Homebuilt CNC Software, Brewed To Taste

Mainstream productivity software from the big companies is usually pretty tight, these days. Large open source projects are also to a similar standard when it comes to look and feel, as well as functionality. It’s when you dive into more niche applications that you start finding ugly, buggy software, and CNC machining can be one of those niches. MillDroid is a CNC software platform designed by someone who had simply had enough, and decided to strike out on their own.

The build began with the developer sourcing some KFLOP motion control boards from Dynomotion. These boards aren’t cheap, but pack 16MB of RAM, a 100-gate FPGA, and a microcontroller with DSP hardware that allows the boards to control a variety of types of motor in real time. These boards have the capability to read GCODE and take the load off of the computer delivering the instructions. With the developer wanting to build something robust that moved beyond the ’90s style of parallel port control, these boards were the key to the whole show, also bringing the benefit of being USB compatible and readily usable with modern programming languages.

To keep things manageable and to speed development, the program was split into modules and coded using the author’s existing “Skeleton Framework” for windowed applications. These modules include a digital readout, a jogging control panel, as well as a tool for editing G-code inside the application.

For the beginner, it’s likely quite dense, and for the professional machinist, industry standard tools may well surpass what’s being done here. But for the home CNC builder who is sick of mucking around with buggy, unmaintained software from here and there, it’s a project that shows it doesn’t have to be that bad. We look forward to seeing what comes next!

Want to see what else is out there? We’ve done a run down of DIY-appropriate CNC software, too.

Sourcing your CNC Tools in 2016: Build Them

Perhaps the tolerances on today’s hobbyist machines just aren’t good enough for you, or perhaps the work area is just too cramped. Either way, there are times when an off-the-shelf solution just wont fit your needs, and you resolve to build your own CNC machine. Fortunately, none of us are alone in this endeavor because hobbyists have been building their own automation equipment for years. Whether you’re talking building the machine, generating the G-code, or interpreting that G-code into motor signal pulses, the DIY CNC community has evolved a sophisticated set of tools aimed at getting the job done.  I thought I’d take a tour of some of the hobbyist’s tools that hallmark 2016 as the best year yet to build your CNC machine.

Hardware

In the last few years, affordable extruded profiles and brackets have made leaps and bounds to satisfy a hungry DIY 3D printer community. Beyond 3D printers, these beams and brackets are a good start for some of our needs in the world of linear motion control. Here’s a quick look at a few components off-the-shelf.

Makerslide Extruded Profiles

ms_long_smUnless you’ve discovered a deal on eBay or AliExpress, building up a machine from precision linear rails can be a pricey ordeal. Linear rails offer us a rigid, wiggle-free guide for motion along a single axis, but in some cases, the cost needed for hobbyists to afford this precision is outside their budget. [Barton Dring] took the idea of guided linear motion and launched a custom extruded rail that enables bearings to slide freely along an axis. Dubbed Makerslide, this extruded rail features a groove embedded directly into the extrusion and aims to be compatible with most other 20-mm extruded profiles like those from Misumi and Rexroth.

OpenBuilds V-Grooved Rail Attachments

Open-Rail-Description
Image Credit: Ooznest

On a similar note, the folks at OpenBuilds took [Barton’s] concept in a slightly different direction. For many of us who have already committed to extrusions from one vendor and have our closets gushing with excess tubes, Open Rail is an extruded v-groove attachment that enables bearing-mounted plates to slide freely just like the extrusions of Makerslide. Unlike Makerslide, however, almost any 20-mm extrusion can be retrofitted with Open Rail, rather than requiring a specialized extrusion.

OpenBuilds Linear Actuator Kits

CNC machines encompass a wide variety of machine designs that spans far beyond this article’s scope. For conventional machines, however, a single motor drives a motion along a single axis. To add direction in a separate dimension, we can sometimes chain together two of the same linear motion units. The folks at OpenBuilds have taken this principle to heart offering single-axis systems as kits. With some creativity and forethought, users can develop a number of automated solutions based on the principle of appending multiple axes. Of course, the folks at OpenBuilds haven’t stumbled upon a never-before-seen solution. Misumi, Rexroth, and other professional automation equipment companies have been selling linear motion systems for years; however, their price range easily leaps beyond the 10K mark.

