Why We Build Our CNC Tools the Way We Build ‘em

At ShopBot, we have been designing and building affordable CNC tools for almost 25 years. ShopBots were the first affordable CNC routers for small manufacturing. Our design choices have been based on our experience manufacturing and using low-cost robotic equipment that is optimized for small and medium production operations. Our leadership and innovation in mechanical components and software has been a key to making CNC technology as widely accessible to all shops as it is today.

The design and construction of our tools is derived from two perspectives:

  1. The importance of mechanical rigidity – A CNC tool does subtractive work. It is a piece of digital manufacturing equipment whose primary feature is shaping components by using a spinning cutter to aggressively remove material – good cutting force and resistance to deflection during cutting is required, as is a smooth and vibration-free motion during the machining process. While pure bulk can be helpful to machining, a CNC tool does not need to be expensive or heavy and immovable to produce fast, smooth cuts and be a great producer.
  2. The importance of control system software – You hear a lot about “smart” when it comes to technology these days, but “smart” means more than just running your CNC tool with a computer. Smart tools take advantage of progress in microcontrollers and programming to enhance the cutting and machining performance of a tool, to move it with intelligence, to monitor its condition, to communicate with operators, and to help make the production process friendlier and more interactive. Smart tools can now interact with humans in increasingly helpful ways. They are versatile, configurable, and programmable, making them adaptable to your workflow and production process. This is what we mean by smart.


A). The Importance of Mechanical Rigidity

Large ShopBots Are Configured On-Site – Our Tables Are Matrix-Bolted

Full-size gantry ShopBots are set-up on-site. You position them where they best fit your shop’s needs and production flow. This versatility means they can be put in areas that have limited access to heavy equipment, in a basement or above the ground floor.

The set-up of our full-size tools involves two steps: 1) assembling the steel and aluminum table; and, 2) placing the gantry on the table. The gantry is shipped fully assembled from our factory. The motors on the Y and Z axes have been mounted, and all wiring and hardware installed. The table goes together in a few hours. After the table is assembled, the gantry, which has been fully configured and adjusted at the factory, is simply placed in position on the rails (with a “team lift”). Note that for a gantry-style CNC tool, the gantry essentially is the tool because almost all the components ride with the gantry. That means that after you put the gantry in place, attach the x-motors, cables, and control box, your tool is complete and ready for action.

Shipping large tools as components is a more manageable and safer method than dealing with a large, bulky, and vulnerable single structure. Going through the set-up process creates an opportunity to develop a good understanding of the machine as you ready it for work. Optionally, if your operation needs to hit the ground running, we can send a technician to your site to set-up the tool and then train your team.

Note: Our smaller tools, the ShopBot Buddy® CNC, which is a mid-size tool, and the ShopBot Desktop CNCs are all shipped fully assembled, ready to be powered-up and put right to work.

The stiffness of the ShopBot gantry table comes from its engineering not from weight. ShopBots are assembled with airframe-style bolt-matrixes for strength. Heaviness in a machine-tool can certainly help reduce vibration, but we make full use of materials, such as extruded aluminum profiles, that naturally dampen vibration. You’ll always find YouTube experts who still believe that heavy, cast, or welded frames are important for machining, but heaviness can be overrated and too often simply compensates for other inadequacies of a machine. The practical problem with “heavy” is that it makes a tool less agile, more limited in the locations in which it can be positioned or moved, more power hungry, more expensive to repair, and less friendly for small shops. Such machines (sometimes referred to as “monuments”) do not fit well with a lean production focus which emphasizes a flexibility based on being able to readily reconfigure production flow and processes for competitiveness. 

Significantly, a bolted table can also be realigned using standard mechanic’s tools after the inevitable shop accidents. We avoid welded joints that can become distorted with time and are difficult to re-square or realign. Sure, truly massive welded or cast tools can be impressive and do have the advantage of bulk, but few low-end, welded, CNC tables are built with the mass, weldment thoroughness, and the attention to alignment required for stability in a factory environment. Be careful not to end up with a tool that is just heavy enough to make it difficult to fit into your production flow and not quite massive enough to prevent it from falling out of alignment. 

 

ShopBot’s Tall Table Sides / A Rigid Gantry Platform

The most identifiable features of a ShopBot gantry tool are its raised table sides. Beginning with the patented architecture of our original ShopBots, our full-size gantry tools have minimized cutter chatter and improved cut quality by reducing the pedestal height of the gantry. This effect is a matter of physics. The taller a gantry pedestal – that is the further the distance from the table rails up to the pivot point on the beam for the Z arm – the greater the instability of the gantry. Of course, we want clearance above the work, but rather than just make the gantry taller, our design solution has been to raise the base for the gantry rails using rigid table sides. This significantly reduces the pendulum “moment,” improves cutting smoothness, and allows faster acceleration and deceleration.

Raised table sides have the second advantage of helping contain the material being machined. This provides operators and observers an extra safety shield of protection from cut material and flying debris (e.g. broken cutters) that might break loose during cutting and machining operations if not contained by the dust collector/guard around the cutter.

Our tall table sides/guards mean that our standard large tools are most conveniently end-loaded (front or back) and are well-suited to natural panel flow through most shops. A suggestion: If you expect that you will be primarily side-loading large sheets, whatever brand CNC you purchase, you may want to consider an extended bed so that the gantry can be parked beyond the length of the material to permit easy side-loading without the obstruction of a gantry in the work area.

 

ShopBot’s Beam Extrusions

We engineered the main beam on our gantry tools especially for our CNC tools. Our beams are thickly webbed aluminum extrusions with a strengthening and vibration-absorbing cross-section. They are available for tools having up to a 9 ft. wide cutting area. A mounting face for the linear rails is thickened in the extrusion and then precisely machined and fitted with rails and bearings. As with other elements of our table, this beam is designed to be matrix-bolted to the gantry’s steel end-plates. The beam carries the steel Y-axis car on which the vertical Z-axis, fitted with a router or spindle, is mounted. Each axis moves on a heavy-duty linear rail and bearing system. A sturdy beam is the heart of CNC routers and it is where smooth, precise cutting begins.

 

Drive Mechanisms Choices: Rack-and-Pinion, Screw-Drives

We utilize rack-and-pinion mechanical drive on gantry-tools and screw-drive on desktop tools. We’ve had a lot of experience with various types of motion components for CNC tools and fit the best solution for the needs and purposes of each type of tool we produce.

Our desktop uses Teflon-coated, precision lead-screws with anti-backlash nuts. The screws are integral to the motors which virtually eliminates all backlash. On the desktops, the lower screw and rails are fully covered and protected from dust and debris. This integral screw-drive provides a very high resolution for our desktop machines.

For larger tools, we have found that rack-and-pinion provides the most straightforward and reliable drive system. Rack-and-pinion is highly impervious to the dust and debris of a shop and does not require precise alignment to prevent binding. The modern geometry for grinding rack-and-pinion gearing insures smooth action with limited friction and low backlash. Components can be easily replaced if they become worn. We rarely see significant wear on the rack, but pinions do wear, so you can expect to replace them every year or two during normal use.

