It is hard to believe that it was only seven years ago I witnessed a CNC router in action for the very first time. I was fascinated and simply had to have one! Although I had been in the creative end of the three dimensional sign business for most of my life I didn't really know what I would do with one - but I just knew it could do fantastic stuff.

Through extensive research I quickly found out that with the relative simplicity of EnRoute, CNC routers were capable of just about anything imaginable. This journal will chronicle that journey to date and continue each week with two or three entries as we continue to explore just what is possible with this wonderful software... -dan

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Automatic MAGIC!

The truth is no computer nor machine can come up with a creative idea on it's own. They merely output what we put into them. The creative stuff happens in our brains.

That being said, I remember watching with total awe as I ran the very first sign on my router when I first turned it on. An idea had lived in my head. I scribbled down my ideas into my sketchbook. Then I sat at my computer and painfully figured out how to put those ideas onto my screen and build a dimensional routing file. The computer did endless calculations, unseen and in mere nanoseconds. I never want to know exactly how, although I know people who enjoy that type of thing. What I do know is that if I put my information in correctly what I dreamed I can suddenly see on the screen. I can virtually grab the corner and twist it and turn it to check it is correct from any angle of viewing.

Then I send it to my server computer, translated into 'G' code... all done in mere seconds, unseen and less understood. I then get out of the chair in my office, go through my shop and into the router room. There the massive gray MultiCam CNC router sits, all warmed up and ready to go. Air hisses through the giant motor, cooling the four sets of ceramic bearings.

Using a remote touch pad I summon the sleeping machine to life. It automatically loads a tool and rushes to my end of the table. Using the touch pad I set the maximum and minimum height it can go, a margin of safety in case I did something wrong in the design of the file. THen I call up the file, from the computer on my desk, fifty feet away. As soon as I hit start the machine springs to life, carving the sheet of Precision Board to absolute perfection. It works quickly, first with a rough pass, hogging out the waste material. Automatically it puts away the big tool and loads a smaller bit, then begins anew with much finer strokes. 

I do not need to be in the same room, nor even in the building. My time is best used doing something else entirely while the machine works away in the dark, behind closed doors. The MultiCm works with incredible speed and accuracy - more than five times faster than I could do the same job with hand tools. AMAZING. 

The CNC router will never replace me in my job. I feed the ideas to the machine. When it is done there is still the assembly, hand work, sculpture of additional pieces, finishing and painting to follow. But just the same it never ceases to amaze me as I watch it work.

After more than two weeks of being silent due to our compressor problems I fired up the MultiCam again today. It will stay busy for a long time to come as it churns out the work we need for our current projects. The golden Guppy was the first project to come off. Tomorrow we start in on the beam work at last.

Even five years after I first turned on our machine I often catch myself standing and watching as it goes over complex shapes. My dad, who has never touched a computer asks me each time he sees it  work "How does it know where to go?" The truth is I don't really know except in the most basic and general terms. But I'm glad it does.