About three years ago I was hit by a sudden and overwhelming urge to start building stuff again. Growing up, my favorite part of the house was the garage, from which it seemed almost anything could emerge. But college and the career path that followed took me to Boston, where garages have attendants and apartments have neighbors who don’t necessarily take kindly to soldering on the kitchen table or bandsawing a few pieces of 2″ 6061 round bar.
Along the way I started a software company, now in its 6th year, and eventually ended up in an apartment building whose owner thought it was perfectly reasonable for me to rent a piece of the basement to use as a shop. There’s no 220V service, the ceiling is under 6′, and the only way to get anything in is to carry it down a narrow flight of stairs, but it was more than enough to get a benchtop mill and lathe and start causing real trouble. I quickly discovered the home-shop CNC community, and now have a CNC’d X2 mill, 7×10 lathe, and two smaller scratch-built routers (the Brute and 7th Sojourn) based on John Kleinbauer’s excellent plans.
As an entrepreneur, I think the small-scale CNC space is still in a fascinatingly early phase of its development. As in other areas, the Internet has made a wealth of information available to interested amateurs, who are routinely doing things considered state of the art not all that long ago. At the same time, there are a couple of feelings/suspicions I cannot shake:
- Many, perhaps most DIY builds fail: Following threads on CNCZone, I get the sense that a very large number of people who start DIY CNC projects never finish them. While this is probably true of every hobby, DIY CNC faces some steep challenges. Even the prosumer turnkey machines like Tormach leave you largely on your own to integrate the control system with Mach or EMC. Between the mechanical, electromechanical, electronic, and software layers, there’s an enormous amount to do and a lot that can go wrong.
- Of those that succeed, many (most?) gather dust: As complex as building a machine is, it’s still only a ticket to the world of CAD/CAM. My father jokes about guys who buy $10,000 table saws and build nothing but birdhouses to test how well-aligned their fence is. For a lot of guys, building the machine is the hobby, and that’s fine. But, I think a lot of the lack of useful output is due to the fact that these machines are just not at all easy to use.
In just the past few years, we’ve seen a number of great new options addressing the first point. At the high end, there are more choices in turnkey machines under $10k than ever before (a product category that didn’t really exist 10 years ago), while the number of proven plansets and suppliers for the 100% homebrew crowd grows even faster. For the most popular machines and designs, there are known-good paths that builders can follow with high assurance of success.
The software side, though, still feels deeply problematic to me. As I’m more of a software guy than anything else, this is where I’ll be focusing my attention.