The debate over the motion mechanism for CNC routers – rack-and-pinion drive vs. screw drive – can get hot and heavy. We think both systems are pretty good, and over the years we’ve built tools employing each. In theory, ball screws offer the advantage of being virtually friction-free and very smooth. However, they are also more complex. They require a constant precise alignment to avoid binding and are very vulnerable to being disabled by dust and debris, so they must be kept very clean. As the length of an axis gets longer, increasing stiffness in the ball screw is required to prevent the screw from wobbling. This results in large, heavy, and expensive screws (which, in turn, require larger motors just to get them up to speed) that must be well-protected from dust.

Perhaps one factor to keep in mind with respect to CNC mechanicals is that these industrial components have been used as motion components of machine tools and automation equipment for the last 150 years – they are not, recently-evolved mechanisms that are unique to CNC. Over those 150 years, the quality and performance of each type of mechanical drive has been perfected. Gearing design and manufacturing have become highly refined as have the various screw-drive mechanisms for producing smooth motion. Look at a few $100,000 and up CNC tools. In these tools the drive mechanism is only a small part of the overall cost, so the drive decisions have been made primarily with respect to performance. You’ll note that in these tools both types of drive system are used. Sometimes in the same tools screw drives are used for one axis and rack-and-pinion for another. The bottom line is that either mechanism can produce good performance.

We have recently completed an experimental analysis and tests of drive mechanisms that specifically included assessment of helical gearing, a refinement of standard rack-and-pinion. We also evaluated the importance of the gearhead or belt-linkage between motor and pinion. Helical gearing represents a conceptual improvement over straight rack as it produces a more continuous engagement of gear teeth and, in theory, less backlash. We were optimistic about the potential for helical gears, but in our testing, we found that helical gearing added little improvement to cut quality, particularly in comparison to other factors. Our tests actually identified backlash in the linkage between motor and effector (that is, between motor and pinion for rack-and-pinion drives; between motor and ball-screw in a ball screw system) to be the primary source of backlash and the primary determinant of cut quality. For us, this emphasized that the focus for smooth cutting should be the reduction of backlash in the gearing of the motor linkage rather than the specific type of rack-and-pinion. For gantry ShopBot tools, we improve the standard spur gear linkage between motor and effector by using tapered-hob gearheads on all tools (see image below). These gearheads put the emphasis on reducing the backlash that directly results in smoother cutting.

 

Open-Loop AND Closed-Loop Motors and Servos

The cutting motion of ShopBots is powered by stepper motors. Steppers are an incredibly precise form of motor that have the unique feature of never producing incremental errors. A stepper is just as accurate at 80″ as it is at 8” because the rotary position of the motor shaft is just as accurate after dozens of turns as it is after one turn. Stepper motors are inherently digital and thus they are a perfect match to digital computers, digital control, and digital cutting.

Conventional open-loop stepper motors such as those employed on our PRSstandard tools and our Desktop tools are the most affordable solution to producing CNC motion. The counterintuitive feature of stepper motors is that the faster they go, the less power they have. This means that they have the limitation that they can be overpowered if one attempts to cut too fast – losing track of location in the process. However, when used appropriately, these motors will produce excellent cuts, day-in, day-out as they do in a wide range of devices from printers, to CNC mills, to medical equipment.

For heavy-duty, production work we recommend our PRSalpha tools. These tools use closed-loop stepper motors and high-performance hybrid drives. These closed-loop motors have sensors (called encoders or resolvers) that continuously monitor performance and the precise location of the motor shaft. When forces on these motors increase, or if the shaft is pushed slightly from intended position, the motors instantly increase force and recover to the correct position. Servo motors also have built-in feedback and are commonly used in CNC tools. They can be a good solution for CNC, but we favor the closed-loop alpha-step motors because of the hybrid technology combining crisp digital control in stepper mode for small moves while responding with servo-like dynamics when higher power, speeds, or position compensation are required. Undersized servo motors may not provide the speed, power, or acceleration you expect. Our PRSalpha CNC routers can travel at 1800ipm and have 150-250 pounds of cutting force.

MORE INFO … Learn about alphaStep OM Motors

On our gantry tools, we have exclusively used motors built by the Japanese manufacturer Oriental Motor (OM). OM is an international company that has been building high-quality motors for more than a hundred years. Their industry-leading technology has been much imitated, it’s easy to find budget motors that have been made to look like OM products. The copies often fail to live up to the OM performance, which depends on extremely high-grade bearings, precisely cut armatures, dense magnets and carefully wound coils. ShopBot has used OM motors on our gantry tools for over 20 years, shipping almost 40,000 of them. During this period, we’ve had fewer than 6 failures, which means these motors can be counted on for day-in, day-out production – absolutely.

When you are considering the bulk and power features of a tool, do watch out for the macho-power and capital-cost game; it is easy to get ratcheted-up into a large capital layout trap in the form of a leased tool that you need to constantly feed with work, just to make those lease payments. As one of our customers recently noted: “You have to wonder about a tool when they start quoting you an hourly lease cost.” The new industrial revolution is about technologically empowering tools that are becoming available to all sizes and nature of production facilities with prices that are going down – this trend of decreasing tool price has been expressed as a “democratizing of the tools of production.” While new technology tools will cost something, they are becoming increasingly accessible to all shops. Make sure you can afford your new tool.

 

Our Design Philosophy: Iterate and Iterate Again

We are continuously evolving the capabilities and functionality of our tools. We occasionally introduce new models, but our policy is to, as much as possible, evolve our tools as opportunities arise with small iterative improvements that we can introduce immediately and make available to older tools. For example, we currently offer new versions of our Z-axis that is backwards compatible for tools up to 16 years old. Also, as we create new accessories for tools, we focus on making them usable on all tools. This is the advantage of building the equipment ourselves and not to be dependent on changing shipping parts from overseas, or on a gallery of changing designs that depend on what vendor is offering the best export deal. We work to avoid putting you in an obsolescence loop – we always have parts for older tools, and we frequently have upgrade parts that will improve performance.

 

B). The Importance of Control System Software

Smooth and Easy Motion Software

In the 1990’s, the first ShopBots took advantage of the emerging personal computer (PC). PC’s allowed us to make CNC technology more accessible and affordable. Our early tools made use of the new devices to control the tools, rather than relying on expensive, electronic motion boards for control. This means that from our origins, we have integrated the creation and development of control system electronics and control software with the mechanical aspects of CNC tools. We appreciate that good tools start with good mechanicals, but over the years of producing and using CNC tools we have come to a strong belief that software control systems are equally important. In the beginning, software was a focus for us in helping get the costs of equipment down, but as our products developed, our focus shifted to control system software and that provides both smooth efficient cutting and ease-of-use in production.

This means that the hardware and software systems that run our tools are tightly integrated with our tools because they were designed for the tools. Our recognition of the importance of software distinguishes us as the only manufacturer of affordable CNC tools that produces its own controls and software.

 

Software for Smooth, Efficient Cutting

Our software provides smooth cutting motion and crisp acceleration. We have focused on getting high-resolution, straight line and complex curved motion that is chatter-free with crisp accelerations and decelerations to make cutting efficient. ShopBot’s feed rates, speeds, and accelerations are fully adjustable in the tool’s software interface and from within toolpath files.

