Advent Calendar – ‘Tis the CNSeason

CNC machines are powerful tools when used correctly, but it’s often necessary to test a new machine before getting into serious production work. This advent calendar is a great festive project that was designed to put a CNC through its paces.

The calendar is made primarily from wood. This is an excellent choice for test machining projects, as it is softer and less likely to cause tool or machine damage when compared to steel or aluminum. The calendar base was first milled out using end mills, while a 30-degree V-bit was used to engrave the days of the week. Brass brazing rod was then used to create hangers for the calendar tags.

Thanks to the clever use of chalkboard paint and removable tags, the calendar can be reconfigured to work for any given year and month combination — just in case you wish to have an advent calendar year round. Overall, it’s a good low-intensity machining project that would also be a fun craft project for kids.

As it’s that time of year, you might like this blinky advent calendar, too. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Michael for the tip!]

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The Complete Beginner’s Guide To Building A CNC Machine

Despite appearances, [This Old Tony]’s latest series has little to do with CNC-ifying an Etch A Sketch. Although he certainly achieves that, more or less, automating the classic toy is just the hook for a thorough lesson in CNC machine building starting with the basics.

Fair warning: we said basics, and we mean it. [Old Tony]’s intended audience is those who haven’t made the leap into a CNC build yet and need the big picture. Part one concentrates on the hardware involved – the steppers, drivers, and controller. He starts with one of those all-in-one eBay packages, although he did upgrade the motion controller to a Mach4 compatible board; still, the lessons should apply to most hardware.

By the end of part one, the Etch A Sketch is connected to two of the steppers and everything is wired up and ready to go for part two, the first part of which is all about inputs and outputs. Again, this is basic stuff, like how relays work and why you might need to use them. But that’s the kind of stuff that can baffle beginners and turn them off to the hobby, so kudos to [Old Tony] for the overview. The bulk of the second part is about configuring Mach4 Hobby, with a ton of detail and some great tips and tricks for getting a machine ready to break some end mills.

For someone looking to get into a CNC build, [Old Tony]’s hard-won CNC experience really fills in the gaps left by other tutorials. And it looks like a third part, dealing with making all this into something more than an automated Etch A Sketch, is in the works. We’re looking forward to that.

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Replace Legacy CNC PCs With A Gerbil

There are lots of laser cutters and other CNC machines available for a decent price online, but the major hurdle to getting these machines running won’t be the price or the parts. It’s usually the controller PC, which might be running Windows XP or NT if you’re lucky, but some of them are still using IBM XT computers from the ’80s. Even if the hardware in these machines is working, it might be impossible to get the software, and even then it will be dated and lacking features of modern computers. Enter the Super Gerbil.

[Paul] was able to find a laser cutter with one of these obsolete controllers, but figured there was a better way to getting it running again. As the name suggests, it uses GRBL, a G-Code parser and CNC controller software package that was originally made to run on an 8-bit AVR microcontroller, but [Paul] designed the Super Gerbil to run on a 32 bit ARM platform. He also added Z-axis control to it, so it now sports more degrees of freedom than the original software.

By way of a proof of concept, once he was finished building the Super Gerbil he ordered a CNC machine from China with an obsolete controller and was able to get it running within a day. As an added bonus, he made everything open so there are no license fees or cloud storage requirements if you want to use his controller. [Paul] also has a Kickstarter page for this project as well. Hopefully controllers haven’t been the only thing stopping you from getting a CNC machine for your lab, though, but if they have you now have a great solution for a 3040 or 3020 CNC machine’s controller, or any other CNC machine you might want to have. Continue reading “Replace Legacy CNC PCs With A Gerbil”

CNC Machine Most Satisfyingly Mills Double-Sided PCBs

We know that by this point in the development of CNC technology, nothing should amaze us. We’ve seen CNC machines perform feats of precision that shouldn’t be possible, whether it be milling a complex jet engine turbine blade or just squirting out hot plastic. But you’ve just got to watch this PCB milling CNC machine go through its paces!

The machine is from an outfit called WEGSTR, based in the Czech Republic. While it appears to be optimized for PCB milling and drilling, the company also shows it milling metals, wood, plastic, and even glass. The first video below shows the machine milling 0.1 mm traces in FR4; the scale of the operation only becomes apparent when a gigantic toothbrush enters the frame to clear away a little swarf. As if that weren’t enough, the machine then cuts traces on the other side of the board; vias created by filling drilled holes with copper rivets and peening them over with a mandrel and a few light hammer taps connect the two sides.

Prefer your boards with solder resist and silkscreening? Not a problem, at least judging by the second video, which shows a finished board getting coated with UV-cure resist and then having the machine mill away just the resist on the solder pads. We’re not sure how they deal with variations in board thickness or warping, but they sure have it dialed in. Regardless of how they optimized the process, it’s a pleasure to watch.

