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What Does Desktop Machining Mean to Me

I have always been fascinated with machinery. Motors and mechanical contrivances always seem to draw my attention.

In the 80's I was working away being self-employed repairing computers. Along the way I accepted calls on CNC machine tool controllers, mostly out of the need to make money and arrogance mixed with ignorance. I was met with some success and learned what the computing capacity was of the actual computers that were controlling the machines.

What I found was that one(1) million floating point instructions could be executed by a pretty good CNC machine controller. Well when the 386 micro processor came out in 1989 and it was rated at four(4) million floating point instructions per second it got me to thinking. From a commercial point of view the machine controllers were costing in the twenty(20) thousand dollar range, yet the embedded computer was one fourth the power as a thousand dollar desktop system, I viewed that gap as an opportunity.

I decided to make a three axis-engraving machine. I wanted to see if a standard PC could be used to generate motor signals to drive stepper motors. I had come across an old Bandit controller that had driven stepper motors on a milling machine.

By then I had grown effective at using AutoCad and using a pen plotter to make schematics of items that I had been repairing. I found I could make patterns, which I then would paste on stock. I would then use a band saw and drill press to make pretty decent parts.

Watching the pen plotter draw out the patterns, which had a Z80 processor controlling the X and Y motors, I knew it would be possible to control a larger machine with the microprocessor in the XT computer that I had. This was the DOS era so real time processing of programs was the way it worked.

With in a few months I had hobbled together a rickety machine, stepper motor controller and a plug in board for the ISA bus. The plug in board had a couple 8 bit ports for output and one for input and I could move motors. A couple more months and I could get it to follow plotter files.

I soon figured out that the parallel port on the XT did just about what my plug in board did. So, I based SuperCam's input/output control to using the parallel port on Personal Computers.

At some point about then for some reason I decided that I wanted to control the machine movement much the way I controlled drawing items in AutoCad. Which was and is the core idea behind SuperCamXp.

And so SuperCam began, which has led to SuperCamXp. I have made SuperCamXp control a machine the way I would like it to be. When I want to move the machine around I made it so you just have to point and click with the mouse to the point on the screen where you want the machine to move to.

The Windows operating systems are wonderful for multitasking applications, but for real time motion control there is some serious hurtles that have to be over come. The new multi core processors have great potential for real time motion control applications.

I decided to yield to the current operating system architecture and pursued a USB interface to a standalone microprocessor that would be responsible for the motor motion signal generation. This became the CamPod, which is a box with a USB connector on one end and a parallel port connector on the other end. In the box is a derivative of the Z80 microprocessor, which almost brings me back full circle.

The legacy of years of making motor controllers with parallel port hookups is not ignored in the CamPod. It is by default plug and play compatible with all controllers that I have sold. So, upgrading from SuperCam to SuperCamXp is easy and the old controller will still work. With my years of experience repairing electronic devices I have been able to design and make extremely reliable motor controllers.

I also have been able to embed the CamPod directly on to micro stepping and half-stepping motor controllers. This is the type of controllers I use with Taig Micro Mills that have stepper motors attached, the micro stepping controller has 3200 steps per revolution for each axis motor.

Now I can really do what I call desktop machining. I have a Taig Micro Mill connected to my main computer via a CamPod connected to an EMC-XYZ-GSBX servo motor controller. The motion control protocol I developed for the USB channel to the CamPod lets me seamlessly work many different applications all while the attached milling machine is working away, running SuperCamXp. And besides that, I have been able to have more than one machine running simultaneously from the same desktop computer.

Besides being used to run micro mills, SuperCamXp with the CamPod are at work daily in commercial applications running Plasma Torch Tables and Router Tables. SuperCamXp is easily configured for X and Y torch machine control.

As of May 2007, SuperCamXp has been found to be running flawlessly. Up until that time I was constantly finding little hindrance bugs and ways to improve the motion smoothness. It's been over two months without the need to resolve some issue with the functioning of SuperCamXp. Although it has been in commercial use for over two years, I have been working with it to improve and test different aspects of the program.

So now I actually am beginning to describe in detail how to use SuperCamXp. My favorite tool has become the Taig Micro Mill with Servomotors on it. So many of my tutorial efforts are based around it, but the limitations on the size of the machine attached is about the size of a football field cube.

Not only will SuperCamXp work with DXF and HPGL files, it also works with traditional G and M code files. I have done exercises using files created by DeskProto and MeshCam.

I also have implemented a BMP import feature to SuperCamXp that includes pixelizing the image into the material. This works by drilling a point at each pixel to the depth determined by the darkness of the pixel. This process or the method of line width engraving images on material has interesting results.

What it all means now to you is that for the less than the price of a used car, or a really nice TV, you can own and use a computerized tool without much specialized training. With SuperCamXp it becomes as easy as drawing and cutting. There is no need to be concerned with G and M coded files of the thousands of coordinates the machine must go to. SuperCamXp takes care of that, drawings can be imported or made using the drawing features. In most cases it takes less than twenty minutes to learn how to use SuperCamXp with a machine.

In many ways now the quest becomes how are we going to use it. Just about anything you can think of can be made with a computerized tool.

With the SuperCamXp program and Controllers and Motor Kits just about any two or three axis machine can be made computerized.

If motors can be mounted it can be computerized and controlled by a desktop computer.

Dennis Bohlke
07/10/07



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Revised 03/12/16 dlb