do their work. For those reasons, handheld woodworking routers aren’t the best choice for a mill that you intend to cut metal with.

[reboots] noticed this problem while building this machine and came up with an inexpensive way to build a speed-controlled spindle. His design uses a brushless DC motor, controlled through a hobby ESC (electronic speed control), which uses a belt to drive the spindle. The spindle itself is mounted using skateboard bearings, and ends in an E11 collet (suitable for light machining in aluminum).

With the ESC providing control of the brushless motor, he’s able to directly control the spindle speed via software. This means that spindle speeds can be changed with G-code, allowing for optimized feeds and speeds for different operations. The belt-drive increases torque while separating the motor from the spindle, which should keep things cool, and reduce rotating mass on the spindle itself. Now all [reboots] needs to do is add a DIY tool changer!