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How do I get started? What are my up-front costs? I am a newbie to CNC.
This is a question that I get from a lot of folks that want to go down the path of CNC machining. As such I decided to put this short post together, to highlight some of the steps I took to get going, and also answer these questions. Like anything, a lot of it really comes down to “it depends” and let me explain to you why, read on.
First, the path to being able to get a CNC machine going is all about the model, the drawing, and the design you have, and you want the CNC machine to cut. No model, the machine will cut nothing! As such, any step into this world, really has to start with choosing software packages that will allow you to Model, create tool paths, and then control the CNC machine to do something. I wanted to get this out of the way first, since many folks that first stumble on this, really have to answer this question first. In fact, I would recommend that even before you spent a single penny on a CNC machine, you get the software part out of the way first!
As you can see on my site, I chose Solidworks for the modeling part, and I have chosen MasterCAM for the machining part. As detailed, the process for cutting anything goes like this:
That is at a high level what the process is. Again, it all starts with a model in a CAD software, then you create machine paths in your CAM software for the machine to follow. I know I might be repeating things, and some of this is basic, but again, this is a post for folks that really want to start from scratch, and want a high level overview of the process.
So, start with choosing a software 3D package. Do a little research here, look into forums and the internet (google is your buddy), and see what these are, and the costs associated with them. There are many software CAD packages out there, and for me to list them here would be a daunting task. However, I will hit some of them to give you a feel as to what is out there. In addition, the approach to modeling these packages take can vary. Some appeal more to engineers, while other appeal more to artists, and yet some, more to folks the work with models for Movies, Film and TV. As you can see, the array of software CAD packages is vast. For me, it was Solidworks. I am an engineer by background, and the Solidworks approach works for me. A couple of other popular packages are Rhino 3D, Fusion 360, and Vectric Aspire. Start with these, google their name, and go read some of their approaches to modeling on their site. Once you have gotten a feel as to the direction you want to head, then move on to CAM software. Again, for me, my choice has been Solidworks for many years, and at this point, I doubt I would move on to another package. Quite frankly, I just want to cut parts, and not spent more time learning another software package.
Same thing with CAM software. MasterCAM is what I use, but again, the choices here are many. To complicate this a bit, some CAD packages now, are INTEGRATING the CAM portion in the same package! So for example, if you are working with Solidworks, MasterCAM can integrate with the software, as well as many others. Same thing with fusion 360 etc. So when you are exploring costs, please make sure you ask and bring this up, since you might save in the long run, if you can pay a little more upfront, to get the CAM software in one package! Here are again some names for you to go look up, and please feel free to doing your own search for many more. MasterCAM (my choice), HyperMill, PowerMill, GibbsCAM, Fusion 360, EdgeCAM, Esprit, HSM Works and BobCAD/CAM are some of the most popular ones. Their costs can very, so this is again where you have to do your research depending on how much you want to spend.
So how much will all this cost you must be asking. Well, it is not cheap! MasterCAM can cost 10-12K, and the same for Solidworks! However, do NOT despair! Many offer SIGNIFICANT discounts to smaller shops, and if you happen to have a student in the family (or know of one) you can for example have Solidworks for like 500 bucks! (What I did). You can probably also find older versions of MasterCAM, again for a FRACTION of the cost of the latest version (again what I did). Ask around, find a local machine shop in your area, go on a forum, and you will be rewarded.
So now you might have done all this, and the next step is the CNC machine. Here is again where the task can be overwhelming to say the least! As you can see from my site, I decided to build my own, but this is not for everyone for sure. However, there are a number of folks out there that offer kits, along with everything you need to get one up and running. One such example is Avid CNC. You can see one of their kits here. I am in no way affiliated with them, but if I was building a machine today, I would probably start with one of their kits. 4-5K, and you would be up and running with a very good machine, that will even be able to cut light metals etc. In addition, they provide a turnkey controller/software bundle. One of the most popular CNC control software packages is called Mach3 and most recently Mach4. Again, this is the software that will take what your CAM software spits out (in the form of G-code) and command the CNC machine to cut the part. It would sure be nice to have this done for you, so all you need is to turn on the controller, insert G-code and start cutting. Buying a kit like this, will allow you to do just that. By the way, I am not affiliated with their company or products in any way. I just happened to think they offer a good product for a very decent price!
So in conclusion, the path is not that hard, but a lot of research needs to be done upfront, along with the budget you have. Costs can be upwards of 20K or more, but can be less depending on what you can find out there. As stated, start with a CAD package, and dive right in designing parts and models! Once you get confident in that, the rest will follow. This can be the MOST frustrating part of all, in my opinion! Folks here also try to follow an “easy” path, quite simply by finding models already made, but TRUST ME, this will lead to frustration! You want to be able to modify your designs, and create new ones! Learn the modeling process, you will be glad you did! As it is often the case, corner cutting does not lead to a good place.
The possibilities after this are endless! I have used my CNC machine to cut guitars, guitar parts, machine PCB boards for electronics, create parts for Drones, cut aluminum for fixtures, cut jigs for wood working, engrave plexi-glass, and engrave metal to name just a few of the uses. It will open up a world to you that will be vast, and exciting at the same time! And then there is the accuracy! Whether you cut one part, or one thousand, they will all come out the same!
I hope you will choose to go down the journey, and I sure wish you the best of luck! If I can help answer any more of your questions, please drop me a note. Hoping you found this helpful. All the best!