Forty years ago, in the world of big corporate manufacturing, computers started making their way into the factories. Computer Numeric Controlled (or CNC) machines, that ran off a stack of punch cards with intricate patterns of holes punched into them, ran huge milling machines and lathes. They were cumbersome, but fast, and each machine cost more than a nice house.
Fortunately, for you, the home craftsman, those days are gone. It is now entirely possible, practical, and affordable to own your own CNC router, CNC mill, CNC lathe, CNC sheet metal laser cutter, or CNC plasma cutter. With only the most basic PC computer, a couple of hundred dollars worth of software, a similar investment in hardware and electronics, and your own ingenuity, YOU can have a CNC machine in your home workshop.
A CNC machine can be a great supplement to a hobby that you already have… like building model airplanes, model railroads, or woodworking. If you are into electronics, a small CNC router can etch and drill printed circuit boards. If you have kids at home, a CNC machine can be a terrific way to help them with science fair projects, robotics projects, or making arts and crafts projects.
CNC machines can cut or machine intricate detail, and do it very quickly. You’ve probably admired some of those intricate wall hangings that are cut with a jig saw…. where the craftsman spent literally hundreds of hours drilling through the workpiece, detaching the saw blade, threading the blade through a hole, reattaching the blade, making the cut, and repeating the process. A CNC router can do the same work in a fraction of the time, and much more accurately.
A CNC Router is probably the most versatile type of machine. It can make heavy cuts and do sculpting in three dimensions, or you can put a swivel knife cutter into the router chuck, and do vinyl sign and graphics cutting. With the proper software, you can digitize (or “Reverse Engineer” a part) using a probe mounted in the router chuck to “trace” the contours of a part. The computer will “Remember” the shape of your original, and then allow you to duplicate the part with the router, cutting it from a block of wood or other material.
And a CNC router can be the start of a part-time.. or even full time business. You can carve beautiful wooden signs, cut out wooden toys, or model airplane or railroad components. You can carve original patterns, and make molds from them, to produce figurines, plaques, picture frames or other cast parts. Have you admired wooden clocks ? A CNC router is a great way to make one… or dozens. If you are a frustrated inventor, you can cut mechanical parts for prototypes, from a range of materials including wood, plastics, aluminum, composite materials like carbon fiber laminate, or printed circuit board material.
So how do you get started? A great place to begin is with the ABC’s of CNC video. This two hour long DVD takes you through the entire CNC workflow… starting with the basics of machine designs, G Code, CAD and CAM software, and finally through the actual cutting process. You’ll see sample parts start as a design, sketched on a napkin, taken through CAD software, and on to the Computer Assisted Machining (CAM) software where the actual cutting paths to make the part are created. The output from the CAM program then goes to the actual machine controller, which converts the digital information into actual motion… to cut the part.