CNC & Machining Workshop
PocketNC, an Affordable Five-Axis CNC

Jaws drop when makers see a five-axis CNC at work. That’s what happened to me when I saw PocketNC performing its magic. I peered closely and saw a spindle moving along two axes milling a piece of plastic mounted on a trunnion moving along/around three axes. The result of a three-year, four-prototype development effort of husband and wife team Matt and Michelle Hertel, PocketNC is getting ready for market.

Machinists and mechanical engineers, this couple loves building things. After participating in many Instructables contests and putting in up to 30 hours per week on their entries, they eventually decided to channel their energies into something which they could sell as a product. Matt had wanted a mini mill but couldn’t find what he wanted at the price he was willing to pay. Over the course of their research, they found that many others wanted the same thing so they decided to build their own but jumped straight to five-axes.

While their prototyping efforts started in the house they quickly converted a 10×10 shed to a workshop where they worked. From the start, the mill’s frame was built of aluminum but they are always working to reduce weight, presently at 25 pounds. The mill uses stepper motors and they can cut dependably to a tolerance of +/- 1/5000th of an inch, the spindle turns at 500-6000 rpm for plenty of range for speeds and feeds of various materials. The millable volume is  5″ diameter by 4″ tall. This gem can mill plastic and aluminum and they’re confirming that it can also mill steel and titanium

World Maker Faire was their first big public showing of PocketNC and they found it invigorating. After years spent working on the project in isolation it was exciting to see so many positive reactions from the maker community. They’ve come a long way after multiple prototypes. They still want to test more materials, switch their controller to Synthetos, and then go to market but with measured organic growth till they get it totally right.

Cost? They’re shooting for around $3,000.

25 thoughts on “PocketNC, an Affordable Five-Axis CNC

  1. The big problem in using this device effectively in simultaneous 5 axis mode is creating the CAM output from your CAD/CAM system. Many post-processor makers rightfully charge quite a lot for software that can program a cnc move in 5-axis. I don’t doubt that EMC or possibly MACH can run the machine though.

    Now, 3+2 programming (contour in x,y,z, index in A,B rotation) is much more useful for me, and easier to program as well.

    Either way, good luck to a great project!

  2. Affordable 5 axis CAD/CAM is not available because until now there wasn’t an affordable 5 axis mill. PocketNC will drive the demand for better and less costly software. As stated it makes a great 3 axis machine with A and B positioning. With the potential for developing your 5 axis programming and machining skills.

    1. Maybe, but not so soon. The problem is much more difficult than just finding tangencies to a ball mill (for example) as in 3 Axis contouring. Even with very high end CAD software, we spend much time verifying our CNC code, not only for avoiding collisions, but also for the proper cutting conditions (surface speed, and chip load per tooth).

      Now the race is on. Will 3D printing get to print more durable materials more rapidly than inexpensive 5-axis machining will get cutting edge CAD/CAM capabilities in the hands of Hobbyists?

    2. There have been 5 axis Taig setups for years. Its pretty simple, if not rather larger and more cumbersome, to set up such a ‘mini-mill’ with an A axis w/ trunnion table and C axis rotary table on that trunnion plane. The total cost is about the same as this machine +/- 15%. Although it is probably less precise it offers the possibility of larger xyza and quite large xyz millable areas.

      As mentioned by others, the software is the biggest problem. There is 4 1/2 axis jewelry CAM software for about half the price of this machine. Continous 5 axis CAM software is a lot more expensive and out of the reach of most makers, who might at best hope to employ a parrot or else borrow a seat- if lucky enough to have a friend in an industry using it.

      There needs to be an affordable, hobby grade, 5 axis continous CAM application. Hopefully some out-source-unemployed code-monkey will write one. Getting to otherwise undercut locations without hand-indexing, fixtures, or loss of zeros is critical. Speed, unlike the current high-cost industrial applications, is not so important. Tool paths for 5 axis surface scanning and engraving would be wonderful. There is a huge market here to small-time jewelers and model makers, in some ways milling offers benefits over 3d printing… but the market is trending towards printing primarilly due to lack of affordable 5-axis CAM code.

  3. Hi,

    the mechanics look nice but:
    – as already mentioned: it is of little use without a 5 Axis CAM. The cheapest one I know costs $3000 as “special offer” and is only usable in bundle with a specific CAD program…
    – But this is not the main issue – 5 axis is generally hard to set up. Why? On a 3 axis machine tool length and part position make no difference for the cnc program itself. Just touch off and run. On 5 Axis machines the moves are totally different if the part is just shifted a few mm from one position to another. If you like to run it with cheap cnc control software you need to know exactly beforehand where your part will be and how long your tools are before running the CAM job. The alternative is again expensive: an integrated CAM / control software and touch probes…


    1. Exactly. Try to wrap your mind around the adjustments to be made not only for diameter cutter compensation, but also for cutter length compensation. I have heard one story about a company that makes small turbine disks with a 5-axis machine. They go so far as to re-post out the code when they change the finish cutter, compensating for diameter changes a small as .0003″.
      What is also needed (and not usual for most CNC machines, in my experience) is something called ‘dynamic fixture offsets’. This is a function that moves your ‘home’ (G54, etc…) csys with A and B rotations to compensate for fixture errors from perfect form.

      1. Yes, sounds good but is extremely unlikely to happen…
        Programming a 3 Axis CAM is a piece of cake compared to 5 Axis – the people behind this kind of stuff are true math and programming gods.
        And: using 5 Axis software effectively is also a quite well paid skill on its own. Of course you can learn it – but it is quite complex and confusing at the beginning. Some years of machining background and proper training definitively help a lot.


  4. How about, once fully developed, run a contest where the grand prize is this machine and the objective is making an open source five axis CAM software. Do that and have it be successful and this machine will sell like hotcakes. Otherwise, the sales will be next to zero, being that those that can afford the software will most likely be looking for a well established brand.

    Note that it’s not that big of a deal for current three axis machine owners to add the other two axes, but they don’t cuz there is no five axis software that is affordable. I own a four axis machine, but I never have added a fifth axis for this reason.

    There is one software option though and that is CNC Toolkit, Yet one needs to jump through a lot of hoops to get it do anything useful, so I never attempted it.

  5. @David “CNC what?” Good point, but on top of that:
    @Travis “Affordable”? That’s very subjective. “Cheaper” would have been more accurate, “$3000” would have been ideal – accurate and concise. Not everyone can afford to drop $3k, Mr Middle-Class Writer.

      1. Happy to write, and I sometimes do. Why & how do you see what I said as ‘nasty’ or ‘shit’? I pointed out something that was subjective and possibly misleading, and you reply with empty adjectives? Pot: Kettle.

  6. Looks like a cool machine! Might want some way covers, I’d expect the bearings and lead-screw to wear rapidly and tend to jam once you get some dust and chips in them.
    I find the term “affordable” annoying (BTW their web site says target price $3500 USD). Affordable to who? As Don Lancaster suggested, you can replace “affordable” with “lemon scented” without losing any information.

  7. This machine can hold .0002″? Not a chance. I think they might mean the resolution of the linear encoders.

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