 

Software for Ease-of-Production

ShopBot’s software interface is straightforward and intuitive to use. Carrying out basic tasks and house-keeping functions such as homing is intuitive. The control software runs toolpath files (part files) generated from virtually any CAD/CAM program. It can utilize files in standard g-code format (Fanuc/NIST RS274) and well as toolpath files that have been created in OpenSBP, an open-syntax CNC language (supported by most current CAD/CAM software). OpenSBP is a “conversational” and programmable language developed by ShopBot and contributed to the public domain.

Thus, you are able to run ShopBots with two different types of CNC files. Traditional g-code is fine for just running files output by CAD/CAM programs. It may feel particularly friendly if you are a CNC operator experienced with other tools, but g-code is an old format that was optimized to be read from early paper tape input devices. It’s awkwardness and illegibility are no longer necessary for digital efficiency. ShopBot’s OpenSBP option provides a second and more ‘conversational’ language that is easy for a human to read, understand, and use. Unlike g-code, OpenSBP includes built-in programming functions (such as variables, logic testing, and looping) that make it readily programmed using friendly, BASIC-language-like expressions. OpenSBP makes it straightforward to do everything from creating a button for moving a tool to a position you frequently want it to go, to creating special production routines that will improve the efficiency of workers as they manage jobs and files and move parts through your production process.

Programmability and configurability make ShopBots easy to set up for even highly specialized jobs, and they can be readily reconfigured for the next job, a day or a month later. Truly interactive digital tools with interfaces that are congenial to production line functionality and automation are what makes a tool helpful and efficient beyond just getting a part cut. It’s what makes a tool ‘smart.’ Don’t assume that because an imported tool calls itself smart, it has any of this flexible configurability or programmability.

 

Software That Is Available and Up-to-Date

As with hardware, we continuously evolve our control systems and software as opportunities to add capabilities and features as they become available. The most recent software for your tool is always available for download from our website, FREE. When the availability of new electronics allows us to develop improved controllers, we also make them available for older ShopBots. It is possible to retrofit our latest control cards or control box – greatly improving the functionality of a tool – to virtually any age ShopBot.

MORE INFO … see how one large cabinet making operation makes use of ShopBot programmability

Coming Soon: Our new FabMo software (short for FABrication and MOtion control platform; currently available on Desktop Tools and Handibots) is our next generation digital fabrication software. FabMo software make use of advanced “S” shaped curvilinear profiles for accelerations and decelerations. These profiles provide smoother action than the trapezoid-shaped, linear acceleration profiles found on most CNC tools. Our profiles are optimized to reduce “jerk” (jerk is a technical term for the 3rd derivative of speed; it is a measurable type of disruption of motion). Jerks cause bumps in cut edges. When they are not managed carefully, they limit how fast a tool can work and contribute to chatter in cutting. ShopBot’s profiles are specifically oriented to reduction of jerk for given acceleration rates and feed speeds. This means our tools work faster, more efficiently, and with smoother cutting – all without adding weight or cost. FabMo software includes an improved environment for creating custom production solutions and for new ways to monitor and interact with tools. FabMo software will be unique to ShopBots as we make it available on all our tools in the coming year.

 

And, We’re Here to Help, Whether You Purchase a ShopBot or Not

For almost 25 years, ShopBot has been developing and manufacturing CNC tools for use in small manufacturing and by individuals. We believe that digital fabrication is the key to making small manufacturing in our communities competitive again. We believe that digital manufacturing is how we can again do competitive, realistic and fulfilling production.

MORE INFO … see essays, written by our CEO, Ted Hall, on reviving small manufacturing

We pioneered affordable CNC. It’s no surprise that we have more competitors today than 25 years ago, when we were the only manufacturer providing digitally-controlled routers appropriate for the needs of small manufacturing. We are frequently asked how we feel about companies that have recently adopted our approach and are now offering affordable technology tools. Well, actually … we feel good.

Of course, we’re flattered, but there is more because we believe that digital fabrication is the single most important key to returning manufacturing. Increasing the availability of affordable CNC technology will help promote local manufacturing and bring more work for all of us. Additionally, some of our competitors offer mechanical approaches not available from us – tools that differ because of design choices with respect to one or another of the options described here. As we note, many of the options are equally good, or offer different sets of trade-offs that may be right for some shops. We won’t hold it against you if you choose another tool. What we want to do is encourage you to continue to use the amazing resources of our website, our free interactive web training, and our user forums. There is a tremendous amount of how-to information of general CNC interest available to you from our site.

And you can always give us a call to talk over any question you may have about CNC.

Catching up with AtFAB

In the Fall of 2011 we were setting up the ShopBot booth at the NY Maker Faire and noticed some interesting plywood furniture across from us. It had obviously been fabricated on a CNC machine, with dogbones in the inside corners (which the designers called “snigglets”) and engravings on the tops to describe the process. Ted and I introduced ourselves to Anne Filson and Gary Rohrbacher, architects and University of Kentucky professors, who it turns out had been following our work via 100kGarages. Their design firm, AtFAB, had been designing furniture and making the files publicly available—using 100kGarages fabricators to get much of it made.

I’ve kept in touch with Anne and Gary over the years and have fabricated a handful of projects with them. We did the “Open Source Living Room” together at the 2014 Detroit Maker Faire that showcased Open designs of all kinds, from AtFAB stools and tables to the first 8×8 Shelter 2.0 design.

I also fabricated pieces for an exhibition they had at a gallery on the MIT campus in 2013, but the biggest project by far involved fabricating the furniture for MakerBot’s penthouse office in Brooklyn in 2013: the reception desk, meeting and conference tables, assorted chairs and desks, and even Bre Pettis’ office desk.

All these projects were fun to do so I was excited when I got a call from Anne a couple of weeks ago about a new project they were working on. They were both on sabbatical this semester and were working on some CNC fabrication instructions, and wondered if they could come to my shop in VA, talk a bit, and do some test cutting. I quickly agreed and made sure I had a couple of sheets of 3/4″ Radiata pine plywood and enough propane in the grill to cook hot dogs for lunch!

We started out by toolpathing a sheet in VCarvePro, our toolpathing preference, and cutting them out with bits that they had brought, an 1/8″ straight bit to mark the location of screw holes and a 1/4″ upspiral to cut out he parts. Although I generally cut 3/4″ plywood in 2 passes at 4″/sec, I wanted to be somewhat conservative for this and use the rule-of-thumb and cut each pass at the bit diameter, 1/4″.

I’ve written about my toolpathing and cutting techniques in a Medium post “A slacker’s take on CNC fabricationand used basically the same system for these parts. There were a handful of small parts that I cut first using a spiral plunge, with a single tab at the start point. The rest of the parts I organized in increasing size, using a straight 4″ plunge and no tabs. The sheet finished machining in about 40 minutes, with Anne spending a little time cleaning things up on my assortment of sanders and Gary assembling the pieces.

At the end of the day, my wife and I joined them for a great seafood dinner at The Shanty in Cape Charles VA, and the next day we were off to Baltimore to visit OpenWorks in Baltimore.

While we were at OpenWorks, they had the opportunity to cut the same parts they had cut in my shop, out of ApplePly on the $60k Laguna CNC machine in the OpenWorks production shop. As you would expect, the parts from the Laguna turned out really nice and needed no sanding, but took a full sheet of parts to dial in the settings and required two passes each with downspiral and upspiral bits to get that quality.

