Hackaday Prize 2023: Machining Metals With Sparks

Working with metals can present a lot of unique challenges even for those with a fairly well-equipped shop. Metals like aluminum and some types of steel can be cut readily with grinders and saws, but for thick materials or some hardened steels, or when more complex cuts need to be made, mechanical cutting needs to be reconsidered in favor of something electric like electrical discharge machining (EDM) or a plasma cutter. [Norbert] has been on the path of building his own EDM machine and walks us through the process of generating a spark and its effects on some test materials.

Armed with a microscope, a homemade high-voltage generator, drill bit, and a razor blade to act as the workpiece, [Norbert] begins by experimenting with electrical discharges by bringing the energized drill bit close to the razor to determine the distance needed for effective electrical machining. Eventually the voltage is turned up a bit to dive into the effects of higher voltage discharges on the workpiece. He also develops a flushing system using de-ionized water, and then finally a system to automate the discharges and the movement of the tool.

While not a complete system yet, the videos [Norbert] has created so far show a thorough investigation of this metalworking method as well as some of the tricks for getting a setup like this working. EDM can be a challenging method for cutting metal as we’ve seen before with this similar machine which uses wire as the cutting tool, but some other builds we’ve seen with more robust electrodes have shown some more promise.

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CNC Feeds And Speeds, Explained As A First-Timer

If you’ve ever looked into CNC cutting tools, you’ve probably heard the term “feeds and speeds”. It refers to choosing the speed at which to spin the cutting tool, and how fast to plow it into the material being cut. They’re important to get right, and some of the reasons aren’t obvious. This led [Callan Bryant] to share his learned insights as a first-timer. It turns out there are excellent (and somewhat non-intuitive) reasons not to simply guess at the correct values!

A table of variables and how they relate to one another (click to enlarge).

The image above shows a tool damaged by overheating. [Callan] points out that as a novice, one might be inclined to approach a first cutting jobs conservatively, with a low feed rate. But doing this can have an unexpected consequence: a tool that overheats due to spinning too quickly while removing too little material.

CNC cutting creates a lot of heat from friction, and one way to remove that heat is by having the tool produce shavings, which help carry heat away. If a tool is making dust instead of shavings — for example if the feed rate is too conservative — the removed pieces will be too small to carry significant energy, and the tool can overheat.

[Callan] makes a table of variables at work in a CNC system in order to better understand their relationship before getting into making a formula for calculating reasonable feed and speed rates. Of course, such calculations are a reasonable starting point only, and it’s up to the operator to ensure things are happening as they should for any given situation. As our own Elliot Williams observed, CNC milling is a much more manual process than one might think.

Cutting Metals With A Diode Laser?

Hobbyist-grade laser cutters can be a little restrictive as to the types and thicknesses of materials that they can cut. We’re usually talking about CO2 and diode-based machines here, and if you want to cut non-plastic sheets, you’re usually going to be looking towards natural materials such as leather, fabrics, and thin wood.

But what about metals? It’s a common beginner’s question, often asked with a resigned look, that they already know the answer is going to be a hard “no. ” However, YouTuber [Chad] decided to respond to some comments about the possibility of cutting metal sheets using a high-power diode laser, with a simple experiment to actually determine what the limits actually are.

Using an XTool D1 Pro 20W as a testbed, [Chad] tried a variety of materials including mild steel, stainless, aluminium, and brass sheets at a variety of thicknesses. Steel shim sheets in thicknesses from one to eight-thousandths of an inch appeared to be perfectly cuttable, with an appropriate air assist and speed settings, with thicker sheets needing a good few passes. You can definitely see the effect of excess heat in the workpiece, resulting in some discoloration and noticeable warping, but those issues can be mitigated. Copper and aluminium weren’t touched by the beam at all, likely due to the extra reflectivity, but we do have to wonder if appropriate surface treatments could improve matters.

Obviously, we’ve seen that diode lasers can have an impact on metals, simply smearing a little mustard on the workpiece seems to make marking a snap. Whilst we’re on the subject of diode lasers, you can get a lot of mileage from just strapping such a laser module onto a desktop CNC.

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Autonomous Mower Hits Snag

Interfacing technology and electronics with the real world is often fairly tricky. Complexity and edge cases work their way in to every corner of a project like this; just ask anyone who has ever tried to operate a rover on Mars, make a hydroponics garden, or build almost any robotics project. Even those of us who simply own a consumer-grade printer are flummoxed by the ways in which they can fail when manipulating single sheets of paper. This robotic lawnmower is no exception, driving its creator [TK] to extremes to get it to mow his lawn.

[TK] actually had a platform for his autonomous mower ready to go thanks to a previous build using this solar-powered robot to explore the Australian outback. Adding another motor to handle the grass trimming seemed simple at first and he set about wiring it all up and interfacing it to the robot. After the first iteration he found the robot was moving too fast to effectively cut the grass, so he added a more powerful cutting motor and a gearbox to help the mower crawl more slowly over the lawn. Disaster struck when his 3D printed mount for the steel cutting blades shattered, but with [TK] uninjured he pushed on with more improvements.

