Hobbyist 3D printers have had a home in the maker space for years now. Along the way, they’ve left a mark in our imaginations. They’ve tickled our fancy for watching a computer orchestrated symphony written in G-code hum away while cranking out parts. They’ve opened a door to the idea that while computer controlled machines may be decades old, having one or two homebrew setups in our garage might not be as far-fetched as we first thought. Now that we’ve seen the steppers and linear slides that go into these setups, it’s not unreasonable for many of us to start asking: What else? Perhaps a computer numerically controlled (CNC) lathe, mill, or even a laser cutter–anything that would add to the vocabulary of tools and techniques that we’re starting to build at home.
Since 3D printers have become somewhat commonplace, it’s not too difficult to find commodity spare parts spilling to the surface of online vendors’ websites. We can even find kit versions for building our own variants. Now that the notion of CNC-at-home is here to stay, the question for 2016 is: do we build our own CNC tools or buy them?
Despite the countless CNC build logs, extruded aluminum kits, and open source G-code interpreters, I’m still convinced that unless your needs are truly custom, buying the machine that fits your needs will have you putting together projects faster and with far less maintenance than you’d need if you assembled the machine yourself. In what follows, I thought I’d explore a few machines that we can find today in 2016 that make the dream of desktop fabrication a reality.
In the days of yore, an affordable desktop CNC mill was a dream only realized through a slew of open source tools and a shrewd eye for the right parts. Pre-2016, those open source tools often included LinuxCNC, and “the right parts” usually involved both a retrofitted Taig Desktop CNC Milling Machine and GeckoDrive motor controllers. Apart from these three recurring themes, the rest of the pipeline for building these CNC mills was often unique to the few individuals and hackerspaces that built them. Our only option for building on the their shoulders was to poke the creators on forum posts and extract every possible detail from the pictures (if any) in their available build logs. In the last few years, others have followed this path and documented their successes with more build logs and more pictures. Still, the detailed build logs that border on almost word-for-word building instructions are few and far between, and the all-in-one CNC mill package for under $5000 was still a problem unsolved.
2016 marks the arrival of our first options for affordable desktop milling machines. Among them are the Carbide 3D and the Other Mill. Of course the actual mill is just the last tool in a toolchain for producing computer-designed parts, but we’re also beginning to see steps to introduce this toolchain to new users, along with new tools. Other Machine, for instance, has produced excellent documentation of several available software tools for producing G-code to drive their machine. For new users, it’s easy to forget that the mill doesn’t crank out part designs straight out of our head. Hence, documentation has been a tremendous leap forward from a process that was otherwise completely obscured to newcomers. Furthermore, 2016 also marks the arrival of more options for 3rd-party cam tools such as VCarve, and MeshCam to produce the files that drive these machines.
Laser Cutting Yesterday:
Laser Cutters have had a similar ancestry to mills as a low cost DIY-endeavor. A few brave souls have tackled the challenge, and fewer have documented their progress. Most commercial laser cutters vastly exceed the budget of the hobbyist, so either a homebrew or modified solution is most common in the DIY space. When compared to CNC mills, laser cutters offer similar build challenges in terms of precision, but they also involve a suite of different components, such as mirrors and CO2 tubes, many of which weren’t originally easily accessible at low cost until recently.
In contrast to CNC mills, however, the DIY laser cutter endeavor has produced one standout among buildlogs: Lasersaur. This DIY laser cutter effort has pushed beyond the scope of a simple build log. With comprehensive build instructions, control software, and a detailed bill-of-materials, the sheer detail of it’s documentation can be seen in the number of Lasersaurs that have been successfully reproduced by enthusiasts around the world. Nevertheless, even the most comprehensive of documents may not be sufficient to bring a slew of at-home laser cutters to everyone’s garage because the complexity of building and tuning one may take several months.
As an alternative to building your own laser cutter, why not retrofit one? A number of hobbyists, like [Mike] of MikesElectricStuff have sourced a functional system from China and then retrofitted it with their own G-code interpreter and stepper motor controllers. With some extra hours put in, this route can produce a functional system for under $5000.
Laser Cutting Today:
In the past, either retrofitting or starting from scratch was the only means of acquiring an affordable ( under $10000) at-home laser cutter. These days, however, the excitement of at-home fabrication that started with 3D printers may be providing a niche for a new market where laser cutters can find a place.
Now in 2016, you can purchase a working system for about $5000 from either Full Spectrum Laser or Glowforge. 3D Printers may have given DIY enthusiasts the chance to taste the thrill of at-home fabrication; now laser cutters can give them the fulfillment of functional prototypes by enabling them to use structurally sound materials such as wood or Delrin.
Meeting Your Future CNC Needs
2016 might be the year to consider an off-the-shelf machine, but the spectrum of tools is still far from complete. Vacuum formers and CNC lathes have yet to see their desktop alternatives. And of course, the parts that can be fabbed from desktop machines may be disappointingly small. When your needs just can’t be met by an off-the-shelf solution, it may be time to roll up your sleeves and tackle a custom build. Join us in the coming weeks as we take a tour through some of the best open source software and hardware solutions that can help you along the way. Until then, we’d love to hear about more of your software and hardware tool finds in the comments.