We're at a really cool point in history. Commercial industry was able to revolutionize itself with the use of Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machinery many years ago, but at a cost that was only affordable when profits were involved. However, the pervasiveness of such knowledge and technology in industry, combined with ever cheaper and smaller electronics, are finally bringing the cost of these technologies within the reach of most households. And the capabilities that these tools can bring to clever, imaginative common people are amazing! For the first time ever, for a little more than the cost of a major household appliance in most cases, you can employ automation technology to let you created precision, repeatable, high quality projects, art, and products. Here is a look at some of the most exciting things out there...
[important color=blue title=CNC Router]
A CNC router uses the computer to move a wood or trim router around with precision. You can use these to automating cutting out precise parts from wood, foam, and other soft materials, up to aluminum in most cases.
- Patrick Hood-Daniel: A hobbyist that does a lot of work with CNC machines in the DIY community. In my opinion his designs are a bit smarter than most DIY CNC setups out there. For instance, he tends to simplify and cheapen the bearing and linear movement systems, and instead spend more on the drive/motion system. He uses full-power router cutting tools, and offers machines up to a full 4'x8' cutting area. He also is always innovating, and coming up with new improved designs and drive systems.
- Build Your CNC: Website with lots of his current and previous machines, all made from MDF. He also sells kits, plans, and parts / mechanical components.
- Build Your Tools: Basically a forums for the Build Your CNC site, but he has various information on there, including "user support" for the book.
- "Build Your Own CNC Machine (Technology in Action)" book: Patrick's book, which documents the build of an entire lead screw driven machine, with a 20"x40" cutting area. The machine can be built for under $800. The plans are free to download.
- Probotix: A company that sells a variety of CNC-related parts, and kits.
- Fireball V90: An MDF CNC router kit, with a smaller 12"x18" cutting area, that uses a Dremel-type rotorary tool for cutting. Pricing starts around $600 for the frame only, but will generally cost well over $1000 complete with electronics.
- DIY-CNC Router Table Machines Forums: These forums have plans and discussions about many kinds of CNC router machines. I personally find that there is way too much scatter-brained information here, along with too many people blindly using overly complex or expensive methods of construction. The machines generally seem like they will cost well over $1000 dollars to build, and yet have small cutting areas. However, this site always seems to be recommended by others as the place to go for information.
[important color=blue title=3D Printers]
DIY 3D printing is still a fairly immature technology. It is improving very quickly, but has not yet matched the quality that is easily attainable in the CNC router/mill domain.
- RepRap: An open-source fused deposition modeler (FDM) 3D printer project. One of their main design goals is that the finished machine must be able to print all the parts necessary to build itself. The machines seem pretty rudimentary, and the parts they make are mildly crude. They only use a single extrusion head, so they are not capable of depositing a support material to hold up undercuts, hollows, or concave areas, which limits the design of parts it can build.
- Fab@Home: Another FDM 3D printer movement. The machines are a bit more expensive, but look better and seem to get better results. They suffer from the same problem of only having one extrusion head.
- MakerBot CupcakeCNC: A 3D printer kit, that costs around $800-1000, and also uses a single extrusion head. The designers, along with the community, are constantly improving the design, and you can purchase upgrades to bring yours up to the current level of sophistication.
- Dimension uPrint: The uPrint is a recently released, commercially manufactured 3D printer, "budget" priced, compared to other model, at $15,000. It has an 8"x6"x6" build area, which a study found was sufficient for 80% of the current parts being made in rapid prototyping machines.
[important color=blue title=CNC Plasma Cutter]
A CNC plasma cutter is similar to a CNC router, but uses a plasma cutter (or possibly an oxy/acetylene torch rig) to cut precision parts from sheet or plate metal. There are currently relatively few DIY CNC plasma cutter systems out there, but there are some that only require partial construction.
- RepTab: From the makers of RepRap, this currently very immature project hopes to build a CNC plasma cutter for around $1000 (although I suspect it will be more around $1500-2000), not including the torch itself, which typically runs $750-2000. The torch table design and build specifics can be found here, in the wiki.
