Zach Kaplan, the CEO of Inventables, was at Milwaukee Makerspace last week with a couple of his colleagues and one of their new Shapeoko 2 CNC routers. They set the machine up and did demos of how the generate gcode for the machine, explained its construction, and general use. It looks like a great little machine to use on a desktop to make simple parts and such. It's a capable little machine, but I think the real benifit of this machine is education. Using MakerCAM, an online CAM program, they generated code to run on the little Aurduino with a GRBL shield. The Arduino GRBL shield is a complete hardware solution for Dank's CNC motion control system called grbl. It's compatible with the Arduino Uno and other 328p Arduinos. The shield allows a person to control three motors and can even support Nema 23 steppers if there is proper cooling on the board. This shield is around 69 bucks and this plugs into a simple 20 dollar Arduino Uno and then you have motion control for a basic CNC machine. Most of the CNC controllers I have for my small mill and lathe are around $350-550. You can see why this would be a great option for teaching. Granted, it doesn't have all of the features of a full blown CNC, but it gives a student or hobbyist what they need to enter into the realm of desktop CNC (without intimidating them I might add). The mechanical components of the Shapeoko 2 seem to be solid for what the mill is intended to do. It uses aluminum extrusion makerslide, an open source bearing rail extrusion, for the main rails of the machine. The rest of the machine uses some basic 2D plates, a couple pieces of 1" extrusion with some mdf spoil boards, and some machined profiled and drilled aluminum plates. You can get a basic kit with no electronics for $300 or you can get the full kit of parts for $650. Again, this is not a Tormach CNC mill, nor is it even a Taig CNC mill (although the large build platform has an advantage over the Taig), but instead this is a great entry level desktop CNC router for cutting wood/wax/pcb/plastic. Personally, I think one improvement that would make it a bit more versatile would be upgrading to larger Nema 23's and creating an actual spindle that can handle ER collets (but again this is not the point with this machine; it's entry level and the price point is one of the main advantages here). With a machine like this, I can afford to build many of these in my lab at school to teach CAD/CAM/CNC to students. I don't have to worry about them ruining an expensive piece of equipment and they most likely will not dismember themselves with such a machine. Did I mention that you can download the files for the Shapeoko 2 on github and create your own kit for building the machine? A couple of students and I are already busy getting our files ready to cut on the Tormach. We should be able to make a couple Shapeoko's to test in the DCRL before I get back to teaching next year, at which time I can introduce the little Shapeoko to them.
I mentioned the MakerCAM software earlier and right now it only supports SVG files, but it has features for nesting. You can also run this on a Mac along with the software that reads the code and runs the mill/router called PyCAM. For more on running it on a Mac check out this forum. While talking with Zach, he also informed me of a new CAM software that they are working on called Easel that will write AND run gcode all within one program. It will have automated machining operation generation as well. Again, right now, only SVG files are supported, but they are working on other file format compatibility along with full 3D machining integration. They begin BETA testing this software in the coming weeks. I can't wait to try it out! Zach was willing to put me on the BETA test list, so I appreciate that. While talking to him I discovered that he graduated from the University of Illinois in ME around the same time that I was there. Good to see a fellow U of I grad doing something like this new company.
In my opinion, all of this is going to going to blow the doors open on educating students to use CNC and it's going to allow schools to integrate these kinds of things into their curriculum earlier. I'm hopeful that it will start to trickle down to the high schools and middle schools and that it will give students exposure to hands-on learning. It's funny to me that we are using STEM/STEAM and CNC and robotic technology to get hands-on making back into the schools, but at this point I'll take what I can get. These educational initiatives and using advances in technology to build interest with upper administration is just part of the deal. Coming from someone who learned to use basic hand tools first, all of this seems to be a bit like the cart before the horse. Granted the students build the machines by hand and learn to do basic things before they build their machine and afterwards they spend time making models using basic techniques and basic materials before we create objects on the printer or the milling machine. For the student, the technology becomes the incentive for learning the basics. It's really no different than my Dad learning to build a crossbow in his high school Industrial Arts class. I remember building "useful things" when I was in high school and college and I still use many of those things. When I build studio tools from scratch, I'm doing the same thing; learning something new and getting something out of the process. Why wouldn't you want something you can use after putting the work into learning a new skill? This is just active learning that engages most of the higher levels of thinking, not to mention it gets kids off the couch and gives them a reason to use their hands and minds to do something that they'll be able to use in the future (i.e. their BRAIN!!). Maybe in the future administrators will wake up and see that's it's not about jumping on the bandwagon with the next "great thing", but until then, I'll keep using "the next great thing" to teach the best way that I know how... by getting students to use their heart, their hands, and their mind.
I'm never quite sure how these posts turn into a soapbox, so I apologize, but do check out the Shapeoko 2 and Inventables if you get a chance. It's worth it!