If you’d asked me up until very recently whether 5 axis was practical for the CNC DIY’ers and Makers, I would’ve said “No!” without hesitation.  Not only is the hardware complex, but 5 Axis CAM was expensive.  Much of this has now changed fairly recently.  Yes, the hardware is complex and most 5 Axis CAM is still expensive, but there are an increasing number of proof points that is is possible to have a go at 5 axis CNC for the hobbyist.  Let’s have a look at recent developments in this area, but first:

Why Would You Want 5 Axis?

Given that 5 Axis is not at all easy or common, even for Pros, why would a hobbyist want 5 axis?  Sure, there’s always the desire to push the envelope, to do something the mainstream hasn’t done yet.  That’s primal Maker juice at its best, and we’ll trot out this popular 5-axis video just to get those juices flowing:

How can you not love this cool 5-axis vid?  Gimme, gimme, gimme!

But there are sound practical reasons to want to do 5 Axis as well.  We’ve written about the advantages of 5 Axis CNC before, but a quick recap here is in order.  Here are the most important bits:

– Better Surface Finish = Less Manual Cleanup Work:  By tilting the workpiece just right, the optimal engagement between cutter and material is obtained.  The result is a far better surface finish, especially on complex 3D curves.

– Fewer Setups:  When you can get at nearly every face of the part except for the very bottom, you have fewer setups needed.  This is especially helpful for the hobbyist who may only be trying to make a one-off part.  No need for complex fixturing and lots of setups with 5 axis giving the cutter better access.

– Better Accuracy:  Every time you change a setup, a little error will creep in.  With fewer setups, or perhaps even just 1 setup, this source of error is eliminated.

– Machine Parts Not Otherwise Possible:  Let’s face it: something like the helmet shown in the video wouldn’t even be possible without 5 Axis CNC.  Many parts that require a lot of undercutting will be much more difficult without 5 Axis CNC.  It isn’t even just a question of something curvy like the helmet.  With 5-axis, a part can be tilted to allow a shorter tool to get down in a pocket, thus allowing for more rigidity and less tendency for the tool to deflect and chatter.  On a lightweight hobby machine, any increase in rigidity is welcome.

OK, now you’re sold, so what can you do about it?  It’s not going to be easy, but as I said, there have been a few developments worth checking out:

Pocket NC:  Slick Kickstarter Desktop 5-Axis Mill

Many of you will have heard of the Pocket NC, a truly slick 5-Axis CNC Mill:

PocketNC

Pocket NC 5-Axis Desktop Mill…

With linear rails, a sweet high speed spindle, and trunion table, the Pocket NC looks the part.  It’s even set up as a horizontal mill, which no doubt gives it greater rigidity than might otherwise be the case.  280 backers pledged $355,833 on Kickstarter to help bring this project to life.  The Kickstarter closed just a couple of weeks ago, so it’s way too early to tell much, but this mill looks extremely promising.  Early signs are good as the Kickstarter sold out 3 weeks early and this enabled them to get a head start making parts for the machines:

PocketNCParts

Parts to assemble Pocket NC’s are stacking up…

With two machinists, a mechanical engineer, and a software guy, it’s no wonder the machine looks so good.  Their attention to detail really shows.  Here’s a shot of the machine in action machining what turns out to be a gorgeous little aluminum engine block:

Yes Virginia, the little 5-Axis mill really works and machines aluminum…

As mentioned, the Kickstarter sold out.  We’ll have to wait until they’ve delivered all the machines to that crowd to see whether there will be a Pocket NC for the rest of us, as well as what the reaction of the first group of owners may be.  Personally, I’m hoping everyone loves the machine and that it will be available at their target price of $3500.  That would be quite an accomplishment to be able to purchase a high quality 5 axis desktop CNC mill at such a price.

There have been other desktop 5 axis machines shown, even some on Kickstarter, but the Pocket NC is the first one that seemed so polished.  These things are a bit like the 4 minute mile.  Until someone actually ran a 4 minute mile, it seemed impossible.  Once it had happened, quite a few managed to run it not long after.

Affordable 5-Axis CAM

The main reason I would have said “No” to 5-Axis for hobbyists up until recently was not hardware, it was software. Talented hobbyists have been modifying a 4th axis to turn it into a 4 axis trunion table for quite some time.  Here is one such:

Shopmade 5-Axis Mini-mill…

Building a 5-axis mill is hard enough, but programming it is nearly impossible without CAM, and until recently, 5-axis CAM was very expensive.  Before the advent of true 5-axis CAM, about the best that was available were toolkits to help simplify the hand programming, such as CNC-Toolkit.  While extremely useful, such software was still too hard for most people to tackle.  Just visualizing true 5-axis tool paths is nearly impossible for most.

But, a lot is changing.  Autodesk is rocking the boat particularly hard for the CAM world with its Fusion 360 software.  It’s available cheap or even free for hobbyists, and comes with a potent integrated CAD (which of course Autodesk is famous for) and HSMWorks CAM.  I really like the HSMWorks package–it’s a first class, easier to use, pro-quality, clean-sheet-of-paper package.  And while there’ve been some usability and stability issues in Fusion 360, Autodesk is pushing hard to improve it, and the price is certainly right for the hobby market.

The Fusion 360 Ultimate version includes full simultaneous 5-axis CAM, and is actually approachable for the Hobby-level market for the first time.  Here is a video of the PocketNC showing how they did a duck call in 5-axes:

5-Axis from CAM to Finished Part…

Conclusion

It’s premature yet to declare that DIY 5-Axis is here for the masses, but I don’t think it’s premature to suggest that it isn’t far away or that it is almost within reach.  Talented hobbyists can get there today, thanks to the availability of suitable software.  The rest who want to be able to buy an off-the-shelf machine that’s ready to make parts will have to wait a little while longer.

The future is bright.  When I first started playing with CNC years ago I used to think it was amazing that a person could own one of these machines.  After all–they helped put men on the moon.  Now there are more an more of them out there.  I have been meeting people accidentally for a while now that are deeply involved, which is a sign of how commonplace it is becoming.  The thing is, we ain’t seen nothing yet, as the saying goes.  Much more to come!

If you’re a hobbyist with a 5 axis CNC, share your experiences in the comments with us.  I’m sure our readership would love to hear from you.

 

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It Finally Happened: 5 Axis CNC for the DIY and Maker
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