When it was all over I asked Anne and Gary what they thought about the cutting and how they thought my 10-year-old ShopBot compared to the $60,000 Laguna. Gary said, “In the end, maybe I’m biased, but I think you can get just as good a finish with the ShopBot”

Anne said, “After dialing in the Laguna process, I suppose we could’ve quickly pumped out a huge job with a large number of sheets. Perhaps that’s where you’d find an advantage over a ShopBot? Or maybe not, if your shop and machine were organized for industrial jobs.”

Bringing a “legacy” ShopBot up-to-speed: Sea Reach, Ltd.

Sea Reach Ltd. in Sheridan, OR, is a design company that also makes signs. Their strong commitment to the environment and education, both nationally and internationally, is something that is very apparent by the content they post to their blog. In addition to working on private projects, Sea Reach’s clients include the U.S. Forest Service and other government agencies, as well as educational institutions. 

Sea Reach designs and prints graphics on-site, and has a production facility for manufacturing a wide variety of things—from the posts signage hangs on, to outfitting a van that will be a mobile visitor’s center for Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Where appropriate, they used to outsource some aspects of a project, like v-carving a sign, or cutting out graphics printed on high pressure laminate. In order to bring some of that back in-house, they purchased a pre-owned ShopBot from a company in Portland. The ShopBot came with an operator who had used the machine for working with wood, but the operator had moved on.

Recently, Sea Reach received a grant related to Workforce Development in Oregon. The grant provided the opportunity to hire someone from ShopBot to travel to Oregon to tune-up and upgrade their ShopBot, as well as give 5 days of training and support to teach a number of their employees the true capabilities of the machine.

Before going out to their facility, I consulted with Kelly Crees, Operations Manager of Sea Reach, via email and phone calls to determine what they wanted to do with their ShopBot and what supplies they might need. Kelly sent photos of the ShopBot to help identify the components of the tool, including the control box and card, motors, pinion gears, Z-axis, and spindle. The tool was a PRTalpha with a Colombo spindle, circa 2004. A new computer for design work, new Aspire CAD/CAM software, and consumables such as pinion gears, bits, and collets also became part of the package.

The initial visit indicated that the ShopBot had been well-maintained by the previous operator, and a creative vacuum hold down system had been put in place. The charred state of the bits and collets used for cutting out the high-pressure laminate (a paper infused with plastic) told me that the company could use some help with feeds and speeds for cutting different materials. Since the tool was useable as it was, we jumped into training Melissa (graphic design), Chris (woodworking) and Danny (summer assistant) on how to set up the ShopBot and use Aspire to create files. ShopBot founder Ted Hall was on vacation in Portland on the third day and was recruited to help with changing out pinion gears, reprogramming drivers, and tweaking settings to make the tool hum as it did its work. Should they choose to put the tool into full-time production in the future, there are a few upgrades Sea Reach can make, such as replacing the 14- year-old spindle and upgrading the control card to bring the control box up to the current ShopBot tool standards.

The grant also includes more time for consulting on specific projects, such as v-carving and using Aspire to create 3D models for casting bronze. Sea Reach’s use of their ShopBot for new and exciting projects is just beginning.

Ted Hall was recruited into tweaking one of the first PRTalpha tools to enhance its performance.

 

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ShopBot is pleased to offer (for a fee) help with upgrading an older ShopBot and training new operators on how to use it effectively and efficiently. A document on the ShopBot website can help customers identify what tool they have when they’re ready to discuss a tool upgrade with the staff at ShopBot. 

Contact ShopBot via phone at 888-680-4466, or visit the website, for information on training options, including free videos and documentation, classes at the ShopBot facility in Durham, NC, and customized professional development on-site.

All Desktop CNCs Are Not Created Equal

The CNC below is frequently compared to our ShopBot Desktop and ShopBot Desktop MAX tools. This tool is imported from China by several different resellers in North America. It is also available directly from China from the internet. Prices for the tool vary from $2,800 to $6,500, depending on the reseller. From published specs, the tools are apparently identical though they do have different decals. We thought it helpful to directly compare a few of the characteristics, capabilities, and features of this tool to the ShopBot Desktop and Desktop MAX CNCs.

Mechanicals

ShopBot Desktops and Desktop MAXs have a heavy, solid aluminum frame and a ‘dual-drive’ gantry. Dual-drive means there is a motor and drive system at each side of the gantry. Dual-drive insures that the gantry moves evenly and that it will not be deflected or racked when machining on the left or right side of the centerline. In contrast, the imported CNC has a single, center-drive screw and motor for the gantry that is positioned in the middle of the bay under the deck. This screw is attached to a tie bar that is then attached to the two ends of the gantry. With this system, as cutting moves further and further off the centerline, the gantry can be deflected or racked from the asymmetrical forces to each side of the centerline. One less motor and one less drive system helps reduce costs in the imported tools, but racking will be a source of inaccuracy that needs to be managed. The limitations will come into play with any heavy work, such as cutting or carving hardwoods or machining aluminum. It will also show up in edge quality when cutting plastics and it will make it more difficult doing precision work such as inlays, routing printed circuit boards, or carving jewelry difficult.

A second advantage of the ShopBot’s dual-drive design is that it leaves the area under the bed of the router available for other functionality. In comparison, on a center-drive tool, the tie-bar mechanism moving back and forth under the deck makes that area unavailable for other use.

For example, with the open, dual-drive of the ShopBot Desktop and Desktop MAX design, the area under the deck is available to create a full vacuum hold-down system (which you can make yourself or purchase from us). Moreover, the deck can be removed to allow machining of larger blocks of material, or to add fixturing such as that for our joint-making edge clamp (see detail below), or even to create space for something like an extra-large indexing/turning system.

We do favor using a screw-drive mechanism of some type for motion production in Desktop CNC’s. Screws provide excellent precision and virtually eliminate backlash. However, there are several options for such screws. After having experience with ball-screw systems (these employ ball-bearings inside the nut that rides on the screw) on earlier CNC tools, we chose a Teflon-coated lead screw for our Desktops, manufactured integral to the motor, along with a composite anti-backlash nut (that does not employ internal ball-bearings). The integral-screw keeps the mechanism simple and the axes aligned. In a typical ball-screw installation, couplers, universal joints, and outboard bearings must all be kept in alignment with the ball-nut – a complexity that increases the likelihood that maintenance attention to alignment will be needed. A bigger issue with the ball-screw on these tools is that lubrication with oil is required. It’s a maintenance thing, but more importantly, because the upper-gantry screw is close to the cutting area and unprotected on these small tools, the oil will attract dust and debris and clog the ball-bearings and their channels. Sure, a lot of big CNC’s use ball screws. But, there is typically protection of those screws in the form of shrouds or bellows. For our Desktops, dust simply falls off our Teflon screws as they spin.

A final mechanical issue is the spindle. We’ve noted that the water-cooled spindle on the imported tools probably won’t be a deal-breaker because it can be replaced. The rationale for the water-cooled spindle is that it is inexpensive – and that it will get you started. But water-cooling is awkward and involves the distracting maintenance of keeping a bucket of water from getting moldy and a pump clean and functioning. It makes these spindles a production liability, particularly in comparison to the air-cooled, European-style spindles that have been the industry standard for 50 years. In contrast to the imported tools, the ShopBot Desktop and Desktop MAX CNCs come standard with HSD, air-cooled, industrial spindles.

