How Much Is Too Much?

I definitely tend towards minimalism in my personal projects. That often translates into getting stuff done with the smallest number of parts, or the cheapest parts, or the lowest tech. Oddly enough that doesn’t extend to getting the project done in the minimum amount of time, which is a resource no less valuable than money or silicon. The overkill road is often the smoothest road, but I’ll make the case for taking the rocky, muddy path. (At least sometimes.)

There are a bunch of great designs for CNC hot-wire foam cutters out there, and they range from the hacky to the ridiculously over-engineered, with probably most of them falling into the latter pile. Many of the machines you’ll see borrow heavily from their nearest cousins, the CNC mill or the 3D printer, and sport hardened steel rails or ballscrews and are constructed out of thick MDF or even aluminum plates.

All a CNC foam cutter needs to do is hold a little bit of tension on a wire that gets hot, and pass it slowly and accurately through a block of foam, which obligingly melts out of the way. The wire moves slowly, so the frame doesn’t need to handle the acceleration of a 3D printer head, and it faces almost no load so it doesn’t need any of the beefy drives and ways of the CNC mill. But the mechanics of the mill and printer are so well worked out that most makers don’t feel the need to minimize, simply build what they already know, and thereby save time. They build a machine strong enough to carry a small child instead of a 60 cm length of 0.4 mm wire that weighs less than a bird’s feather.

I took the opposite approach, building as light and as minimal as possible from the ground up. (Which is why my machine still isn’t finished yet!) By building too little, too wobbly, or simply too janky, I’ve gotten to see what the advantages of the more robust designs are. Had I started out with an infinite supply of v-slot rail and ballscrews, I wouldn’t have found out that they’re overkill, but if I had started out with a frame that resisted pulling inwards a little bit more, I would be done by now.

Overbuilding is expedient, but it’s also a one-way street. Once you have the gilded version of the machine up and running, there’s little incentive to reduce the cost or complexity of the thing; it’s working and the money is already spent. But when your machine doesn’t quite work well enough yet, it’s easy enough to tell what needs improving, as well as what doesn’t. Overkill is the path of getting it done fast, while iterated failure and improvement is the path of learning along the way. And when it’s done, I’ll have a good story to tell. Or at least that’s what I’m saying to myself as I wait for my third rail-holder block to finish printing.

Interactive CNC Foam Cutter Churns Out Abstract Art

Foam is certainly an indispensable raw material for various craft and construction projects. Any serious sculptor however, inevitably grows tired of grinding through a foam block using a simple preheated utensil. The next step up, is to assemble a simple but thoroughly effective hot wire cutting contraption, formed out of a thin guitar wire held taut on a “C” shaped mounting frame. Finally, the addition of some electronics to regulate the power delivery makes this simple tool useful for most settings.

[Freddie] has taken this basic idea a step further, by building a complete multi-axis CNC foam cutter intended as an interactive exhibit on computational art. The CNC has the traditional three Cartesian axes but the platform hosting the foam piece can also rotate, introducing an additional degree of freedom. As this is indented to be controlled by attendees, there is no G-code in the mix, rather the inputs of an Xbox controller are applied directly to the work piece.

What is very interesting is how the resulting tool path is visualised and displayed. [Freddie] explains that while the user input tool path could be generated and displayed as equivalent G-code, it does not capture and convey the inherent organic nature of the finished pieces. The solution [Freddie] came up with is to display the toolpath much like a series of musical notes!

We would have loved to have a go at this machine in person, but seeing that isn’t possible in the current circumstances, you can either build a simpler machine we featured earlier or [Freddie] could perhaps fire up a camera and let us control it via the interweb, with a live video feed ofcourse!

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Dual-Wielding Robot Carves 3D Shapes From Foam With Warped Wire

“Every block of expanded polystyrene foam has a statue inside it and it is the task of the dual-arm hot wire-wielding robot to discover it.” — [Michelangelo], probably.

Be prepared to have your mind blown by this dual-wielding hot-wire 3D foam cutter (PDF). We’ve all seen simple hot-wire cutters before, whether they be manual-feed cutters or CNC-controlled like a 3D-printer. The idea is to pass current through a wire to heat it up just enough to melt a path as it’s guided through a block of polystyrene foam. Compared to cutting with a knife or a saw, hot-wire cuts are smooth as silk and produces mercifully little of that styrofoam detritus that gets all over your workspace.

But hot-wire cutters can’t do much other than to make straight cuts, since the wire must be kept taut. “RoboCut”, though, as [Simon Duenser] and his colleagues at ETH Zurich call their creation, suffers from no such limitations. Using an ABB YuMi, a dual-arm collaborative robot, they devised a method of making controlled curved cuts through foam by using a 1-mm thick deformable rod rather than a limp and floppy wire for the cutting tool. The robot has seven degrees of freedom on each arm, and there’s only so much the rod can deform before being permanently damaged, so the kinematics involved are far from trivial. Each pass through the foam is calculated to remove as much material as possible, and multiple passes are needed to creep up on the final design.

