Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My GCode Gets a Bit Tricker: Working with the microCarve A4 CNC

We collect souvenir spoons when we travel. Unfortunately, we overflowed the little wooden rack that holds our spoons several years ago:

A pretty wooden rack for holding little silver spoons from around the world.

We have almost twice as many little spoons as will fit on the rack. So I decided that a good CNC project would be making some additional racks that will hold the additional spoons, plus any extras we acquire in the near future.

Building the Toolchain

I've been using this project as a sort of pilot for putting together an automated toolchain for my CNC. You know, draw the object in CAD, convert it to gcode, and cut on the CNC. In the past I've just used image maps as depth maps and hand-written gcode to produce things. This project seemed to have about the right level of complexity for an initial project with a new set of tools.

At first, I had already designed the rack for the spoons themselves by hand on paper, and written gcode to match. But I laid this aside and tried out several CAD tools. The CAD tool that I ended up with a decent file from in the least time was Google Sketchup, running on my Mac. Unfortunately, Sketchup doesn't write in the CAM-friendly file formats. So I pulled MeshLab, which converted a Sketchup Collabra file to STL for CAM.

close-up of the spoon rack
Close-Up of the Item that Inspired my Project

The next step was CAM. After spending over a week trying out different free CAD packages (see below for why I'm starting with no-cost software), I was getting antsy to start cutting something. After three goes with different CAM packages on three OSes, and still no results worth cutting, I just decided to pull out the gcode and give it a once-over.


I did a quick third pass over my gcode program on paper, then typed it in on my EMC2 system with gedit. The EMC2 preview was, as always, very helpful. It let me catch a bogus Z-value. Once that was fixed, I plunked down a piece of MDF for the trial run and let 'er rip.

The first go at cutting my own little spoon rack.
My first go at the spoon rack's shelf, the back is another piece. But I've got an idea for improving on this...

The piece cut out very nicely. I ran it in three passes, the support for the piece was pretty minimal, so you can see where each pass cut across. A bit of sandpaper would fix this well enough.

However, I think I'd rather do the little shelf out of 1/4" stock. I used 1/2" because my prototype uses that thickness. But it's not like there's a lot of stress on the part from the spoons. So I'm going to re-build my code for a 1/4" thick piece before making the "production" units (probably three of them.) Then I may try to use the automated toolchain again for the backs of the spoon racks (all I have in gcode at this point is the little shelf.)

Why Free?
I don't have any aversion to spending money for quality software. In fact, much the opposite. However, I've already spent the money I had budgeted for the CNC. Plus I've tread on my money set aside for travel this summer because of some unexpected household expenses.

For the time being, I'm being a bit hairshirt when it comes to software.

I'm very happy with EMC2 for my CNC software at this point.

Sketchup is pretty well doing OK for me for CAD right now, though there are things I will want to do later that I'm not sure it does easily or well. When money permits, what I'd really like to do is pick up ZBrush. Hopefully within a year or so. Sooner if possible.

For CAM, I'm thinking that I'll want to pick up something like Cut3D from Vectric. It seems to have the functions I want. Cut2D is a possibility, too. I'll be doing the free trial on each in the not-too-distant future.

In the meanwhile, if you know of some free CAM software that doesn't just treat an STL object as something to be rastered over, drop me a note. I'm completely OS-agnostic. Most recently I was doing CAD in MacOS, running CAM (FreeMill, a good package but didn't do what I needed) on Windows, and I'm driving the CNC with EMC2 on Linux.

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