Electronics, Software, and Controls

In comparison with the very basic control system of the imported tool, ShopBots come standard with a full ShopBot controller and ShopBot Control Software. This controller is the same as on our larger tools and includes all ShopBot functionality, including expandability to additional axes and control of additional accessory functions.

A full CNC control creates opportunities to add features like a rotary indexer accessory that converts your Desktop into a turning daemon, doing carvings, ornamental turnings, and 3D objects in the round. The controller also supports other standard CNC attachments such as active, tangential, knives for cutting fiber materials. We think of our Desktop CNCs as platforms for digital productivity – with options for numerous types of manufacturing assistance and supported by a set of full and expandable controls.

The electronic control and software system that run our tools are tightly integrated with our tools because they were designed for the tools. We believe that good tools start with good mechanicals, but over the years of producing and using CNC tools we have come to believe that software control systems are equally important. Our software focus is on a control system that provides both smooth, efficient cutting and ease-of-use in production. Our recognition of the importance of software distinguishes us as the only manufacturer of affordable CNC tools that produces its own controls and software.

Our software provides smooth cutting motion and crisp acceleration. We have focused on getting high-resolution, straight-line and complex curved motion that is chatter-free with crisp accelerations and decelerations to make cutting efficient. ShopBot’s feed-rates, speeds, and accelerations are fully adjustable in the tool’s software interface and from within toolpath files.

ShopBot’s software interface is straightforward and intuitive to use. Carrying out basic tasks and housekeeping functions such as homing is intuitive. The control software runs toolpath files (part files) generated from virtually any CAD/CAM program. It can utilize files in standard g-code format (Fanuc/NIST RS274) and well as toolpath files that have been created in OpenSBP, an open-syntax CNC language (supported by most current CAD/CAM software).

You are thus able to run ShopBots with two different types of CNC files. Traditional g-code is fine for just running files output by CAD/CAM programs. It may feel particularly friendly if you are a CNC operator experienced with other tools. ShopBot’s OpenSBP option, provides a second and more ‘conversational’ language that is easy for a human to read, understand, and use. Unlike g-code, OpenSBP includes built-in programming functions (such as variables, logic testing, and looping) that make it readily programmed using friendly, BASIC-language-like expressions. OpenSBP makes it straightforward to do everything from creating a button for regularly moving a tool to a standard position, to creating production routines that will improve the efficiency of workers as they manage jobs and files and move parts through your production process.

Software That is Available and Up-to-Date

We continuously evolve our control systems and software as opportunities to add capabilities and features become available. The most recent control software for your tool is always available for download from our website, FREE. When the availability of new electronics allows us to develop improved controllers, we also make them available for older ShopBots. It is possible to retrofit our latest control cards or control box – greatly improving the functionality of a tool – to virtually any age ShopBot.

Our software provides an incredible base of learning resource for CNC. That’s because all ShopBots work the same. Information across our wide spectrum of users makes it easy to get any question answered. Check out our huge web library of free training videos and webinars. Or, look through years of information, help, and hints about fabbing with CNC in our Talk ShopBot Forum.

All our tools come with two, CAD/CAM design software packages. VCarve Pro is acknowledged as one of the easiest-to-use design tools for getting into CNC. For advanced, engineering-driven work, we provide a year’s license to Autodesk’s Fusion 360, a full design, modeling, and rendering program with integrated CAM.

Making a Benchtop CNC an Agile Production Monster!

The concept of a desktop or benchtop tool is that it is agile and portable. That for a given project, it can be put on one bench or another or put on a rolling bench and moved around the shop or factory floor. Portability is not possible if a new 220V circuit must be installed every time you want to move the tool, or if a long, heavy 220V cable needs to be dragged across the floor of your shop. Our Desktop CNCs are designed to provide the highest level of speed, power, precision, and cutting force in a tool that is connected to a standard 110VAC outlet. When you are ready to move a ShopBot Desktop or Desktop MAX CNC to another location. Do it – and, then just plug it into a different outlet. We designed and built these tools from the ground up with agility and configurability in mind. ShopBot Desktops have the power and rigidity of full-size CNC’s and they have as much spindle power as can be packed into 110V. (*If you may have been considering a CNC tool with a woodworking router, please have a look at this white paper comparing the measurement of router cutting power to spindle cutting power).  

We’re very enthusiastic about benchtop CNC tools as production assets for small manufacturing. These tools are frequently as productive as full-size tools when material size is small. They are capable of high precision and powerful cutting because, relatively speaking, they can be quite rigid. Many can double as small mills for working with aluminum and can optionally power a 4th, rotary axis for turning and 3D shaping.

In This Case, Buy American Because You Get More for Your Money

It is often believed that the cost difference between imported products and products like the ShopBot Desktop and Desktop MAX is a result of inexpensive offshore labor. It does cost a little more to build equipment in the US than offshore. But as far as our Desktop CNC tools go, the cost differences in comparison to these imported tools reflects what you are getting. Our tools offer a stronger design that provides greater capabilities and more extensive features. You are buying more tool. You are buying the capability, configurability, agility, and support system to best accomplish your work and to make you productive.

Blending traditional and digital tools to make one-of-a-kind objects of beauty

“Tablescape No. 1.” • Hard rock maple, stainless steel • 58 x 90 x 32 inches. Now showing at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft – Texascraft 2018 • Winner of one of three Juror Merit Awards.

Meet Artist and Industrial Designer Brooke M Davis

We’ve been following Brooke M Davis’ work since 2012 after she purchased her full size ShopBot. Brooke has continued to design and fabricate beautiful, organic, functional furniture that can easily be categorized as art. In fact, Brooke’s work can be found at the CraftTexas 2018 show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, September 29, 2018 — January 6, 2019.

 

“Pilo Side Table” • Wood Side Tables 2019 • Walnut, Swarovski Crystal, Steel

Brooke’s newest work includes the plush tufted walnut side table (above) that is both elegant and inviting. Not only will it be displayed in the Texas Furniture Makers Fair at Kerr Arts Cultural Center in November, she will be showing it in Milan at the Salone Del Mobile in April 2019.

Keep an eye on her website: brookemdavisdesign.com for more exciting work to come.

MakeShift, her design consulting service and production facility, continues to thrive and regularly sees a wide variety of work through the shop that keeps things interesting. Brooke and her team handle prototyping work, product development classes, design consultation, and more to the Austin, TX area—and beyond. This is a unique space where real product ideas come to life.

We are looking forward to seeing what’s next for Brooke.

 


Take a look back at the story about Brooke from 2012 below.
Originally written & published by: Michael Berliner

Websites: Brooke’s original furniture & objects: brookemdavisdesign.com, Design consulting services & production facilities: makeshiftatx.com 
ShopBot Tool: 
PRSstandard 96 X 48

Brooke M Davis Design blurs the line between artisan and designer by combining artistic expression with design precision to produce luxury craftsmanship. The process involves coupling mass production techniques like computer aided design with hands on master craftsmanship to create new and exciting results. With individuality in mind, this process allows for ease of customization at the client’s request.