The video below shows the mesmerizing sweeps needed to release the Stanford bunny trapped within the foam, as well as other common 3D test models. We’re not sure it’s something easily recreated by the home-gamer, but it sure is fun to watch.

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Bricking Your 3D Printer, In A Good Way

In our vernacular, bricking something is almost never good. It implies that something has gone very wrong indeed, and that your once-useful and likely expensive widget is now about as useful as a brick. Given their importance to civilization, that seems somewhat unfair to bricks, but it gets the point across.

It turns out, though, that bricks can play an important role in 3D-printing in terms of both noise control and print quality. As [Stefan] points out in the video below, living with a 3D printer whirring away on a long print can be disturbing, especially when the vibrations of the stepper motors are transmitted into and amplified by a solid surface, like a benchtop. He found that isolating the printer from the resonant surface was the key. While the stock felt pad feet on his Original Prusa i3 Mk 3S helped, the best results were achieved by building a platform of closed-cell packing foam and a concrete paver block. The combination of the springy foam and the dampening mass of the paver brought the sound level down almost 8 dBA.

[Stefan] also thoughtfully tested his setups on print quality. Machine tools generally perform better with more mass to damp unwanted vibration, so it stands to reason that perching a printer on top of a heavy concrete slab would improve performance. Even though the difference in quality wasn’t huge, it was noticeable, and coupled with the noise reduction, it makes the inclusion of a paver and some scraps of foam into your printing setup a no-brainer.

Not content to spend just a couple of bucks on a paver for vibration damping? Then cast a composite epoxy base for your machine — either with aluminum or with granite.

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DIY Closed-Cell Silicone Foam

Most of us have a junk drawer, full of spare parts yanked from various places, but also likely stocked with materials we bought for a project but didn’t use completely. Half a gallon of wood glue, a pile of random, scattered resistors, or in [Ken]’s case, closed-cell silicone foam. Wanting to avoid this situation he set about trying to make his own silicone foam and had a great degree of success.

Commercial systems typically rely on a compressed gas of some sort to generate the foam. Ken also wanted to avoid this and kept his process simple by using basic (pun intended) chemistry to generate the bubbles. A mixture of vinegar and baking soda created the gas. After a healthy amount of trial and error using silicone caulk and some thinner to get the mixture correct, he was able to generate a small amount of silicone foam. While there only was a bit of foam, it was plenty for his needs. All without having a stockpile of extra foam or needing to buy any specialized equipment.

We appreciate this project for the ingenuity of taking something relatively simple (an acid-base reaction) and putting it to use in a way we’ve never seen before. While [Ken] doesn’t say directly on the project page what he uses the foam for, perhaps it or a similar type of foam could be used for building walk-along gliders.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Infinite Flying Glider

If you’ve exhausted your list of electronics projects over the past several weeks of trying to stay at home, it might be time to take a break from all of that and do something off the wall. [PeterSripol] shows us one option by building a few walkalong gliders and trying to get them to fly forever.

Walkalong gliders work by following a small glider, resembling a paper airplane but made from foam, with a large piece of cardboard. The cardboard generates an updraft which allows the glider to remain flying for as long as there’s space for it. [PeterSripol] and his friends try many other techniques to get these tiny gliders, weighing in at around half a gram, to stay aloft for as long as possible, including lighting several dozen tea candles to generate updrafts, using box fans, and other methods.

If you really need some electricity in your projects, the construction of the foam gliders shows a brief build of a hot wire cutting tool using some nichrome wire attached to a piece of wood, and how to assemble the gliders so they are as lightweight as possible. It’s a fun project that’s sure to be at least several hours worth of distraction, or even more if you have a slightly larger foam glider and some spare RC parts.

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CNC Hot-Wire Cutter Gives Form To Foam

Rapid prototyping tools are sometimes the difference between a project getting off the ground and one that stays strictly on paper. A lightweight, easy-to-form material is often all that’s needed to visualize a design and make a quick judgment on how to proceed. Polymeric foams excel in such applications, and a CNC hot-wire foam cutter is a tool that makes dealing with them quick and easy.

We’re used to seeing CNC machines where a lot of time and expense are put into making the frame as strong and rigid as possible. But [HowToMechatronics] knew that the polystyrene foam blocks he’d be using would easily yield to a hot nichrome wire, minimizing the cutting forces and the need for a stout frame. But the aluminum extrusions, 3D-printed connectors. and linear bearings he used still make for a frame stiff enough to give clean, accurate cuts. The addition of a turntable to the bed is a nice touch, turning the tool into a 2.5D machine. The video below details the construction and goes into depth on the toolchain [HowToMechatronics] used to go from design to G-code, including the tricks he used for making a continuous path, as well as integrating the turntable to make three-dimensional designs.

Plenty of hot-wire foam cutters have graced our pages before, everything from tiny hand-held cutters to a hot-wire “table saw” for foam. We like the effort put into this one, though, and the possibilities it opens up.

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