Using Mach3 with Inkscape and the Gcodetools extension works really well for engraving letters and tracing images (like this Tiger Paw bleach stencil), but for any machining work involving dimensions, it gets a bit tricky. Also, it takes a bit of work to figure out how to use it. Inkscape is more meant as a graphics program, so Engineering drawings aren’t really it’s forte. For making these types of drawings, I’m fairly comfortable with Draftsight (since I can use AutoCAD) so this is what I’ve been using to draw parts. Below is a video of a piece I’m cutting out of MDF for a larger project that CamBam was used for. Here’s a hint as to what it will eventually be.
Importing .dxf drawings into Inkscape seems to be technically possible, but getting everything to scale correctly is a bit dicey. Because of this, I decided to explore other options. The first try was a package that came with Mach3 called lazyCAM. This seemed like a good option as Mach3 has been a good piece of machine control software for my ZTW router.
After getting into it and manually offsetting everything with Draftsight (Type “offset” to use this feature), I was able to produce what would seem to be a useful holder for a engraving a hard drive platter (For engraving – see details here). It hasn’t been used yet, but it looks like it will work. As in the picture, it took several tries to make this correctly and even then it needed some filing. Not sure if that was my fault, the router’s or the software, but for something extremely simple like this, it worked well.
Unfortunately, it seems that the free version of LazyCAM is restricted to 50 lined of Gcode, so anything complicated whatsoever is out of the question. As for buying the “pro” version, ArtSoft’s site has this to say about it: “While Mach3 does come with LazyCam for very simple tasks, it is recommended to use a full CAM program.” It then gives a list of other CAM packages to use. So it seems like this isn’t the best package in the world, but if you still want to purchase, it’s $75, here.
Good for ArtSoft though deciding to focus on what they’re good at and not try to waste their efforts on a half-baked CAM program. Very “Hedgehog-like” of them for those that have read “Good to Great.” One does have to notice the irony in a CAM package called “LazyCAM” never being finished, but I guess the name of your software package can’t dictate business decisions.
The first piece of recommended software is called BobCAD-CAM which is widely used in industry. Unfortunately, their milling package starts at $2495 which is well out of my price range. The next package is called CamBam and runs $149 for the full version. The interesting thing is that they give you a fully-working version to try out 40 times before you have to buy it. After this, it will still produce 500 lines of Gcode, so it should still be a somewhat useful tool if you decide not to buy it. There doesn’t seem to be a limit on how long you can keep the software open, so if you avoid closing it, you can stretch this sample period out significantly.
After using CamBam for a while, it seems like quite a good piece of software. DXFs import well, but it also has drawing tools if you’d like to use it as your CAD package. Once you’re ready to machine something, you can use the machining tools: profile, pocket, engrave, 3D profile, and drill to produce your machining paths. You put in the different variables like cut depth, tool diameter, and whether to cut inside or out and it takes care of generating a profile for each cut. Hit “generate toolpaths” (ctrl-t) for each cut; then “produce g-code” (ctrl-w) and it should output good code for you.
All that being said, it seems that CamBam is an excellent program and one that I’ve very much enjoyed using so far. Inkscape with the Gcodetools (see my article about this tool) extension still seems like a very good tool for engraving and shapes that you’d like to cut out based on pictures. I’ll most likely still use it at times, but for drawings where the dimensions matter, CamBam will be my tool of choice (at least until my trial runs out or I buy it!). Incidentally, Zen Toolworks is a reseller of this software. As they made my router, they should be a good source for this.