If you’re building a CNC or laser, there’s an excellent chance you’ll be using Grbl to get moving. It’s also a pretty safe bet you’d end up running it on some variation of the Arduino sitting in a motor controller breakout board. It’s cheap, easy to setup and use, and effectively the “industry” standard for DIY machines so there’s no shortage of information out there. What’s not to love?
Well, quite a few things in fact. As [bdring] explains, Grbl pushes the capability of the Arduino to the very limit; making it something of a dead-end for future development. Plus the Arduino needs to be plugged into the host computer via USB to function, a rather quaint idea to many in 2018. These were just some of the reasons he decided to port Grbl to the ESP32 board.
Price wise the Arduino and ESP32 are around the same, but the ESP does have the advantage of being much more powerful than the 8-bit Italian Stallion. Its got way more flash and RAM as well, and perhaps most importantly, includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth out of the box. It still needs to be plugged into a board to hold the motor drivers like the Arduino, but beyond that [bdring] opines the ESP32 is about as close to the perfect Grbl platform as you can get.
[bdring] reports that porting the code over to the ESP32 wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either. The bulk of the code went by without too much trouble, but when it came to the parts that needed precise timing things got tricky. The ESP32 makes use of a Real Time Operating System (RTOS) that’s not too happy about giving up control of the hardware. Turning off the RTOS was an option, but that would nuke Bluetooth and Wi-Fi so obviously not an ideal solution. Eventually he figured out how to get interrupts more or less playing nicely with the RTOS, but mentions there’s still some more work to be done before he’s ready to release the firmware to the public.
If you’ve been browsing Hackaday for a while you may remember [bdring]. He’s got a real knack for making things move, and has created a number of fantastic little CNC machines recently which have definitely caught our eye.
[Thanks to Jon and Craig for the tip.]