Cabin Fever Trip Report

So I hauled my Sherline CNC milling machine gadgetry, an assortment of trivial projects, a stack of handouts with pix & G-code, and a pile o’ EMC2 doc to Cabin Fever Expo for two days of Performance Art…

Ed Nisley Demo-ing CNC at Cabin Fever
Ed Nisley Demo-ing CNC at Cabin Fever. Picture courtesy of Brian Glackin.

The key is to have the knobs turning: an inactive machine is just background clutter that everyone walks right past. It’s not nearly as interesting as miniature tools or a chuffing steam engine.

There’s something to be said for being on the crowd side of the table, as that lets both of you see the monitor. A bigger display might be more helpful; I duct-taped a 14-inch 1024×768 LCD panel to the top of the desktop PC box.

Although I brought some blank stock along, it quickly became obvious that live-fire milling under show conditions is a Bad Idea: far too many distractions and far too many things can go wrong. So I contented myself with cutting air; nobody really minded and I could switch programs in mid-stride to show folks the G-code program they really wanted to see.

Plenty of folks stopped by, many of whom either have CNC running or are in the throes of getting started. A surprising number of conversations started with “I have this old Bridgeport …” and went on from there.

There’s a crying need for a comprehensive machine design tutorial that explains how all the pieces fit together, with sort of a flowchart outlining the choices (I know it’s more complex than that, but a diagram would be a starting point for discussion). I don’t know enough of the servo end of the biz, but someone should show how the machine’s size determines the motor size and, thus, the motor driver size, with plenty of examples. There’s a misconception that you can run a big machine on little steppers or puny servos, with the controller making up the difference.

Many people do not understand the difference between CAD, CAM, and what EMC2 provides. I described the process as three layers: CAD makes the pretty pictures, CAM digests those pictures and emits G-code, EMC2 converts G-code into motion. That seemed to help.

The single most attention-getting part of the exhibit was, to my astonishment, my Orc Engineering counterweight (described here and here) supporting the Sherline’s milling head. I had to explain just exactly why you need a counterweight in the first place (heavy offset motor, short Z-axis ways) and how much it weighs (13 pounds, a bit too much). Some folks commented that they put similar counterweights on their much larger machines and after a while I stopped feeling inadequate.

EMC Penguin Mascot
EMC Penguin Mascot

At least a dozen people picked up my EMC doc and asked if I was selling it; took me a while to realize they wanted to buy the booklets. I don’t know if you could make any money at it, but there’s a definite market for ink-on-paper books with no plot and weak character development. Now, if Chips were was way more shapely, we could have a real bodice-ripper cover. Somebody get on that, OK?

I make booklets using Adobe Reader’s print-as-booklet feature, a printer with continuous-flow inking, and an Ibico comb binding machine, but there’s enough fiddling that doing much of it for anybody else just doesn’t make sense. Something like Lulu might work, but there’s a stiff (to me, anyway) up-front charge and the EMC doc changes often enough that you’d have to run plenty fast to stay in the same place.

Other people picked up the books and asked if I was selling the software. They seemed puzzled when I said it was free for the download and that not only was the software free, but the GPL meant that they were, too. I need to work on that part of the schtick… should’a had a few CDs to pass out, too.

I remembered to bring a bag of cough drops, ate ’em like candy, talked almost continuously, and wound up hoarse anyway. Probably convinced a few folks to try EMC, didn’t terrify many children, and a good time was had by all.

Although live-fire milling is scary, it’d be fun to make something like a finger ring (as in Dan Statman’s gorgeous designs, but plastic) as a hand-out freebie. The whole process should take no more than five minutes, tops, which might be tough. Running a rotary table and the mill would be a real crowd-pleaser; my 4th axis attracted some questions. Perhaps an EMC tag-team would suffice: one to mind the mill while the other works the crowd?

As always, Cabin Fever is stuffed with gorgeous examples of machine-shop work. Those guys actually know what they’re doing; I can write G-code, but it’ll take many more years of experience before that code actually makes passably pretty parts.

See you next year!

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