Brooke’s process of discovery and creation for Tablescape No. 1 is much like it is for all her original works. “It’s a fluid process, and it always involves my ShopBot CNC,” notes Brooke. “I always have in mind that CNC is going to be integrated into my process. I’ll often start by making a 2D pencil sketch, then build on the idea by doing quick modeling in wet clay, to see where this takes me. I’ll photograph the models, and bring them into computer and use CAD to hone and clean up the lines … It’s a fluid process. I’ll then go back to clay to continue to play with the work. Sometimes I’ll draw on top of the photographs and bring that into the computer to further develop the design.”

Brooke’s collections range from high-end one-of-a-kind pieces to limited run productions. With quality craftsmanship and attention to detail, every piece is made to order with quality in mind. She works with individual clients, interior designers, and architects to offer a variety of services to meet innovative project needs. Specialties include limited run CNC production, industrial design, furniture design, and custom architectural installations.

“I’d worked with ShopBots throughout my education and teaching positions, so I was very familiar with their tools and capabilities. CNC technology became ingrained into my creative processes from the start, and I always integrate it into my design and production process. I finally bought my own ShopBot in May of 2011 and it’s been everything I knew it would be.

One of the things I really like about ShopBot is the community that surrounds it. The people at ShopBot are great — very helpful if I ever have a question. And there’s a very supportive and active group of users on the forum, so you feel like you’re part of a larger group that’s very much into CNC and helping one another succeed.”

Brooke also founded the community hacker space, make+SHift in 2011. ” It’s the only Design on Demand Shop for product developers in Texas!” says Brooke. “We provide you with the necessary design resources to make your ideas a reality. We offer design consulting services, CNC prototyping, and classes to advance professional development, plus comfortable work-space all in one place.”

Brooke notes, “One of the things that’s been wonderful about opening make+SHift is that I learn something new all the time from my customers. They bring new projects and challenges to the table, and my team gets to think of new ways of solving problems. It energizes my own design thinking as well.” 

ShopBot in the Theatre: USITT Master Class – Southeast Section 

The scene shop at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, has been making good use of their 4’x8’ ShopBot PRSstandard for creating various props for stage productions, including plywood forests of trees. Recently, the theatre department asked ShopBot to conduct a series of Master Classes for the Southeast Section of USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) to learn more about, and share the capabilities of, their CNC machine with other theatre programs throughout the southeast.

One topic that seemed to spark everyone’s interest was 3D carving. With that in mind, the first demonstration was how to import a 3D file, in .stl format, into the VCarve Pro software, which is shipped with each ShopBot tool. Placing the “component” into the software in the correct orientation is a simple process. The model we chose to make was thicker than the 1.5” pink insulation foam that we had available, so we foreshortened the Z-height in the model to create a “bas” or low relief that would not be evident when looked at straight on. Another option to create the effect would be to use the slicing feature available in VCarve to create a series of carvings (slices) that could be stacked up after machining. Since we went for speed rather than detail, we used the same .25” ball nose bit to do a roughing pass over the entire model, and a finishing toolpath over the right side of the model.   

The bas relief of the imported Dia de los Muertos skull was subjected to two different tool paths. The entire model inside the larger rectangle was given a roughing pass to clear away the excess material. For the finishing pass, a smaller rectangle was selected. The stepover and feed/rate were changed to enhance the final result.

 

Another option is to use the slicing option available in VCarve Pro/Aspire to slice the model into sections that are the thickness of the available material, and stack them up after 3D carving.

Even experienced ShopBot operators learned something new when going over the basics of ShopBot set-up and the tools within VCarve Pro. Want to join all the open segments in an imported .dxf file or change all the individual segments into a sweeping curve? Want to trace a bitmap? Want to recalculate all the toolpaths in one go? Want to get an estimate of the time to machine a part? There’s a tool for that.

While the skull was being 3D carved, we split up and worked with smaller groups on different projects on different machines. On the big ShopBot gantry tool that belongs to Coastal Carolina University, we worked on a shop stool project that is available on the ShopBot website.

Screen shot of shop stools laid out so that the slot size can be adjusted for the actual thickness of the material.

 

Finished shop stools.

On the other Desktop, we worked with a V-bit. Richard demonstrated how to import a bitmap, trace it, and VCarve the result.  The CC was an example of how to use the VCarve toolpath tool to create a raised design by selecting the design, and a border. The CC is reversed so that the carving can be used as a stamp for textile design.

By painting the board first, then carving into it, one can easily create a two-color sign or design. (Or perhaps you have a piece of scrap material, and the board was already painted and placed back in the material pile.)

Session 2 of the Master Class included some additional options. VCarve Pro is 2D CAD and 2D/3D CAM software, so you can import 3D files and toolpath them, but you cannot design them or manipulate one that you have imported. Aspire is the big sister of VCarve Pro, and is a 2D/3D CAD and CAM software. In other words, you can “puff up” 2D vectors into 3D models. Another of one of the tools in Aspire allows you to import a black and white image and create a 3D component based on the grayscale of the photo. As an example, we snapped a photo of a fish on the wall at our restaurant, and used Aspire to create a 3D carving.

Art object on the wall. Photo snapped to be turned into a 3D component in Aspire.

 

Underlying vectors of fish and a border “puffed up” into 3D in Aspire.

 

Pattern of fish extracted from photograph and laid over the underlying 3D model.

 

Model machined in pink foam with a .25” ball nose bit.

With the small size of the second session, attendees could get some in-depth instruction on options or ideas that they were interested in. Two-sided machining, setting up jigs for multiple copies, and the rotary indexer for machining in the round were but a few of the topics that had heads spinning and ideas flowing as folks headed back to their own shops.

48 contestants. 48 hours. One winning idea.

Make48 Film Crew at Work

As a product design student walking into an event where teams are tasked with designing a product, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Every day at school we brainstorm ideas, sketch them out, prototype them over and over, and then at the end of the project, market and present a finished prototype to our peers. As I looked around the empty shop in the quiet hours before the competition began, I wondered how closely what I was about to witness would resemble the process of product development that I had grown so familiar with. I was in Towson, Maryland at the Stanley Black & Decker Makerspace for Season 3 of the TV show “Make48” in which 48 contestants have 48 hours to develop a product, produce a working prototype, create a short promotional video for that product, present it to a panel of judges, and do it all within the given challenge category and specific budget constraints. Sounds easy enough, right? This year, the contestants were all college students from universities all over the country—but I wasn’t there as a contestant. I was invited as a tool tech for ShopBot Tools, there to help the teams realize their ideas through physical prototypes and to guide them through the process of 3D modeling and 2D vector design for CNC machining.

Once the contestants began to arrive and I had a chance to talk with them a little, it became apparent that the competition drew a heavily engineering-based crowd. Of course, there were outliers who didn’t fit into this category, and there was one team that didn’t have a single engineering or design-based member. Those were the teams I was most interested in following. Sometimes throwing people out of their element and having them do things they wouldn’t normally do can yield surprising and positive results.

Right before noon on Friday, we all gathered around the huge stop clock at the front of the room, eagerly waiting for the 48 hours of chaos to begin. The giant steam whistle blew loudly, like the start of a factory workday in days gone by. It’s then time for the teams to get down to business and time for the tool techs to stand at the ready once the prototyping begins. Straight out of the gate, each team tackled the brainstorming phase in different ways. Within the first two hours, one team had created a model and 3D printed a rough prototype while many other teams struggled to narrow down the category of products that they wanted to focus on. Some teams immediately turned to sketching out their thoughts, while others pulled their ideas together into ordered lists, and one team had a mess of notes scattered across the table with no rhyme nor reason. Unfortunately for me as a tool tech, I was merely a spectator in these first few hours as teams decided what they wanted to create. It wasn’t until they began thinking about prototyping that my expertise came into play. One-by-one, the teams began to send their members out to the tool techs to begin fabricating their ideas.

