Review: LinkSprite Mini CNC

It’s a great time to be a hobbyist. No matter how you feel about the Arduino/Raspberry Pi effect, the influx of general enthusiasm and demand it has created translates to better availability of components, a broader community, and loads of freely available knowledge. When people have access to knowledge and ideas, great things can happen. Tools that were once restricted to industrial use become open source, and the price of entry-level versions goes into a nosedive.

As we’ve seen over the last several years, the price of cheap 3D printers keeps falling while the bar of quality keeps rising. It’s happening with laser cutters and carving tools, too. Strolling through Microcenter a few weeks ago, I spotted a new toy on the back wall next to the 3D printers. It was LinkSprite’s desktop mini CNC. They didn’t have one out on display, but there were two of them in boxes on the shelf. And boy, those boxes were small. Laughably small. I wondered, could this adorable machine really be any good? To some, the $200 price tag suggests otherwise. To me, the price tag made it justifiable, especially considering that the next price point for a hobby CNC mill is at least twice as much. I took my phone out and stood there frantically looking for reviews, documentation, anything that was available. It seemed that the general, if sparse consensus is that this thing isn’t a total waste of money. Oh, and there’s a wiki.

According to LinkSprite’s wiki, this little machine will engrave wood, plastic, acrylic, PVC, and PCBs. It will specifically not engrave metal (PCB copper notwithstanding). I’m a bit leery of the chemicals used in the PCB etching process, so the idea of engraving them instead was especially tempting. I pulled the trigger.

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Man-in-the-Middle Jog Pendant: Two Parts Make Easier Dev Work

In a project, repetitive tasks that break the flow of development work are incredibly tiresome and even simple automation can make a world of difference. [Simon Merrett] ran into exactly this while testing different stepper motors in a strain-wave gear project. The system that drives the motor accepts G-Code, but he got fed up with the overhead needed just to make a stepper rotate for a bit on demand. His solution? A grbl man-in-the-middle jog pendant that consists of not much more than a rotary encoder and an Arduino Nano. The unit dutifully passes through any commands received from a host controller, but if the encoder knob is turned it sends custom G-Code allowing [Simon] to dial in a bit acceleration-controlled motor rotation on demand. A brief demo video is below, which gives an idea of how much easier it is to focus on the nuts-and-bolts end of hardware when some simple motor movement is just a knob twist away.

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Coasty The Coaster Toaster

Whether or not you feel the need to laser cut custom drink coasters, you have to be impressed by the amount of thought that went into Coasty.

They say that justice is blind, and while we can’t promise you anything at your next court date, we can at least say with confidence that we’re not the kind of people who will turn down a good hack just because it’s held together with rubber bands and positive vibes. If it works it works, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like. Having said that, we’re blown away by how incredibly finished this particular project is.

Coasty, designed and built by [Bart Dring] is one of those projects that elevate a hack into something that looks like it could be a commercial product. It takes in a common pulpboard coaster and laser cuts any design you want. It’s just the right size, with just the right components because this is Coasty’s purpose. It has a slot to feed in the coaster, and uses this as one of the axes during the laser cutting process, with the laser’s left to right movement as the other. This method makes for a smaller overall footprint and means you never need to open the protective enclosure for normal operation.

One of the most striking elements of Coasty is how much of the hardware is 3D printed. If it isn’t a motor, smooth rod, or other mechanical component, it’s printed. We’re used to seeing 3D printed parts as brackets or mounts, but rarely do you see an entire chassis printed like this. Not only does it take a serious amount of forethought and design, but the print time itself can be quite prohibitive.

But by designing and printing the majority of Coasty, it really gives it a professional look that would have been harder to achieve if it was a bundle of aluminum extrusions.

The back of Coasty features an exposed PCB “motherboard” with a dizzying array of plug-in boards. Hardware like the stepper drivers, Bluetooth radio, and laser power supply are separate modules for ease of maintenance and development. There’s a few neat hardware features integrated into the motherboard as well, like the IR sensor for detecting the edge of the coaster.

The printed filter is an especially nice touch. Containing a scrap of commercially available carbon cloth intended for home air filters, Coasty is able to cut down on the smoke that is invariably produced when blasting cardboard with a 3W 450nm laser.

It turns out that custom drink coasters are serious business for some hackers out there. This isn’t the first time somebody has gone all out to make their mark while simultaneously preventing marks.

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Drop-in Controller for eBay K40 Laser Engraver Gets Results

[Paul de Groot] wrote in to let us know about a drop-in controller replacement he designed for those economical K40 laser engravers that are everywhere on eBay. With the replacement controller, greatly improved engraving results are possible along with a simplified toolchain. Trade in the proprietary software and that clunky security dongle for Inkscape and a couple of plugins! [Paul] felt that the work he accomplished was too good to keep to himself, and is considering a small production run.