At about $2,600, these are not cheap machines, but they may make sense for someone needing high-quality boards with rapid turnaround. And who’s to say a DIY machine couldn’t do as good a job? We’ve seen plenty of them before, and covered the pros and cons of etching versus milling too.

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Already Impressive CNC Router Gets An Extra Axis

The type of CNC machine within the financial reach of most DIYers is generally a three-axis affair, with a modest work envelope and a spindle that never quite seems powerful enough. That’s not to say that we don’t covet such a machine for our own shop of course, but comparing small machines with the “big boy” five-axis tools might leave the home-gamer feeling a tad inadequate.

Luckily, there’s a fix that won’t necessarily break the bank: adding a fourth axis to your CNC router. [This Old Tony] tore into his CNC router – a build we’ve featured before and greatly admire – to add a machine spindle that lets him work with the machine much as if it was a CNC lathe. The first video below covers the mechanical part of the build, which involves welding and machining a sturdy assembly to hold a spindle connecting a four-jaw chuck to a Lexium MDrive, a stepper motor with integrated driver and feedback that makes it act more like a servo. [Old Tony] covered integrating the drive into Mach4 in a previous video.

The assembled machine spindle is a beefy looking affair that can smoothly ramp up to 3000 rpm and has decent enough holding torque to allow it to act as an indexing head in addition to a lathe. The second video below shows some tests turning aluminum and steel; we were surprised by how aggressive the cuts can be before stalling the spindle.

No, it’s not a Tormach or Haas or even a Pocket NC, but it’s a great addition to an already capable machine, and we’re looking forward to what [Old Tony] cranks out with it.

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Mug-O-Matic Plots On Coffee Mugs

There is something fascinating about watching an autonomous machine. An automatic car wash, a soda vending machine that picks up the product behind a window, a plotter, or a robot like a CNC or 3D printer are all interesting to watch. Although [EngineerDog] bills Mug-O-Matic as a tiny CNC, we think it is more of a plotter for coffee mugs. It’s still fun to watch though, as you can see in the video below.

The design has about 60 printed parts and uses a Sharpie at the business end. It accepts gcode and can even emblazon your favorite mug with our own Jolly Wrencher, so you know we like it.

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Scratch-Building A Supersized Laser Cutter

Now that 3D printers have more or less hit the mass market, hackers need a new “elite” tool to spend their time designing and fiddling with. Judging by the last couple of years, it looks like laser cutters will be taking over as the hacker tool du jour; as we’re starting to see more and more custom builds and modifications of entry-level commercial models. Usually these are limited to relatively small and low powered diode lasers, but as the following project shows, that’s not always the case.

This large format laser cutter designed and built by [Rob Chesney] is meticulously detailed on his blog, as well as in the in the video after the break. It’s made up of aluminium profile and a splattering of ABS 3D printed parts, and lives in an acrylic enclosure that’s uniquely isolated from the laser’s internal gantry. All told it cost about $2,000 USD to build, but considering the volume and features of this cutter that’s still a very fair price.

[Rob] carefully planned every aspect of this build, modeling the entire machine in CAD before actually purchasing any hardware. Interestingly enough his primary design constraint was the door to his shed: he wanted to build the largest possible laser cutter that could still be carried through it. That led to the final machine’s long and relatively shallow final dimensions. The design was also guided by a desire to minimize material waste, so when possible parts were designed to maximize how many could be cut from a one meter length of aluminum extrusion.

The laser features a movable Z axis that’s similar in design to what you might see in a Prusa-style 3D printer, with each corner of the gantry getting an 8 mm lead screw and smooth rod which are used in conjunction to lift and guide. All of the lead screws are connected to each other via pulleys and standard GT2 belt, but as of this version, [Rob] notes the Z axis must be manually operated. In the future he’ll be able to add in a stepper motor and automate it easily, but it wasn’t critical to get the machine running.

He used 3D printed parts for objects which had a relatively complex geometry, such as the laser tube holders and Z axis components, but more simplistic brackets were made out of cut acrylic. In some components, [Rob] used welding cement to bond two pieces of acrylic and thereby double the thickness. Large acrylic panels were also used for the laser’s outer enclosure, which was intentionally designed as a separate entity from the laser itself. He reasoned that this would make assembly easier and faster, as the enclosure would not have to be held to the same dimensional tolerances as it would have been if it was integrated into the machine.

[Rob] gives plenty of detail about all the finer points of water cooling, laser control electronics, aligning the mirrors, and really anything else you could possibly want to know about building your own serious laser cutter. If you’ve been considering building your own laser and have anything you’re curious or unsure about, there’s a good chance he addresses it in this build.

Short of having the fantastically good luck to find a laser cutter in the trash that you can refurbish, building your own machine may still be the best upgrade path if you outgrow your eBay K40.

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