Ever built a CNC machine? I have. You never, ever hit your budget. Usually it’s because you don’t count on shipping costs or having to deal with sourcing hardware/parts from many different distributors. If you’re trying to recreate a project from¬†instructables, you obviously missed the part where the author failed to mention he spent years scavenging parts to get the total project cost down. I don’t have years, I want my CNC now! Well, there’s hope for you! Project ShapeOko promises a build totaling under $300 for a 12’x12’x8′ cutting area. A summary of the project and why I just pledged $100 after the break.

The Desktop CNC Machine

The main features of the project:

  • $300 total for construction (cutting head may run you over if you opt for a high features, name brand model)
  • Open source – the design is available for free and further development will be supported and hosted by the designer
  • Laser cut wood structure – easy to build with accuracy
  • Operates on free software and other open source components (free solutions for CAD, CAM, and controller)
  • Ponoko vouchers or machine parts available at funding levels of $50 and up

There have been a handful of desktop CNC machines on Kickstarter and each one has had its own appeal, but ShapeOko stands out to me for the following reasons:

  1. It is open source and the project creator uses language that demonstrates the author’s understanding of some of the frustrations of working with open source designs. (Turns out that he’s an IT guy, so that makes sense.)
  2. The project has received some sponsorship from Ponoko. At some pledge levels, the “thank you” gift is a Personal Factory Making voucher, which can be used for all sorts of things, including their CNC routing service. If Ponoko digs the project, that’s a good sign.
  3. This guy has been working towards this moment for years. As in 6 of them. I’m happy to benefit from someone else’s hard work.
  4. You should be able to source everything you need just from Ponoko (the frame is laser cut wood) and your hardware store. That’s a good kind of simplification.
  5. Edward Ford, the project designer, listed his phone number, so I was able to call him and ask him for clarification on some questions. I liked what he had to say. (I’ve written those details into this post)
  6. Edward isn’t making money on this. I have no problems with people making money off their work, but I sure do like to help out people who are giving their time away for free.
ShapeOko Desktop CNC Machine
The President's Autopen has nothing on ShapeOko.

Conclusions

Anyone who has tried to use CNCzone as a resource for building their own CNC rig knows that finding consistent, usable information on that site is nearly impossible, but it’s also one of the only places. Having built my own CNC machines, I’m happy to ride on the coat tails of someone else who is willing to put his time and effort in for free. Edward and I talked CNC machines and parts for a while and I hung up feeling like he knew enough for this project to be what it promises. Once Edward asked a guy why he wanted to buy a premade machine instead of building his own. The answer: “I’m buying a machine because I want to make projects on it, not because I want a machine that IS the project.” It is so true.

I pledged $100 because I know that the machine design will be better because of it. Oh, I get something out of it – an arduino and enough stepper motors to make a self-scooping litter box. With the structure requirements being low enough on a desktop machine that wood will do the trick, pushing the cutting work onto Ponoko seems like an obvious choice, especially since they teamed up with SparkFun to also supply electronics.

While the project has almost hit its funding in a matter of days, there are many benefits to over-funding, including giving the designer some wiggle room for trial and error, that will result in a better machine. I look forward to finally being able to make custom My Little Pony belt buckles without leaving the comfort of my desk.

Extras!

Here is some info that didn’t really have a place in this post, but I thought was worth knowing.

  • While talking to Edward, I was reminded that he had posted an NES controller driven CNC mill project from a year or so ago. This guy is my kind of geek.
  • The name ShapeOko is derived from Shapeways and Ponoko, the net-based producers that provided the parts for Edward’s original machine.
  • The project may end up incorporating another Kickstarter project, the MakerSlide, a linear bearing system that incorporates a v-groove rail and support structure into a single extrusion.

Image Credits: Edward Ford

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