Laser engravers are in many ways not particularly complex devices; a motion controller moves the head in x and y, and the laser is turned on or off when needed. But of course, the devil is in the details and there can be a surprising amount of stuff between having a design on your screen and getting it cut or engraved in the machine. Designing in Inkscape, exporting to DXF, importing the DXF to proprietary software (which requires a USB security dongle to run), cleaning up any DXF import glitches, then finally cutting the job isn’t unusual. And engraving an image with varying shades and complex dithering? The hardware may be capable, but the stock software and controller? Not so much. It’s easy to see why projects to replace the proprietary controllers and software with open-source solutions have grown.

Cheap laser engravers may come with proprietary controllers and software, but they don’t need to stay that way. Other efforts we have seen in this area include LaserWeb, which provides a browser-based interface to a variety of open-source motion controllers like Grbl or Smoothieware. And if you’re considering a laser engraver, take a few minutes to learn from the mistakes of other people.

Open-Source Laser Cutter Software gets Major Update, New Features

The LaserWeb project recently released version 3, with many new features and improvements ready to give your laser cutter or engraver a serious boost in capabilities! On top of that, new 3-axis CNC support means that the door is open to having LaserWeb do for other CNC tools what it has already done for laser cutting and engraving.

LaserWeb BurnsLaserWeb3 supports different controllers and the machines they might be connected to – whether they are home-made systems, CNC frames equipped with laser diode emitters (such as retrofitted 3D printers), or one of those affordable blue-box 40W Chinese lasers with the proprietary controller replaced by something like a SmoothieBoard.

We’ve covered the LaserWeb project in the past but since then a whole lot of new development has been contributed, resulting in better performance with new features (like CNC mode) and a new UI. The newest version includes not only an improved ability to import multiple files and formats into single multi-layered jobs, but also Smoothieware Ethernet support and a job cost estimator. Performance in LaserWeb3 is currently best with Smoothieware, but you can still save and export GCODE to use it with Grbl, Marlin, EMC2, or Mach3.

The project is open to contributions from CNC / Javascript / UX developers to bring it to the next level. If you’re interested in helping bring the project even further, and helping it do for 3-axis CNC what it did for Laser Cutting, project coordinator [Peter van der Walt] would like you to head to the github repository!

We recently shared a lot of great information on safe homebrew laser cutter design. Are you making your own laser cutting machine, or retrofitting an existing one? Let us know about it in the comments!

Pen-Plotter Firmware Written Completely in Ada

[Fabian Chouteau] built a plotter out of CD-ROM parts. Yawn, you say? Besides being a beautiful physical build, this one has a twist. He wrote the software and firmware for the entire project himself, in Ada.

Ada is currently number two on our list of oddball programming languages that should be useful for embedded programming. It’s vaguely Pascal-y, but with some modern object-oriented twists. It was developed for safety-critical, real-time embedded systems (by the US Department of Defense), and is used in things like airplanes, rockets, and the French TGV trains. If that sounds like overkill for your projects, [Fabian]’s project shows that it’s still very tractable.

In his GitHub, he re-implements the GRBL G-code generator and then writes a GUI front-end for it. In his writeup, he mentions that the firmware and its simulator for the front-end use exactly the same code which is quite a nice trick, and guarantees no (firmware) surprises when moving from the modelled device to the real thing.

We looked quickly around for Ada resources and came up with: GNAT, the GNU Ada compiler, and its derivatives: GNAT for ARM (STM32-flavor), ARM-Ada (LPC21xx flavor), AVR-Ada, and MSP430-Ada.

Any of you out there use Ada in embedded work? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: The Green Machine

For Hackers, rapid prototyping is made easier using basic building blocks such as the Raspberry Pi, Arduino and the huge variety of add on shields for home brew projects. But we don’t see too many real world Industrial applications or machines built using these off-the-shelf electronics. [SlyScience] built The Green Machine – an industrial grade, automated spray painting device to help coat polycarbonate tubes consistently.

The Green Machine is essentially a linear drive that can move a spray gun across a spinning clear tube and coat it evenly with the desired color. These tubes are used as color filters – they slide over standard T5, T8 or T12 fluorescent lamps – and are used in advertising, special effects, films and similar applications. For almost 10 years prior to this machine, the task was done manually. The HPLV (high pressure, low volume) spray gun used for this process needed skilled hands to get consistent results. It was easy to ruin a tube and cleaning them was not possible. [SlyScience] figured things out on the go – teaching himself and figuring out all of the software and hardware pieces of the puzzle. The welded steel frame is about the only “custom” part in this build. Everything else is COTS. Check out the video of The Green Machine in action below, and if you have any tips to help improve the build, chime in with your comments.

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