The world of Computer Numeric Control (CNC) and where we fit in

CNC Machines have been around for decades now. They are integral parts of large scale manufacturing. What has changed? These million dollar pieces of machinery have been scaled down to thousand-dollar machines for greater adoption by small businesses. Now we are at the point where these machines are small enough to serve the needs of consumers individually. The machines have been scaled to desktop sizes and their prices have dropped down to levels that are comparable to other similar personal electronics. Sooner than you think, these tools will be a part of your everyday life.

Routers and milling machines are standard machine shop tools which have been around since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Today the vertical mill is among the most common tools found in machine shops around the world, rivaled only by the lathe. The mill uses a rapidly rotating cutting tool to remove undesired material. A standard mill consists of a vertically mounted spindle which rotates at high speed. A variety of cutting tools can be inserted into the spindle and used to cut anything from wood to carbon steel. The spindle can be moved up or down, left or right, forward or backward by the operator using three hand cranks. This allows the operator to carve out any shape which can be made through the combination of these motions. Standard mills without any computerized support are difficult to control. When the operator is making a shape composed of straight lines, the operation is simple because only one handle is turned at a time. Making more complex shapes like curves or diagonal cuts requires that multiple handles turn simultaneously, which can be difficult. The concept of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) was introduced to solve this problem.

Computer Numerical Control allows a mill to be used to create complicated parts with minimal time needed to set up. This process is known as Computer Aided Machining (CAM). Computer Aided Design (CAD) is the process by which engineers and machinists use a computer to design a part to be produced. Almost all engineering design takes place on computers now. Without knowing anything about how the tools necessary to produce the part actually work, CAD tools allow users to design parts they wish to create. The CAD software generates the movements to be performed by the machine automatically. The strength of the CAD and CAM systems are that they allow a user to very rapidly move from design to production of an idea. These traits are especially desirable for small businesses, research labs, and individuals who do not have the resources necessary to have access to more conventional and large-scale means of production.

There is no clear distinction between a CNC Router and a Mill, however routers are typically used to cut soft materials such as woods and plastics, while mills are usually used to cut harder materials. Additionally, routers are often smaller in size when compared to mills. We classify our CNC machine as a CNC Router because we target applications that employ soft materials.

The design world is at a turning point where rapid prototyping technologies such as CNC milling, 3D printing, and laser cutting are almost unanimously regarded as technologies which will shape the future. Unfortunately, the cost of these technologies prevents most people from having access. The current state of the use of rapid prototyping technology is reminiscent of the distribution of computer technology in the 1970s. Universities and businesses make great use of these technologies, but for the average person, rapid prototyping is the subject of science fiction. Some students that are involved in specialized programs have the opportunity to experience rapid prototyping, but for most, hands-on experience is out of reach. Although the gap is closing, our machine is designed to close it further.

Artwork by Nicole Rusk

Artwork by Nicole Rusk

3D printers have gained a ton of attention in the last couple of years. CNC Routers and 3D Printers are different technologies, but have the ability to produce similar products. A 3D Printer is an additive technology that typically uses adhesive to glue small particles together or extrude hot plastic to build something from the ground up. A CNC machine is the opposite. It is a subtractive technology that allows one to place raw material inside, such as a wood block, and the machine mills the block into a desired shape or part. This dramatically increases the number of materials which can be used. Affordable 3D printers are typically limited to thermoplastics which may have undesirable health, aesthetic, weight, conductivity, or structural properties. A CNC router can work with countless materials which makes it is possible to select a material which has the required properties for a given application. This means that CNC routers can make aesthetically pleasing objects like the wood bridge of a violin, structurally demanding objects like the foam wing of a UAV, or an electrically conductive circuit board.

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Engineering students will benefit enormously from a low-cost CNC router. The ability to be comfortable with rapid prototyping technology is crucial to the economy of the future. However, this aspect of most engineering education is missing due to a lack of accessible hardware. Students are rarely allowed to interact with CNC machines in an unsupervised and exploratory manner due to their costs. The ability to explore these technologies is crucial for innovation of the future. The low-cost of our machine will guarantee its accessibility to students and open doors to undiscovered applications and uses.

There are a significant number of people whose enjoyment of hobbies could be enhanced by access to this technology. These other groups include model makers, RC hobbyists, artists, woodworkers, and tinkerers. Many of these groups would be willing to spend a couple hundred dollars to further their hobby, but unable to spend thousands. Hobbyists and artists will likely find creative and interesting uses for CNC technology that cannot be predicted by the engineering world.

On another note, design files for every single thing imaginable are populating a library that will soon be easily accessible to everyone. Just as you type in a search engine box “what is CNC”, you will be able to type “design file for smartphone windshield mount”. You will then download that file as you do a picture from your favorite social media website, and then open an image viewer program to finally click “Print” in the same way you do with your inkjet color printer. Seems futuristic? It is, and the reality of this is just around the corner. The world of engineering is in the midst of a change from being a discipline primarily limited by technical ability to one only limited by creative capability. We are approaching a future where the ability to imagine something comes hand in hand with the ability to create it.

The world of design is in the midst of a change from being a discipline primarily limited by technical ability to one only limited by creative capability. We are approaching a future where the ability to imagine something comes hand in hand with the ability to create it.

“CAM technology is the future and it should be available to everyone.” – Bar Smith

Our CNC Router is fueled by the spirit of a growing movement, known as the Maker Movement. The Maker Movement is a collection of people coming together to create technologies and platforms for anything that is Do-It-Yourself. The Maker Movement could be described as a response to mass production by individuals who want to feel more connected to the craftsmanship and design of the objects around us. The cost of manufacturing in relatively small numbers is falling every day, leading to an increase in the selection of almost everything. The rise of personal fabrication takes this idea to the limit, letting a consumer also be the designer and manufacturer of their own goods.

The Maker Movement is fulfilling the vision that one day individuals will be able to download and share physical objects then mill or print them from a desktop CNC router or 3D printer. For example, when you need to replace a broken part for a household item or want to create a dollhouse sofa replica, you will simply download a design and click “Print”.     

Glorified exhibitions of the energy that is powering the Maker Movement can be found at annual Maker Faires held around the world. We have had a blast at past faires and will be attending many more in the future. We hope to see you there!

Makesmith booth at the Bay Area Maker Faire 2014

Makesmith booth at the Bay Area Maker Faire 2014