Cutting prototypes for the TV camera.

For me, that was when the most rewarding part of the whole weekend began; the first contestant came to us with their idea, and we helped them translate their idea into a real, tangible product. We worked with them to create or edit their CAD files and guide them through the process of converting those vectors into a ready-to-cut .sbp file. As the machine warmed up and we zeroed the axis to the new material, I watched the whole team gather around the tool. As the spindle began to cut away at the material, there was a visible change in their expressions as the magic of technology brought their vision into reality. Watching their faces light up with pride as they watched the ShopBot cutting out their product or their logo was rewarding.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about design in my time at school, it’s that presentations matter. There were many rapid prototyping techniques available at this event to bring these teams’ projects to life. In addition to the two ShopBot CNC machines, there were twelve Ultimaker 3D printers, an Epilog laser cutter, a large vinyl cutter, a Bridgeport mill, and a CNC plasma cutter, as well as a well-stocked wood and metal shop filled with many Stanley Black & Decker power and hand tools. Although several universities represented have ShopBot tools in their programs, the teams unfamiliar with CNC technology found some machines intimidating. Once we cut out a few things on the ShopBot ourselves, you could see the curiosity and confidence in the faces of the contestants begin to grow as teams got excited about the potential of prototyping on CNC. On the last day, as I looked out on the stage as each team presented their products to the panel of judges, I admired all the work we’d done with the ShopBot. Without our ShopBot Desktop and large PRSalpha 5’x10’ gantry – or any of the other digital manufacturing machines – the outcome of this competition would have been very different, and certainly would have taken longer than 48 hours. In the world of design, an idea is nothing if you can’t see it through to a working product.

I really wish that I could tell you more about all the incredible products that the teams produced, but I’m not allowed to share that information until the show is released next year, so you’ll have to wait until then. For more on the show, including what channels the first two seasons can be viewed on, visit Make48.com.

 

Reported by Sarah Burns. Sarah is a third-year product design student at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. She works at their Makerspace in the library where they have a ShopBot Desktop.

Timeless design and old-fashioned customer service lead to Durham Bookcases’ success

We recently popped in for a quick visit with Phillip Fletcher to see how his business, Durham Bookcases & More, is doing and to take a peek at his 17-year-old ShopBot. Rest assured, his business and his ShopBot are looking good and continue to be ready to take on customer needs today and into tomorrow.

Fletcher’s shop sits just beside the railroad tracks in Downtown Durham. He’s been working in this space since the early 70’s when Durham was a tobacco town and Main Street was still a gravel road. The area has changed a lot since then. He now finds himself surrounded by pricey new condos and busy boutique restaurants – brimming with college students and professionals alike.

For more than 30 years, Phillip and the crew at Durham Bookcases & More have continued to produce and sell quality bookcases, as well as other real wood furniture items, that fit in both contemporary and traditional homes. Foot traffic is still an important part of the business and allows the Durham Bookcases staff to really connect with customers. However, internet presence via their website and through online retailer, Etsy, have enabled them to expand their sales footprint – selling all over the world. As many businesses and manufacturers have similarly been affected – especially since 2008 – Durham Bookcases has navigated shifts in material pricing and availability due to economic conditions that are still present today. However, they remain committed to reasonably priced furniture that customers can feel good about investing in, furniture that stands the test of time.

The ShopBot that Phillip purchased in 2001 continues to be an integral part of his manufacturing process. Over the years, he has amassed thousands of files – standard and custom jobs – that he runs on a ticketing system. Staff are able to systematically move projects through the shop using a combination of traditional shop tools and the ShopBot; and are able to scale up to accommodate demand.

Durham Bookcases believes in making quality products that last, just like ShopBot does.



Take a look back at the original story we ran on Phillip in 2011 below.
Written & Published by: Michael Berliner

Business: Durham Bookcases (& Other Cool Wood Stuff)
Where: Durham, North Carolina
ShopBot Tool:
 96 X 48 PRSalpha (purchased in 2001)

Furniture maker Philip Fletcher founded Durham Bookcases back in 1995. “Our goal from the beginning was to build bookcases at competitive prices with high quality workmanship.” As time has passed, Durham Bookcases has grown their offerings to include custom-built entertainment centers, wall units, office furniture and bedroom furniture, and increased the variety of woods, sizes, & options to continue to please their customers.

Fletcher says his guiding philosophy has always remained the same. “I’m a custom maker. It always works best if my customers meet with me one on one, to discuss their needs fully. That way, the customer is pleased with the outcome. I know my furniture is going to last — so I want the customer to be happy with their purchase for a long, long time!”

It was about 10 years ago that Fletcher added digital fabrication technology to the core of his manufacturing process. He contacted Durham neighbor ShopBot Tools and has been pleased with the tool, and his relationship with ShopBot, ever since.

“My ShopBot is a workhorse,” says Fletcher. “Quite simply, it’s reliable.” Over the years Fletcher has found that the ShopBot’s easy interface is a boon because it’s easy to train employees how to use the software. Asked how long it takes to bring a new employee up to speed, Fletcher didn’t hesitate to answer: “Twenty-four hours.”

When it comes to technical problems, Fletcher smiles and says, “It usually turns out to be a user issue, not a problem with the tool. Customer service has always been friendly and available when we need it.”

Durham Bookcases has been in business long enough to have experienced busy times and quieter times, and has witnessed shifts in customer attitudes and interests. “There was a trend in recent years for customers to want only ‘green’ materials,” notes Fletcher. “I like to point out that by using quality woods is the best way to be green — because furniture that lasts for 25 years and more doesn’t ever need to be recycled!”

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From the Archive…
See Phillip Fletcher’s posts on the ShopBot Blog (2010) about making raised panel doors with the ShopBot:

Making the Perfect Door, Part I: Concept and Programming

Making a Perfect Door, II: Construction and Reprogramming


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You may also be interested in…
Durham Bookcases and More and ShopBot Tools, Inc. are both headquartered in Durham, NC. Here’s a post about projects around town that have been “touched by  a ShopBot”.
Signs of ShopBot Around Our Hometown – Durham, North Carolina

Why We Build Our Tools Ourselves

You may know that ShopBot Tools sells CNC tools, serving small-to-medium sized manufacturing companies. What you may not know is that we build our digital fabrication tools ourselves – using digital fabrication. We design and build our own tools, the electronic controls for the tools, as well as the software that runs the tools, which differentiates ShopBot from most other companies selling affordable CNC equipment.

As a potential CNC owner, the fact that we design and build our own tools makes a meaningful difference to you. With a ShopBot, you get a tool from the people who designed and manufactured the tools and the software that runs it. You get your help and support from the people who know and understand the equipment and its control. The equipment, the design, the wide range of training and support resources that we make available to you – all are based on our own continual involvement in small manufacturing using the digital technologies of the equipment itself.

We use the tools ourselves all day, every day. That’s why we understand how CNC, digital fabrication, and robotics are used in production. We make use of that knowledge in the development of our products and in the technical support we provide to you for your production success.

