Home > I Made a Thing! > The CNC Odyssey

The CNC Odyssey

This one took a while.  Whereas most of these projects go through conception, design, build and whatever comes after build within a few days, weeks or even months, this one took around two years start to finish.  The reason for that is an initial total lack of background on my part–I didn’t know electronics, embedded programming, hardware design, or computer-aided manufacturing.  But first thing’s first–what is it?  (sigh, I miss the days when it was pretty clear what the hell I had made–a bike!  A glass thing!  Art!)

Basically, it’s a machine that moves around under computer control.  A robot of sorts.  One designed to move part of itself around in three dimensions quite precisely.  If that part of itself has a cutting tool on it, it’ll end up cutting intricate shapes into material placed on the bed.  If that part is a pen, it’ll end up drawing for you.  If that part is an incredibly powerful laser, then it’s a laser cutter, and I want one.

I was seized by the coolness of these things one summer while I was wandering around the interwebs.  Behold:

So, they can do things that seem magical.  How do I get one?  One way: shell out thousands and thousands of dollars for a basic desktop model.  Another way: build my own for as little as possible.  Ok, how do we do that?  This is where I ran into the roadblock of my own lack of knowledge.  Fortunately, the internet has all the answers.  Even a community of knowledgeable and supportive folks over at cnczone.com.  Top-notch help!

This was the first big milestone.  I came up with a circuit for driving the motors that could be built for around three bucks per motor.  It’s not going to move mountains, but for a desktop application, it does surprisingly well.  Here it is moving without computer control, just to test the control of one of these rather unusual motors.

Alright, now the machine itself.  Here’s the bare bones of what I came up with:

I hit upon the idea of using these aluminum bars (8020 extrusion, 1.5″ profile) as both structure and the guides for the motion to run along.  Kill two birds, you know?  Problem was it wasn’t terribly precise, so there were tiny discrepancies in the machine’s accuracy down the line.  The hardware had all kinds of other little problems too–I learned quite a bit about machine design just from counting all the reasons this didn’t do quite what I wanted it to.  This is how we learn!

And now, like Julia Child whipping the completed casserole out of the oven moments after putting in the raw ingredients, here is the finished plotter, plotting.  Bonus points for identifying the picture.  This was a very cathartic moment for me, and the start of a few CNC projects that will hopefully make their way onto this blog someday.  Yes, that’s a tissue box.  Yes, the sharpie is taped to the machine.  I was excited to get it going, ok?

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