All posts by rich

Pulled the trigger! Bought RhinoCAD/RhinoCAM today.

I’ve been using CamBam for a while now, and I like it, but I’m running into its limits, when it comes to non-geometric shapes. CamBam is fine for rectangles, round-rects, circles, etc, but just doesn’t cut it for more complicated shapes.

So, after talking with a few other CNC folk, I’ve decided to get RhinoCAD and RhinoCAM. I’m a bit daunted by the learning curve, and the huge number of commands, but it should work out OK. Loads of support, and many videos on line.

I’ll still be using CamBam, for anything simple, or where I just need to machine some simple shapes, but I’m hoping to migrate to Rhino for anything complicated.

Rhino prices out like this:

  • RhinoCAM 2012 Standard $1250
  • Maintenance Service $300/year
  • RhinoCAD $499
  • Shipping $35 (apparently, it comes with a USB dongle, which I hope will work with my mac running parallels)
  • Visa Service Charge $65.
  • Total: $2,249.52

Which is more than I’ve paid for just about any piece of software, ever. Yikes.

Quick project: A small box

I decided to test out the updating wiring and limit switches on the router today by building a small wooden box. The wood I happened to have lying around was some purple-heart – a hard and resiny wood, sure to be a test for the router.

I designed the box quickly using CamBam – simply two rectangles with 0.25 inch rounded corners. I made the outer rectangle 1.5″ wide, by 2″ high, and an inner rectangle 0.125 inches smaller. This made the walls of the box a very thin 1/16th of an inch in thickness. I added machining operations – an outside toolpath to a depth of 1 inch, and an inside pocket toolpath to a depth of 0.75 inches. This fit well within the dimensions of the block of wood – 1.75″ square by about 6 ” long.

I started the router going, and it immediately started generating a ton of smoke! The bit was smoking like crazy going through the wood. I tried adjusting the feed rate (I had set it at 10″/minute) to make it faster and slower, but it really had no effect on the burning. So, I opened windows, and turn on all the shop vacuum and air cleaning systems, and just let ‘er go.

The top part of the resulting box did not go well – unfortunately, I sanded it off before I took a photo of it, but you can see the remains of the problem around the top edge of the box. I think the wood cuttings in the deep groove that was machined simply ate away at the top edge of the box. I ended up sanding off about 0.25 inches of the top of the box.

I then simply sawed the box out from the block of wood using the table saw.

The box went pretty well, so I decided to make a lid – using the same CamBam drawing, I simply used the same two rounded rectangles and set a depth for an outside cut at 0.1 inches, then 0.25 inches on the larger rectangle. Unfortunately, this didn’t allow any space for the lid to actually slide into the box, so I made another (really easy with the CNC router!) with the inner rectangle scaled down in size a bit. This fits nicely.

Adding an Automation Technologies MPG2 Control Pendant to a CNC Router

I recently ordered a 4 axis control pendant, and a driver board for this device – hoping to add it to my CNC Router.

The package arrived last Friday, and I had a half-hour of free time to try to get it working – no-where near enough time!

What I ordered was:

The pendant is well built, and comes with a nice coiled cable – quite substantial, and a plastic mount for the pendant that can be mounted via the powerful magnets on the back of the holster, or using the supplied screws.

There is an “enable” switch on the left side of the unit – I think you have to depress this switch in order for the control functions to work. Unfortunately, this switch is quite difficult to depress due to the clear plastic dust cover over this button. I think I’ll have to remove this protective covering in order to use the pendant.

The breakout board comes with a male and female DB25 connector, and some screw terminals for wiring up a 5V power supply, and some relay contacts for the emergency stop button. This is nice since it is much safer to have a real electrical disconnect when the emergency stop button is pressed – you don’t want to rely on the mach3 software properly handling the E Stop input, and shutting down the router.

The board comes with a USB cable, with tinned bare cable ends, ready to be wired into the 5V screw connectors on the board. I’m not certain that the 5V input is required in order to make the breakout board function – I’ll check on this when I have more time. My hope was that the USB cable would actually be a sort of USB Keyboard emulator, simply outputting keystrokes to Mach 3, in order to control it. But, this is not the case – the USB cable is for 5V power only.

The instructions and diagrams that come with the Pendant and breakout board are woefully inadequate. They explain, from a purely electrical standpoint, the connections – but they really don’t cover how to make it work with the Mach 3 software. There should be an extra page or two of notes showing how it all works together.

For instance, exactly how do you configure Mach 3 to use the pendant? No mention that the pendant needs a second parallel port – and that the second parallel port can actually have a whole lot more input pins, via a checkbox in Mach 3. No explanation about how the “OEM Inputs” are made to function in Mach3. No mention about whether the 5V power is needed to make the breakout board function or not.

I was testing the board with a third-party dual port parallel port driver board in my PC, and was having nothing but trouble getting the second parallel port to function, and to properly interface with the pendant. I could successfully get the E-Stop button to work, and the X100 button – but no other button seemed to work! I think I may have connected it to Parallel port 1, instead of Parallel port 2.

