History of CNC Machining, Part 3
At Bantam Tools, we create desktop CNC (computer-numerically controlled) machines with reliability and precision. We set out on a journey to explore the history of CNC. The comprehensive story hasn’t been told, and we feel it should be, so we invested the time to research it. What we found was an intriguing story of the human quest for increased efficiency and precision through machinery.
In this three-part series, we share what we learned. While we did dig deep, if we missed an important person or device, please let us know in the comments. Be sure to check out Part 1, The People, Stories, and Inventions That Made Today’s Tech Possible, and Part 2, From the Factory Floor to the Desktop.
The trajectory of how institution-based, room-sized CNC machines made the transition to desktop machines like the Bantam Tools Desktop CNC Milling Machine and the Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine is directly parallel to the development of personal computers, microcontrollers, and other electronic components. Without these developments, the powerful and compact CNC machines of today wouldn’t have been possible. Below is a visual recap through 1980.
The Dawn of Personal Computers
In 1977, three “microcomputers” were simultaneously released — Apple II, PET 2001 and TRS-80 — and in January of 1980, Byte magazine announced that “the era of off-the-shelf personal computers has arrived.” Developments escalated quickly from there, with fierce competition between frontrunner Apple and IBM.
By 1984, Apple released the classic Macintosh, the first mass-produced, mouse-driven personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI). The Macintosh came equipped with MacPaint and MacWrite (which popularized WYSIWYG — what you see is what you get — applications). The next year, through a partnership with Adobe, new graphical programs were launched, setting the stage for computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM).
The Development of CAD and CAM Programs
The intermediaries between the computer and the CNC machine are two essential programs: CAD and CAM. Before we delve into a brief history of the two, here’s an overview.
CAD programs enable the digital creation, modification, and sharing of a 2D or 3D object. CAM programs allow you to select tools, materials, and other variables for your cutting job. Even though you’ve done all your CAD work and know what you want your part to look like, the milling machine doesn’t know the size or shape of milling tool you want to use or the specifics of your material size or type.
CAM programs use the model you created in CAD to calculate the movement of the tool through the material. These movement calculations, called toolpaths, are automatically generated by the CAM program for maximum efficiency. Some modern CAM programs can also create on-screen simulations of how the machine will cut the material with the tool you’ve chosen. Running simulations instead of cutting a piece over and over saves on tool wear, machining time, and material.
The roots of modern CAD date back to 1957 and a program named Pronto, made by computer scientist Patrick J. Hanratty, recognized as the father of CAD/CAM. In 1971, he also developed the widely adopted program ADAM, an interactive graphic design, drafting, and manufacturing system written in Fortran and designed to be ubiquitous across machines. The University of California Irvine, where he conducted research at the time, states, “Industry analysts estimate that 70 percent of all 3-D mechanical CAD/CAM systems available today trace their roots back to Hanratty’s original code.”
Developed between Hanratty’s two programs, in 1960, was Ivan Sutherland’s groundbreaking program Sketchpad, the first to ever use a total graphical user interface (we elaborated further on Sketchpad in Part 2 of this series).
Notably, Autodesk’s AutoCAD, introduced in 1982, was the first 2D CAD program to be made specifically for personal computers rather than mainframe computers. By 1994, AutoCAD R13 made the program compatible with 3D designs. In 1995, SolidWorks was released, developed with the express purpose of making CAD design more accessible to a broader population, followed by Autodesk Inventor in 1999, which worked to be even more intuitive.
It’s impossible to talk about the evolution of CNC machines without giving a hat tip to the software creators who are working to lower the barrier to digital design entry and make it accessible to a wide range of skill levels. At the current forefront is Autodesk Fusion 360, “the first 3D CAD, CAM, and CAE tool of its kind that connects your entire product development process in a single cloud-based platform that works on PC, Mac, and mobile devices.” This incredibly powerful software offering is free to students, educators, qualifying startups, and hobbyist makers.
Early Compact CNC Machines
One of the pioneers and originators of compact CNC machines, Ted Hall, founder of ShopBot Tools, was a professor of neuroscience at Duke University, and in his spare time, he liked to build plywood boats. He sought a tool to facilitate cutting the plywood, but even used CNC mills at the time ran upwards of $50K. In 1994, he showed a group of people the compact mill he had designed in his workshop, thus kickstarting the company’s journey.
Many years later, Hall would write a series of articles on how digital fabrication and specifically desktop machines hold the potential to bring manufacturing back to American soil. Below is a short excerpt from one of his works (October 2016).
