CNC milling is about as cool as it gets, except for one big problem: the free software options pretty much blow, especially for a CNC noob. The team at Inventables is aiming to fix that with the release of Easel, the first browser-based CNC design/fabrication controller.
Traditionally, CNC projects are designed in CAD software, then exported as G-code and sent to intricate computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software setup, where the machining data is created based on desired cut paths, tool speeds, etc. It takes a long, long time to master, and as anyone who’s broken an end mill knows, the learning curve is stressful.
Easel is designed to be the beginner’s gateway tool, aiming to get an aspiring machinist from inception to milling in under five minutes. The app, officially announced and demonstrated at Austin’s ATX Hackerspace for SXSW, lets the user create a design using a number of built-in shapes, an uploaded vector file, or by drawing freehand in the app. The display shows both 2D and 3D versions of your creation on a virtual waste board, and indicates areas that fall off the material as you build your design.
The design portion, reminiscent of Tinkercad in look and simplicity, is a step forward for getting started with CNC, but the captivating part is the CAM aspect, which is automated and invisible when using Inventable’s Shapeoko mills. The software needs just a few pieces of information: material type (which currently includes aluminum, birch, maple, bamboo, walnut, and bubinga), material thickness, cut thickness, and bit size. With that, it’s able to calculate the speed and cut rate based on built-in libraries of information. Plug the Shapeoko into your laptop’s USB port, align your material, and click the start button, and your mill is off to the races.
While this opens up the CNC field to a new range of users, the ease of use still creates a tradeoff in how much control you have. Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan explains that it’s still a beta release with limitations that will be addressed as they move forward. There’s no ability to input specifics about your router bit (like fluting) or create new materials, although you can edit the material properties in the six they use. But bigger than that, it’s currently only able to cut on one plane, meaning it works great for cutting out shapes or making engravings. If you want to do 3D contours, you’re stuck with old-fashioned CAD/CAM setups, for now — this is also on Kaplan’s list of future functions.
If you’re not a Shapeoko owner, it’s still possible to use the software and export the G-code to your CAM setup. The app can’t control other machines via USB for the same “just hit cut” simplicity, but with its beta status, it will be interesting to see how it grows from here.