Not an End-All, but a Solid Start

Despite the design flexibility, neither Makerslide nor OpenBuilds is the all-encompassing solution for every CNC endeavor. Specifically, for rigid machines that can chew through steel, a structure built from bolted aluminum extrusions will be far less rigid than professional machines of a similar scale. Nevertheless, for machines that don’t experience heavy loads, like a 3D printer, a laser cutter, or even some small routers, both Makerslide and OpenBuilds offer an excellent starting point.

Software

With our hands full of stepper motors, extruded profiles, and belts, it’s time to start exploring a software solution to drive it all. While there are plenty of machine-specific solutions, I thought I’d highlight two that are flexible enough to be tuned to a custom machine.

G-code Interpreters

G-code interpreters do just that: they accept input commands in G-code (be it directly from a file or serially through a cable) and convert the commands to step and direction digital outputs with the right timings to produce the control signals for stepper motor drivers. In one sense, they’re the “brains” of the machine, taking the G-code “instruction set” and outputting behaviors that correspond to the input instructions.

LinuxCNC

axisubuntu
Image Credit: LinuxCNC Wiki

LinuxCNC spun out from a US-government-funded initiative to develop a motion control package for standards testing back in the 90s. Over time, it has evolved into a software package designed to turn a PC into a G-code interpreter, and it’s currently packaged as real-time Linux distribution. From your LinuxCNC-configured PC, you can simply connect your stepper motors, limit switches and other digital I/O devices to the PC’s parallel port which, in turn, outputs motor step and direction pulses to drive your physical hardware.

LinuxCNC isn’t just a G-code interpreter, though. The 15+ years of active development have given it a solid foundation which makes it one of the most adaptable software packages for developing custom machines. By enabling custom kinematics, users can drive non-Cartesian machines like SCARA arms. With a core operating system based on Debian Linux, users can link additional PC peripherals, like USB game controllers, to drive their machines. Some devoted software hackers have even fleshed out the current user interface to directly generate G-code for simple cuts, rather than simply run existing G-code.

Grbl

With over 7 years of active development, Grbl has proven itself to be simple, reliable G-code interpreter firmware for the Arduino Uno. Simply connect your motor controllers and limit switches to the Uno, and Grbl firmware handles the step and direction pulse timing for all 3 axes of your machine. Grbl doesn’t aim to be an all-encompassing interpreter like LinuxCNC, but in exchange it’s a far simpler solution that is relatively easy to set up and works for most, if not all, typical use-cases for a 3-axis machine.

Though Grbl drives the physical hardware, it still requires a serial interface to receive G-code instructions to execute. Fortunately, G-code-streaming packages exist: bCNC and UGS, which have been tested specifically with Grbl.

G-code Generators

Having a fancy CNC machine doesn’t say much if we can’t generate instructions to drive it to cut parts! We need a solution for generating G-code, and, once again, the open source software community has jumped in to provide several packages.

dxf2gcode

dxf2gcodeIt’s not unlikely that many of your designs may boil down to a collection of flat plates with simple features on them. For 2D milling, dxf2gcode simplifies the process of generating G-code based on an original design file, in this case: a dxf. The project also features automatic cutter compensation done in software, a very handy feature that will generate an offset toolpath based on the diameter of the tool and the type of cut (pocket or outside edge).

gcmc

gcmc
Image Credit: gcmc homepage

If you’ve ever tried writing G-code manually, you’ll quickly realize just how unreadable it is without having memorized the majority of the commands. GCMC is a front-end language aimed at producing human-readable machine routines. By abstracting away the unnecessary idiosyncrasies of the language, gcmc facilitates the generation of complex tool motions and patterns simply by tweaking a few parameters.

Doing the Research

Building your own CNC machine may just be your next labor of love, but unless you prefer to reinvent the wheel (and, hey, starting from first principles isn’t always a bad thing), it’s worth taking a look at the tomes of build logs, forum posts, and existing software from the gurus who have built CNCs before us. While I’ve highlighted a few of the more common tools in the land of hardware and software, this list is far from complete. So go forth! Do your research–and, of course, let us know what you find in the comments.