Software

Software is often the most confusing aspect to most green CNC hobbyists. A good place to start can be found in the final chapters of Build your Own CNC Machine, by Patrick Hood-Daniel. Here, he goes over the basics, defines what you need, and intruduces Mach3. I will also add some of the titles I have become familiar with over the years.

The first and most obvious question is “what software do I need?” The answer might not be as confusing and ambiguous as it may seem, but you do have to make some decisions. There is no single program that does everything for you, you will need several programs to use your machine (197). The good news is it does not cost much to get started (many good titles are free), but the sky is the limit in availability for your different needs.

CAD
First is your CAD software, which is the program that you use to get the geometry of your project into the computer. Most hobbyists have a pretty good understanding on what this is, but often are not sure which is the best software for them is (209). While most programs capable of vector manipulation will fit the bill, a program dedicated to designing the type of work you are doing will be most beneficial. Prices range from free to tens of thousands of dollars.

For art applications, Inkscape is an excellent free solution. There are also many other free programs available for design work. Rhino, ArtCAD, SolidWorks, BobCAD, are very good paid options, and have specialty uses designed for a specific application. Beware, however, that many of these titles can get very expensive.

CAM

CAM

CAM
Once your design is in the computer, it needs to be put into a language that the machine can understand, called “G-code”. This is called Computer Aided Machining. The job of this is to find a way to turn the actual shapes and ideas that are in your drawing into a path for your cutter to travel. This is often the most confusing program to new users. Many CAM programs have drawing capabilities as well, but this is not their primary focus. Last, but not least, is your machine control software, which physically controls your machines movement.

CamBam is a popular freeware title. While it is a little buggy and not completely intuitive, it will get the job done in a pinch for most 2D work and give decent results.

If you want to step up in quality and features, a very popular paid series anything by Vectric. Cut2D is their most basic program, for 2.5D operations, while Cut3D does very nice 3D profiles. V-Carve pro is top notch for sign making, and Aspire is all of these in one. I use V-Carve Pro, and consider it indispensable. Vectric does a very good job of combining functionality with usability, and the interface is second to none as far as ease of use. V-Carve pro was featured recently in Make Magaine in this article, in the January 2012, and is worth the read for a full overview of its features (“Tool Review: Vectric V-Carve Pro 6.5”)

Mach3

Mach3

CONTROL
Finally there is the machine control. This is the program that converts your G-code into pulses that move the machine.

By far the best free option is EMC2, which is an open source machine controller capable of running almost any type of setup. The interface is intuitive and easy to learn, but it is limited to running within a special distribution of Ubuntu Linux. Many people consider EMC2 to be competitive with many top notch controllers, and I am inclined to agree. The “Live” option is also nice, which allows you to test the software without installing on your system.

Even with some great free options, there are also many outstanding software titles for purchase that will expand your capabilities. Mach3 is by far the best and most popular paid CNC controller software. It’s wide variety of plug-ins and support make is one of the most used solutions available (197).

Sometimes the options seem overwhelming. Just remember: Google is your friend. There is no such thing as a generic solution that suits everyone. The needs of your software will be dictated by your application. There is no substitute for good solid research, as no one can tell you exactly what you need.