“Affordable digital and robotic technologies for production are making small- and medium-scale manufacturing realistically competitive again. An enthusiastic case for a renewed manufacturing around these technologies has been called the “new industrial revolution” — by which small, digital-technology-based-businesses are seen as a possible core for a new manufacturing economy.
The visions for this renewed manufacturing economy have been catalyzed by the technology of 3D printing. And, 3D printing is just one of several game-changing “digital fabrication” technologies that include, along with the additive methodology of 3D-printing, subtractive technologies such as CNC-machining and laser-cutting, and many variations of robotic-assembly.”
Hall is also co-creator of 100K Garages, a manufacturing collective of personal digital fabrication workshops.
From Factory to Desktop: MTM Snap
In 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched the new Center for Bits and Atoms, a sister lab to the MIT Media Lab, with visionary professor Neil Gershenfeld at the helm. Gershenfeld is considered one of the founding fathers of the fab lab (fabrication laboratory) concept. Funded by a $13.75 million Information Technology Research award from the National Science Foundation, the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) embarked on a quest to help create a network of small-scale workshops offering personal digital fabrication tools to the masses.
Preceding, in 1998, Gershenfeld created a class at MIT called “How to make (almost) anything,” with the intent to introduce tech students to expensive, industrial-size fabrication machines, but his class attracted students from a wide variety of backgrounds, including art, design, and architecture. This became the basis for a revolution in personal digital fabrication.
One of the projects born out of CBA was Machines That Make (MTM), focused on developing rapid-prototyping machines that can be used in fab labs. And one of the machines born out of this project was the MTM Snap desktop CNC milling machine by students Jonathan Ward, Nadya Peek, and David Mellis, created in 2011. Encased in heavy duty snap-fit HDPE plastic (cut out of kitchen cutting boards on a large-format Shopbot CNC mill), this 3-axis mill ran on a low-cost Arduino microcontroller and was capable of precisely milling everything from PCBs to foam and wood, all while fitting on a desktop and being portable and affordable.
At the time, while some CNC mill manufacturers like ShopBot and Epilog were working to release smaller, cheaper desktop versions of their mills, they were still fairly expensive.
In true fab lab spirit, the MTM Snap team even shared their bill of materials so you could make your own.
Shortly after the creation of the MTM Snap, team member Jonathan Ward teamed up with engineers Mike Estee and Forrest Green and material scientist Danielle Applestone to collaborate on a DARPA-funded project called MENTOR (Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach) to “reinvent shop class for the 21st century.”
The team, working out of Otherlab in San Francisco, regrouped and revisited the MTM Snap machine design, with the goal of making an affordable, precise, easy-to-use desktop CNC mill that they named the Othermill, the predecessor to the Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine.
The Other Machine Co. team launched a successful crowdfunding campaign in May of 2013. A month later, in June, ShopBot Tools launched a campaign (also successful) for a portable CNC machine called the HandiBot, which was meant to be taken directly to job sites. With both machines, a main quality was the accompanying software — Otherplan and FabMo, respectively — intended to be intuitive and easy-to-use WYSIWYG programs that make CNC machining accessible to a wide audience. Clearly, as evidenced by the support of both of these projects, the community was ready for this type of innovation.
The Continuing Trend of Factory to Desktop
The desktop digital fabrication movement has escalated since those first machines went commercial in 2013. CNC mills are now joined by all types of computer numerically controlled machines that have gone from the factory to the desktop, everything from wire benders to knitting machines, vacuum formers, waterjet cutters, laser cutter, and more.
The original fab labs born out of MIT were developed with the goal of democratizing access to powerful, albeit cost-prohibitive, digital fabrication machines, arming bright minds with the tools to bring their ideas into the physical world, tools that were only afforded to seasoned professionals in the past. Now, the desktop manufacturing revolution is taking that access one step further by drastically reducing cost while maintaining professional precision, from the fab lab to the personal workshop.
As the trajectory continues, there are exciting new developments in incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into desktop manufacturing and digital design. How these developments continue to affect manufacturing and innovation remains to be seen, but we’ve come a long way from the days of room-sized computers and powerful manufacturing tools being exclusively tethered to large institutions and companies. The power is now in our hands.
Thank you for joining us on this journey through CNC history. At Bantam Tools, we make desktop CNC machines with professional reliability and precision at an affordable price. Bantam Tools looks forward to further exploring the frontier of creative and empowering machines. Follow our journey on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and check out our job listings (we’re hiring!).
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More from this series:
Researched and written by staff writer Goli Mohammadi for Bantam Tools.