- Torchmate 1 CNC Gantry Kits (4'x8'): Torchmate offers a gantry-only kit, for about $3300-3800, that requires you to build the rail system and material support table from $500-1000 of locally purchased steel and materials. Torchmate also offers larger machines, more advanced machines, and complete and/or fully assembled kits.
- PlamaCAM: PlasmaCAM machines are complete 4'x4' machines, without the cutting torch, that cost $10,000. They especially liked amongst the art community, for their simple completeness, and ease of use, but are equally suited to technical fabrication uses.
[important color=blue title=Computer Controlled Paper Cutters]
There are a number of affordable machines on the market, in the $200-500 range, that can cut precision paper pieces. These machines are similar in size and function to an inkjet printer, but use a "drag knife" blade instead of a print head. They are primarily marketed as scrapbooking tools, but can also be used for many other projects, such as creating stencils, cutting pieces for 3D paper models, and creating pieces to fold and glue into envelopes, invitations, etc.
- GraphTech CraftROBO: This is the machine we have. It comes in an older model and the newer 330 model, and costs about $250. It is supplied with mildly sophisticated software package, and an Adobe Illustrator plugin for advanced users. It has a cutting area of 8"x29". It is also sold under another brand name as the Silhouette.
- CriCut Expression: A $350 machine that has a wider 12"x24" cutting area. This machine comes with no software (it can use cartridges of pre-defined shapes), but can use optional CriCut or 3rd party software that typically runs $50-70.
- Klic-N-Kut Groove-e: A $600 machine, with a 13" wide cutting area, that can handle cutting thicker materials. It comes with a variety of software, including clipart and shapes. Klic-N-Kut also makes a number of more expensive machines, in the $1000-1500 range, with more features and cutting area.
[important color=blue title=DIY Projects]
There are many interesting new DIY projects out there, some of which can benefit greatly from owning or having access to some of the previously mentioned tools.
- Series One Replica Plane Cockpit: Hardcore flight sim players often build elaborate replica cockpits to sit in. This guy offers $20 plans, that include .DXF CAD files that are suitable for use to CNC cut the parts.
- Pro-Tools Model 200K 20 Ton Hydraulic Tube and Pipe Bender: These free plans will let you build a high-quality tube/pipe bender, that uses a hydraulic bottle jack to power it. The bender is designed to use standard Pro-Tools bender dies, of which you need one set for ever diameter/size of pipe/tube you want to bend (they run about $150-300 a set).
- Mosquito Homebuilt Ultralight Helicopter: For only about $30,000 (cheap for aircraft) you can build a complete, fully functional 1-person helicopter. It's not a simplified helicopter either, and uses a dynamic pitch rotor and tailrotor, so you fly it with all the appropriate helicopter contol mechanics (e.g. collective, throttle, tail rotor pitch, cyclic, etc.). It squeaks into ultralight status by just a tiny margin, so technically requires no license or training to fly (although it would probably be a fatal mistake to skip the training).
- DIY Projectors: Build your own digital projector, for less than the cost of a replacement bulb for a commercial model.
- 405th Halo Video Game Costume Armor: This community is dedicated primarily to building costume replicas of armor worn by characters in the Halo video game series. They use some novel methods of construction, including using a software called Pepakura to convert 3D models, which are created or taken straight from the game files, into 2D paper cutouts that can be folded and glued into a 3D paper model. They then use the paper model base as a shape to add automotive body filler putty for smoothing and detail.
- Pepakura Software: This software takes 3D models, and generates 2D shapes that can be printed, cut out, folded, and glued to create real life 3D paper models of the object. They make a free Viewer, that can be used to view and print files created by others, a $40 Designer that can be used to save "unfolded" 2D versions of 3D models, and an additional $18 Viewer for CraftROBO that can use the CraftROBO paper cutter machine to automate the process of cutting out the 2D paper shapes, which is usually time consuming to do by hand.
- Trebuchet Plans: They sell plans for trebuchets, catapults, onagers, ballistas, petrarias, mangonels, and other ancient artillery weapons. Also available are plans and simulation software for the newly invented Floating Arm Trebuchet (FAT), which unlike a common trebuchet that moves the weight around the pivot instead moves the pivot around the weight (which falls straight down), resulting in a significant increase in throwing power.