Our involvement in design and manufacture, combined with our full engagement in customer support, creates a cycle of product enhancement that we think of as our “Turbine of Innovation.” Here’s how it works:

There is a continuous loop of integrated feedback between our manufacturing and our customers’ manufacturing. We learn from our production. We learn from your production, and we learn from you. We integrate this learning and discovery into our design, development, and improvement process. This process efficiently drives the innovation that provides you with greater productivity, product reliability, and ease of use.

An advantage of building our own tools rather than importing and reselling others’ equipment is that we’re able to rapidly make iterative improvements and enhancements to tools and software. We continuously integrate these improvements into our products and keep ShopBot owners in an upgrade loop. When we develop something new, it does not obsolete your previous investment; instead we focus on upgrade paths to keep your tool in that Turbine of Innovation loop. Even 18-year-old ShopBots have been updated to have many of the capabilities of new tools – they keep working year-after-year. Because of this longevity, ShopBots keep their value and usefulness rather than becoming a financial and logistical burden to your shop.

We are currently in the process of rolling out our next generation controller for digital tools and equipment. Representing several years work, it’s both hardware and software that improves motion, making fabrication faster, smoother, and easier. It allows monitoring and tuning of tool performance and tracking usage and job flow. We call it FabMo (digital Fabrication and Motion platform). FabMo will first be available on our small tools this summer, then we will begin shipping on full size tools, and, shortly after, will be available as an enhanced, drop-in-controller for older ShopBots – giving them new features and capabilities.

And yes, we get a kick out of developing and building the tools ourselves. We like hands-on. We like production. We enjoy using technology to stay competitive – and we enjoy producing the kind of product that will empower your competitiveness and appreciate the opportunity to help you succeed.

 

Digital fabrication technology is the key to making small manufacturing competitive again

Over 20 years ago, we had an idea to bring digital control to production tools, but at a human scale —digital fab technology at the time was only available for large industrial applications. We wanted to make the technology accessible to entrepreneurial individuals, small shops, and small-run manufacturing. 

History shows that our idea caught on. The press now calls this concept of digital technology being used competitively by small manufacturing: “The next industrial revolution.” Checkout how digital fab works for our own manufacturing:  “Eating Our Own Dogfood … ”.

Returning small manufacturing to our communities can restore their vitality. Manufacturing is the single most effective economic activity for producing value. It preserves our quality of life; it keeps us creative; and it keeps us competitive. Small manufacturing is especially effective because of its close relationship to the local economy, its proven role in education and workforce training, and its integration within a community.

 

We believe in small manufacturing and we practice it.

We use digitally controlled equipment (often our own ShopBots) to produce ShopBot tools. We utilize the continuum of digital fabrication technologies – from the digital model of our tools, to digital prototyping, to full CNC production of almost everything we make. As well, we use digital technologies in our marketing, logistics, and other business activities. We believe that it is these technologies that will make small manufacturing realistically competitive again, right here in the US.

In short, we are small manufacturers of digital fabrication equipment and we use digital fabrication to produce that equipment. We live the idea. We help it work for you!
See Ted Hall’s full series of essays on using Digital Fabrication in Small Manufacturing: https://medium.com/@tedhall.shopbot

To learn more about ShopBot Tools, visit: www.shopbottools.com

Explore our community of digital fabrication manufacturers at: www.100kGarages.com

Popular Pastime Reintroduced by ShopBot Tools at the Maker Faire Bay Area

The 13th Annual Maker Faire Bay Area, which took place May 18th-20th, once again did not disappoint. The weather was beautiful and there was an estimated attendance of 90,000! Packed with hands-on and how-to sessions, makers young and old were inspired and excited. New programming was added this year: Thursday After Dark at the Exploratorium; Industry, Career, & College Day on Friday (See: The World Needs more Makers article on PCMag.com); and there was the addition of the Learning Lab in Fiesta Hall.

The ShopBot booth was converted into a pop-up factory; creating a start-to-finish production line using the ShopBot Desktop MAX, Handibot® Large Sheet Tool and Handibot Smart Power Tool – Adventure Edition tools to make yo-yos. Yes, yo-yos!! We painted and pre-cut baltic birch 1/2” plywood into sheets to fit on the Desktop MAX. Then, we handled the cutting, drilling, and carving as a batch process for the insides of the yo-yo pieces. Engraving and edge round overs on the painted side of the yo-yo pieces (the fronts) were then processed on one of the two Handibots. After the machining operations were complete, we lightly sanded the pieces, then completed assembly using a dowel pin and string to then pop the sides together and…voila! Using our booth as a live production and assembly shop was a demonstration of how many products can be designed, then manufactured, using CNC (digital fabrication) in a systematic, consistent, and highly efficient manner.

Close to 1,000 yo-yo’s were distributed to attendees at Maker Faire over the 3 day event!

We were thrilled with the abundance of social media posts generated at Maker Faire. Posts were shared by makers with the yo-yos created at the show and pics of themselves with our giant 44” foam yo-yo (cut on a 4×8 PRSalpha tool and assembled pre-show) with the hopes of being selected as the drawing winner for the Handibot Smart Power Tool giveaway. We selected at random from all the social media posts shared publicly and tagged with #goShopBot, #goHandibot, @ShopBotTools, and @HandibotTool. And the winner is… Heather Taylor Price! Heather is a maker and works at a library makerspace at a high school in Utah – she has been considering adding CNC to the makerspace for quite some time and now has the opportunity to do so. We can’t wait to see what she comes up with for the students to tackle! You can follow Heather on Twitter: @skyridgelibrary and @heathertaylorprice.

Midday Saturday, our very own Bill Young participated in a panel discussion at the MAKE: LIVE stage. Experts in digital fabrication including Josef Prusa (Prusa Research s.r.o.), Dan Shapiro (Glowforge), and Bill Young (ShopBot), moderated by Matt Stultz, discussed the current state of digital fabrication and where they see it moving forward.

One of our big highlights was Saturday afternoon, at the MAKE Center Stage. Ted Hall presented: “How Digital Fabrication Promises to Make Small, Fulfilling, Local Manufacturing Competitive Again.” Ted talked about an invention his uncle had designed 30+ years ago and how, until very recently, there wasn’t an affordable way to produce this or many other inventions without excessive upfront costs and huge production numbers. Today, however, with the availability of enabling tools in the digital fabrication realm (CNC, 3D printers, laser cutters, etc.), Ted’s uncle and makers all over the world can be competitive.

Ted’s presentation was based on a series of Medium articles that he’s been writing. Learn more about these themes: leapfroging current mass-production and replacing it with methods that can make the small producer competitive again, Digital Fab Renews Small Mfg, Complexity Comes Free, Leveraging Agility & Entrepreneurial Energy.

The next opportunity to hear Ted Hall, ShopBot’s Founder & CEO, speak will be at the CNC Symposium at IWF, August 21st.

Maker Faires are popping up all over the world. While we can’t be at all of them, we encourage ShopBotters to take their Handibot, Desktop, or Desktop MAX to a Maker Faire nearby so you can show off what you design and make. You get to watch kids of all ages light up, they learn about how to make a classic toy (like what we did) or another object, and it provides an opportunity to get to know other makers in your area. Find a Maker Faire near you.