My background as a mechanical engineer and someone who has used machine tools before made me curious about getting a CNC machine. However, learning to use something like this and get it set up definitely had a steep learning curve. Mach3 was my machine control software package of choice for this adventure as it’s the one that Zen Toolworks seems to support the best. Being totally new to this, I decided to try to follow the system as well as I could.
One of the nice things about Mach3, for the hobbyist especially, is that they offer a fairly useful trial version restricted to 500 lines of code. Although 500 lines is not a ton of code, it is enough to do some interesting operations with it. The engraving of a picture frame that I did to the right was using the trial version of this software. It probably couldn’t do a whole lot more than this, and each pass had to be started manually, but it allows for enough code to get one started in CNC machining. Through this, one can really make the judgement of whether this software is the right thing to buy (or if you’re actually going to get your machine running).
Another thing that was impressive (never having used a machine like this before) was that there was really no fooling around with the parallel port. I now have a physical port, and it worked with it beautifully (Don’t use a USB Parallel port, I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work correctly). Motor tuning was easy as well since there’s a page on ZTW that tells you how to set up everything in Mach3 (I used the wrong page at first, so it was harder than it should have been for me). It can even teach the motor itself as described in my post about upgrading the X-axis lead screw.
The full version is $175 which seems expensive at first until you consider how much an industrial CNC controller package would cost. There are other “free” packages, like those listed on this site, but, again, the ZTW machine is known to be able to use this software. It’s quite a versatile package, as it can run mills, routers like my own, lathes, laser cutters, and probably many other types of machinery.
A control software package called EMC2 has been reported to work with a ZTW machine, but it’s only for Linux. As intriguing as the idea of Linux is to me, I’ve yet to take the leap and start using it. This didn’t seem like the time to try, although it might be a viable option if you know what you’re doing with this OS.
Now that I have everything set up correctly (including the IJ mode to cure “crop circles”) I’m really starting to enjoy using my router as a tool rather than a project itself. Mach3 has many more features that I haven’t explored yet, so I’m looking forward to getting better with it (especially since I now have the full version). My opinion of the software at this point is quite good, although, to be honest, I have little to compare it to.
As noted earlier, the trial version is very useful, so if you’re just getting into CNC machining, download it and give it a try! The full version was very easy to upgrade to as well, just copy a file that they send you to the specified directory and you’re good to go!
Also, don’t think that this software is just for engraving stuff! That’s
all I’ve done with it so far, but the capability of this software seems well beyond just engraving. Update 3/4/2012: I’ve done a lot of stuff besides engraving with Mach 3. For example, check out this Geneva Drive that I made, or the ninja stars made out of CDs.