On April 1, Inventables made Shapeoko kits available for the first time. No fooling! This low-cost CNC mill comes in three versions and each features the MakerSlide system. This inexpensive kit is quite an achievement and drives home the fact that MakerSlide is an empowering building block for makers. For Edward Ford, the inventor of Shapeoko, this is a watershed moment but it’s been a long time in coming.
Edward’s CNC odyssey started in 2004. While in college, he worked part-time at a manufacturer where he spent his days at a punch machine performing a boring, repetitive task hour after hour. Just across the aisle from him was a giant plasma CNC machine that captivated his imagination with its precision, power, and speed. Weeks went by. The boredom was stifling but the allure of the plasma CNC was intoxicating. His conclusion? “I’ve got to have one of those!”
Who among us hasn’t been caught up in watching CNC perform its magic? While many of us wish for such empowering tools, few of us will set out to build one from scratch. Yet within six months of falling in love with CNC, that’s exactly what Edward set out to do.
With ambition but little knowledge, Edward joined CNCzone where he found himself at the epicenter of those longing to make CNC machines. In this online community, Edward found people to engage with, projects to watch. and resources to learn from. With this site as his online resource, he set out to learn CNC.
On this journey, his first lesson was to get the hardware right. His first CNC project was done with the resources of a student and the result was his first CNC frame, cut and assembled with hand tools in his father’s workshop. While building it was a major achievement, the result was disheartening. Hand-cut hardware assembled imprecisely. Keeping everything square proved a major challenge. If it had been completed and powered with motors then it would have torn itself apart. In despair Edward shelved the project.
His second lesson was to get the electronics right. With new-found access to a laser cutter at work, it became possible to produce precision parts and build a quality frame, which he did. Moving to the next stage, he bought a kit from Xylotek to handle the electronics. It came with stepper motors, controller boards, and a power supply which would bringing his new CNC mill to life. While the electronics would readily perform their function, they had to connect to the hardware which presented new challenges. Establishing good mechanical coupling wasn’t easy. Getting the electronics to drive hardware correctly also didn’t come easy. It took a year of tweaking to get the electronics working well with the hardware. By the end of it, he had climbed major learning curves and was well on his way to conquering CNC.
At this point it was 2007 and Edward was years into the process of mastering CNC building. He had learned about hardware and electronics; it was now time for his third major lesson in getting the software and operations right. He installed EMC2, ran his first test, and experienced the joy of success! He had managed to draw a straight line.
Drawing that line was a major milestone, but obviously only a start. There would be many things still to learn about operating the mill. The concepts of homing, backlash, and learning G-code had to be mastered. He had to familiarize himself with different materials, their speeds and feeds, and much more. As he learned, he realized the many things he’d need to improve on his mill and this increased awareness became a growing burden. So much so that he tabled the project for almost two years.
A Fresh Start: Building on lessons learned
By 2008, the landscape had changed for makers. Affordable laser-cutting made it possible to produce precise hardware on the cheap. Open hardware had made controller systems inexpensive and created a vital development community; open source software had produced a raft of wonderful applications. It was time to leverage all these changes and start fresh.
In Edward’s life, SketchUp had been replaced by Autodesk Inventor, so now full 3D prototyping was both possible and powerful. He designed a completely new CNC mill in software. Before cutting even a single piece of wood, he tested the assembly thoroughly in Inventor. When he was confident of his design, he sent the files to Ponoko to be cut. When he received the cut wood, it fit together precisely and assembled perfectly.
When it came to electronics, Arduino and the shields ecosystem were now available to provide controller systems. G-code interpreters such as Grbl made it easy to control CNCs. Together they make it possible to quickly and cheaply build the rest of the mill and put it to the test. With high hopes he ran a test print of the SparkFun logo and he achieve fantastic results!
Open Source CNC Mill Kit
It was 2009 and Edward had been learning CNC mill-building for five years. Since starting his journey, the world of hardware building had changed radically. Starting from scratch he could now model and built a mill quickly and cheaply. A question gnawed at him: Could he help others fulfill the ambition he’d been pursuing for so long? Could he help others build a cheap CNC mill.
Of all the costs of mill-building, the cost of the rails stood in the way his goal. With cheap enough rails a mill could be built for $300. He looked around and found new sources that might work. He didn’t want to pour his own money into testing these options but decided if he could get the work funded then he’d take the time to do the prototyping.
Enter Kickstarter, the crowdfunding service where he posted his CNC project. If the community would fund his test of three different prototypes then he committed to release the results as open source hardware, providing a build of materials (BoM), and drawing files for free to all. A schedule of awards tied to funding levels was set; top contributors would receive complete CNC mill kits of the selected design. The campaign started on June 28, 2011 and ran for 30 days.
Coincidentally, just as the Shapeoko campaign began on Kickstarter, the MakerSlide campaign ended. Since Edward was looking at rail systems, he was naturally interested and after talking with Bart Dring of MakerSlide, he became a big fan. His mill prototypes started to use MakerSlide, and as its structural properties became better understood, Edward used more and more of it. Below you can see renderings of several prototypes: earlier versions on the left, later versions on the right. Note the last two use MakerSlide exclusively. The end version is the Shapeoko.
The campaign goal had been to raise $1,500 to fund the prototyping. He easily exceeded that and raised a total of over $11,000 with 14 people paying $500 for the CNC kit. Six extra kits had been assembled so Edward offered them for sale to Kickstarter supporters. All six were gone within 15 seconds of sending the offer email and almost 50 people were left wanting. So Edward did what any good businessman would do, he made more.
He made 20 more and sold out in an hour. So he made 30 more… and sold out in an hour. There was obviously demand but only so much time available in Edward’s life to supply kits. With a second baby having recently arrived in his life, Edward needed help. Referencing MakerSlide’s Bart Dring as a role model and Inventable’s Zach Kaplan as a prospective partner, Edward was soon on the path to getting relief. Shapeoko is now available through Inventables who builds kits, does online sales, and performs fulfillment.
Edward is in the process of getting his life back. Without the burden of selling Shapeoko, he can focus on the many ideas he has for Shapeoko add-ons. He wants to design, build, test, and share them with others. He also longs to spend more time in the CNC community forums to help newly excited members learn about CNC. It’s been many months since he could run regularly, ride his mountain bike, or simply watch TV with his wife. Life with his family will soon become more sane… as sane as life gets with two kids under the age of three.
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