As it stands right now, the mower can effectively cut the grass moving forward even with the plastic-only cutting blades that [TK] is using now for safety reasons. The mower stripped its reverse gear so there still are some improvements to make before this robot is autonomously cutting the lawn without supervision. Normally we see lawnmowers retrofitted with robotics rather than robotics retrofitted with a lawnmower, but we’re excited to see any approach that lets us worry about one less household chore.

Thanks to [Rob] for the tip!

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World's longest hacksaw

Fail Of The Week: A Bigger Hacksaw Isn’t A Better Hacksaw

If we’re being honest, the main reason to buy a power tool is to avoid the pain of using one’s muscles. Oh sure, we dress it up with claims that a power tool will make us more productive, or give better results, but more often than not it’s the memory of how your forearm feels after a day of twisting a screwdriver that makes you buy a cordless driver.

It appears that [Artisan Makes] has a high tolerance for pain, seeing how the main prep tool in his metal shop is a plain old hacksaw. So in an effort to speed up his stock prep, he turned not to a bandsaw or cutoff saw, but instead built the world’s silliest hacksaw. It’s the metalworking equivalent of the two-man bucksaws that lumberjacks used to fell trees before chainsaws came along, and at a meter and half in length, it’s about the size of one too. Modifying the frame of his trusty hacksaw was easy — he just popped the end pieces off and attached them to an extra-long piece of tube stock. Finding a 1.5-meter hacksaw blade was the main challenge; not exactly a big-box store item, that. So a section of metal-cutting bandsaw blade was modified to fit the frame, and it was off to the races.

Or not. The video below tells the tale of woe, which starts with the fact that [Artisan]’s shop is too small for the hilariously long hacksaw. Solving the fixturing problems didn’t soo much to help, though — there was no way to tension the blade enough to get it to stop wobbling during cutting. It was also clear that the huge saw wasn’t able to apply enough downforce on the stock to get good cuts. Maybe with a second set of hands, though…

There are plenty of ways to improve hacksawing in the shop, and while this isn’t one of them, we sure appreciate the chuckle we got out of it. And you really should check out [Artisan Makes]’ channel — his more serious stuff is really good.

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Keep The Sparks Away With A Plasma Cutting Table

For one-off projects or prototypes it’s not uncommon for us to make do with whatever workspace we have on hand. Using a deck railing as an impromptu sawhorse, for example, is one that might be familiar to anyone who owns a circular saw, but [Daniel] has a slightly different situation. He had been setting up metal workpieces on random chunks of brick in order to use his plasma cutter, but just like the home handyman who gets tired of nicking their deck with a saw, he decided to come up with a more permanent solution and built a custom plasma cutting table.

Plasma cutting has a tendency to throw up a lot of sparks, so most commercial offerings for plasma cutting tables include a water bath to catch all of the debris from the cutting process. [Daniel] builds his table over a metal tub to hold some water for this purpose. The table itself is built out of aluminum and designed to be built without welding even though most people with plasma cutters probably have welders as well. The frame is designed to be exceptionally strong and includes curved slats which add to the strength of the table. The table is also designed to be portable, so the curved slats stay in place when the table is moved.

While this might seem like an average metal table at first glance, the table is actually being designed with a homemade CNC machine in mind which [Daniel] is working on. The CNC plasma cutter needs a sturdy, flat surface and can’t be set up on bricks in the driveway, so this table suits both [Daniel]’s immediate needs to not shower himself in sparks every time he cuts something and also his future CNC machine’s need for a sturdy, flat workspace. We look forward to seeing that build being completed but in the meantime take a look at this motorized plasma cutter which has the beginnings of a CNC machine if in one direction only.

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File testing rig

Science Vs Internet Trolls: Testing Another Kind Of File System

No matter what you do or say on the Internet, you’re always doing it wrong. Keyboard commandos are ready to pounce and tell you how it’s “ackchyually” supposed to be done. And so it was of little surprise when [Jason] of Fireball Tools was taken to task by the armchair millwright for his supposedly deficient method of filing metal.

But [Jason] chose to fight back not with words but deeds, building a system to test alternative methods of filing. His filing style is to leave the file in contact with the stock on both the front- and back-strokes, which enraged those who claim that a file must never be dragged back over the workpiece, lest the teeth become dull. The first video below shows the build of the test rig, which leveraged his enormous Cinncinatti shaper as the prime mover, as well as a pneumatic jig to hold the workpiece and imitate both styles of filing. Part two below shows the test rig in action, and [Jason] really outdoes himself with his experimental approach. He tested three different grades of Pferd files — nothing but the best, no expense spared — and did duplicates of each run using both the Internet-approved style and his lazier style.

The result? We won’t spoil that for you, but suffice it to say that the hive mind isn’t always right. And what’s more, [Jason]’s careful myth-busting yielded a few interesting and unexpected results. His channel is full of great shop tips and interesting builds, so check him out if you want to see how metalworking is done.

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