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.

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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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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Things Learned From Hot Wire Cutting A Droid’s Body

One of [Bithead]’s passions is making Star Wars droids, and in the process of building the outer shell for one of them he decided to use hot wire foam cutting and make his own tools. Having the necessary parts on hand and having seen some YouTube videos demonstrating the technique, [Bithead] dove right in. Things didn’t go exactly to plan but happily he decided to share what did and didn’t work, and in the end the results were serviceable.

[Bithead] built two hot wire cutters with nichrome wire. The first was small, but the second was larger and incorporated some design refinements. He also got an important safety reminder when he first powered on with his power supply turned up too high; the wire instantly turned red and snapped with an audible bang. He belatedly realized he was foolishly wearing neither gloves nor eye protection.

When it came to use his self-made tools, one of the biggest discoveries was that not all foam is equal in the eyes of a hot wire cutter. This is one of those things that’s common knowledge to experienced people, but isn’t necessarily obvious to a newcomer. A hot wire cutter that made clean and effortless cuts in styrofoam did no such thing with the foam he was using to cast his droid’s outer shell. Still, he powered through it and got serviceable results. [Bithead]’s blog post may not have anything new to people who have worked with foam and hot wire cutters before, but if you’re new to such things you can use it to learn from his experiences. And speaking of improving experiences, [Bithead] most recently snazzed up the presentation of his R2-D2 build by getting tricky with how he hides his remote control.

Piles Of Foam With A Hot Wire Slicer


There are a million things you can do with foam, from some very impressive RC airplanes, all the way up to full-scale planes you can fly off into the wild blue yonder. Cutting foam, though, that’s a problem, and your best option is usually a hot wire foam cutter. [Darcy] put up some plans for a very nice bow cutter, but there’s also some experimentation for a foam slicer – a hot wire machine that takes a foam part and slices it like a smokehouse ham.

The bow-style cutter features laser cut parts, a pair of 1/4-20 bolts, a power supply, and about a foot of nichrome wire. It’s the bare minimum for cutting foam, but it seems to work really, really well.

The hot wire foam slicer is a much more interesting contraption, capable of making multiple thin sheets out of foam. Basically, it’s a laser cut tray with a bolt hole pattern running along the sides. Put two bolts along the side, loop some nichrome wire around the screw flights, and you have a way to cut foam in thicknesses of about 1/20th of an inch. Great if you’re trying to skin a model in very thin depron, or you just can’t find the right thickness of foam for your project.

CNC Hot Wire Cutter From Scanners


[Raul] built a CNC hot wire cutter that he uses for cutting shapes out of foam. His device uses two flat bed scanners to provide two planes of motion. One scanner arm has the foam mounted on it and provides the Y-axis movement. The other scanner has the hot wire mounted on it and provides the X-axis movement. The cutting wire is mounted on a flexed bow made from heavy gauge coat hanger wire.

He tapped into the logic board of one scanner to gain access to the motor movements. The other is connected through a couple of H-bridges. Both are controlled by an Atmel AVR ATmega128 which in turn takes its commands from a connection with a computer printer port. A python program uses vector graphic files in SVG format and traces the outline for cutting.

We’ve got a video of this in action after the break. At our request, [Raul] took some time to post a set of pictures and make comments on them. Thanks for the hard work and great job! Continue reading “CNC Hot Wire Cutter From Scanners”