I got a relatively inexpensive 6040 CNC machine, and have been spending most weekends making the thing work, and then cutting stuff, learning the toolchain, and making subsequent improvements. Probably 90% of my machine time has been on making improvements. It’s not that the machine was bad — I got the version with ballscrews and a decently solid frame — but it’s that it somehow didn’t work together as a whole. It’s just an incredibly unbalanced design.
Let’s start with the spindle motor. It’s a 2.2 kW water-cooled beast that is capable of putting tons of work into a piece and spinning at very high speed. Yet to keep up with the high speed spindle, the motors that move it around would have to be capable of high speeds as well — it’s a feeds and speeds thing if you’re not a CNC geek. And they can’t. Instead, the stepper motors that came with the kit are designed for maximum force at low speeds. Which can make sense for some machines, but for one with a slightly flexible X-axis like this one, that’s wasted as well. The frame just can’t handle the low-end grunt that the motors are capable of, so it can’t take advantage of the spindle’s power either. The design is all over the place.
Over the last two months’ of weekends, I’ve been going through this iterative procedure of asking “what is my limiting factor right now?”, working on fixing that thing up, running it some, and then asking the question again. And it’s a good general procedure, and I believe that it’s getting me to the machine I want at the minimum cost of time, money, and effort.
At first, it was the driver hardware/software with its emulated USB parallel port, so I swapped out the controller for an Arduino running GRBL, soldered directly to the DB-25 that comes out of the back. At least it can put out pulses fast enough to order the motors around, but they would still stall out at high speeds. Swapping the stepper motors out for a high-speed pair only cost me €40, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just put the right motors on in the first place. The machine now travels fast enough to make use of the high-speed spindle, and I’m flying through plywood and plastics without leaving burn marks. It’s a huge win for not much money.
The final frontier is taking big bites out of aluminum. The spindle can do it, but I fear I’m up against the frame’s rigidity on the X-axis. For whatever reason, they went with unsupported rods on the X, which are significantly more flexible than an axis that’s backed up by more metal. And this is where the limiting factor may actually be my time and patience, rather than money. I just can’t bear to disassemble and reassemble the thing again. So for now, it’s going to be small nibbles, taking advantage of the machine’s speed, if not yet the spindle’s full horsepower.
But it’s odd, because this machine is a bundle of good parts. It’s just that they haven’t been chosen to work together optimally; the frame doesn’t work with the stepper motors, which don’t work with the spindle. If they went through my procedure of saying “what’s the limiting factor?” they could have saved themselves €100 by just shipping it with a wimpier spindle, which would have been a balanced, if anemic, machine. Or they could have built it with the right motors for more speed. Or supported rails for more grunt. Or both!
I’ll never know why they quit optimizing their design when they did. Maybe they never got past the slow USB/parallel port speed? But I’m near the end of my path, and I can tell because the limiting ingredient isn’t a simple upgrade, or even mere money anymore, but my own willpower.
How can you tell when you’re at the top of a mountain in a dense fog? A step you take in any direction would lead you downhill. How can you tell when you’re satisfied with a project’s state? When you don’t have the need, or desire, to undertake the next most obvious improvement.