I made some guesses at how the Mach3 settings should be configured to make the pendant work – but it’s all pretty much guess-work at this point.

I hope to get back to this during the upcoming week – so I’ll have an update, with screen-shots showing how to make the pendant work. Assuming I’m successful!

UPDATE: I FINALLY found a page with a thorough set of instructions. And following the instructions step by step worked. One trick not mentioned is that you need to restart Mach3 between some of the steps. I needed to do this once I had properly enabled the optical encoder. I could see the signals going by in the the diagnostics window, but they didn’t move anything at all on the device. A simple reboot, and the X, Y and Z axis were working under control of the big knob! What fun! This may have been necessary when I enabled the encoder and pins 2 and 3.

So, another cool addition to the CNC Router!

UPDATE: I got this thing working late one night, then the next day, busted again! I have no idea what’s up, and why this pendant is so fragile. I spent 3 hours, playing with settings, changing parallel ports, measuring voltages, all with no success. I’ve finally given up, and ordered a new C22 board, since it’s about the only thing I haven’t swapped out. Quite frustrated. Have since noticed that there are USB pendants, which are starting to look pretty darn good, right about now.

Thinking about wires

There’s quite a lot of wiring in a CNC Router:

  •  A cable from the PC’s parallel port, to the controller board (a Gecko G540 in my case),
  • Motor driver wires,
  • Power supply wiring,
  • Limit switches on each axis – a switch at each end,
  • Home switches,
  • Emergency Stop switch,
  • Possibly a control pendant,
  • Power for the router, with associated relays, and possibly a separate power supply for this relay,
  • And, possibly encoders – to ensure that the stepper motors accurately reflect the commands sent to them.

And, I’m sure there are many more…

Some of these wires contain low voltage control signals – not much current, but still, you don’t want spurious signals interfering… while other wires are actually driving quite a bit of current – the power supply lines, and the motor driver wires.

In my first iteration, I noticed that the Gecko driver uses DB9 connectors, so I simply ordered some 15 foot DB9 Male – DB9 Female cables to drive the motors. What I found in my initial tests is that these cables got very warm – not hot, but warm, as the machine was running, or even sitting idle. And, I’m experiencing some issues where the stepper motors seem to be missing some pulses – getting out of sync with where they should be. This is very obvious for the Y axis drive – which has a motor on each side driving the whole gantry back and forth on rack and pinion gears. Sometimes, the gear appears to skip a step – with a really loud thunk.

I think the DB9 serial cables I’m using actually have very small wires within the cable. The whole cable, with 9 conductors, and the sheath, is no more than1/8 or maybe 3/16 of an inch in diameter! So, the wires inside there must be 28 or 30 gauge! And, I’m trying to drive 3.5 amps of current through here! No wonder the wires are warming up!!

So, to rectify this, I’ve ordered some cable from Digikey – 4 conductor, 20 gauge, stranded wire (A5054C-100-ND). I’m planning to use this wire for the motors, as well as the limit and home switches, Emergency Stop.

Some other things I’m looking at:

  • Shortening the parallel port cable – which currently is 20 feet long,
  • Better grounding and shielding,
  • Better wiring from the power supply to the Gecko G540.

I’ll update this post once I’ve got this wire installed and working – I’m expecting the wire to arrive tomorrow.

Update: After updating all the wiring, all the issues I’ve observed previously have disappeared. The two stepper motors moving each side of the gantry are now in perfect sync, and I’ve seen no “skipping” where the gear drive gets out of sync with a loud clunk. Also, the wires are not warm at all, handling the current properly.


Wiring terminating at the Gecko G540

Converting Raster Images to GCode

One of the projects I am considering is converting some line drawings to something CNC routed… So, how to do this conversion? A quick search turns up a few possibilities:

Nice Overview article:

Looks good, though complicated:

More for cutting:

Really powerful. Good. Expensive! What the pros would use. I’m quite interested to try this software, and quite horrified by the price. I’m hoping for a “once a year” sale, or some bundle deal.

I haven’t had a chance to try any of these yet – but I will, and I’ll update this post.

Supplier List

I’ve just done a huge update re the suppliers I’ve used in my CNC Router project here. I’ve tried to enter some useful comments re each of the suppliers, with additional info that’s useful for Canadian builders.

Building in Canada means having to deal with a smaller range of suppliers (No McMaster-Carr), and with huge customs and brokerage fees when you import parts (UPS is HORRIBLE if you’re shipping to Canada, for instance).

Building a CNC Router

I’ve decided to build a CNC router – for no particular reason. I’ve always been interested in this sort of robotic device, ever since I programmed an HP plotter, 30 years ago.

At the start of this project, my specs are:

  • 4 foot by 4 foot work area,
  • Full three axis movement,

So, that’s pretty open. We’ll see how things progress…