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Is CNC for me?

I’m excited to begin our weekly blog series. I think tuning in will be both educational and entertaining for anyone who likes to “make stuff.” I thought hard about the best way to begin this series. A CAD intro? A peek into our design philosophy? A chronicle of the MillRight CNC journey? I ultimately decided that those are all good topics for a future post. This kick-off to the blog will address a question we often get in one form or another: Is CNC for me? Can I CNC? Can a CNC beginner do this? If you’ve come far enough in your search to find a nascent CNC blog the answer is “Probably”. Let’s cover what it takes and what it doesn’t and decide if you can do it.

What it takes to be good at CNC

The number one thing that it takes to become an effective CNC’er is a willingness to learn. CNC isn’t hard per se, but it is something that intertwines a few different skills at once. I often explain to people that CNC is like any other hobby (or profession) that you’ve previously decided to get into. If you are into woodturning, your first bowls sucked (Sorry. They did.). If you are a computer programmer, your first program crashed. If you are into CNC already, the machine probably went Down and Left when you hit “Start Cycle” for the first time instead of Up and to the Right, like you were sure it was supposed to. You stuck with it though, you asked questions, read resources, and you got good at it. Maybe you got skilled and made money with it. The good news is that there are a ton of resources out there that will help you become an excellent CNC’er. Our community forum, video tutorials, and even non-company resources like YouTube and internet searches are going to help you move from novice to expert. MillRight CNC has carved out a place in the marketplace by helping new entrants to CNC go from “I want to make things but I don’t know how to do it” to “Look at all the things I’ve made.

So, what are these “few different skills” that you’ll need to learn? The first is CAD. CAD is “computer aided design”. This is where you are going to design the things you make. CAD is drawing, just using your computer mouse and the selection of built in drawing features such as lines, curves, shapes and 3D tools to render your part or art digitally.  Alternatively, you could use existing files that you can find for free (see our resources page for a bunch of free files) or you can find tens of thousands available for purchase throughout the web.

Next, you’ll need to gain some CAM skills. CAM is “computer aided manufacturing” and involves designating how the machine will go about cutting or carving your design. You’ll have to declare things like how fast your machine will travel while cutting (see our app that will help with those settings here), what kind of cutter will be used, and how deep you will go. The good news is that there are resources everywhere (our forum, YouTube, google searches, other blogs, etc.) for teaching you CAD and CAM. I plan to blog heavily about it. What’s even better is that most legitimately qualify for free, professional grade integrated CAD/CAM from Autodesk. Fusion 360 is professional grade software for which Autodesk offers a free license to enthusiasts, students, and start-ups. There’s a learning curve to it, but it’s amazingly powerful. Those willing to trade a little cash for a shorter learning curve should check out our software offerings from Vectric.

You’ll also need to familiarize yourself with a few machine control and setup principles. These include basic motion commands, settings, zeroing procedures, and hold down techniques. The machine must know where it’s supposed to start, you have to know how to get it from one position to another, and you can’t run into the clamps or vise you are using to hold your part. That last part sounds scary, but the good news is that most collisions are rarely going to be a death blow to a hobby level machine. You need to build skills to prevent it, but you can expect you’ll learn how not to collide with a fixture the hard way at least once or twice.

Most importantly, you need to learn to adhere (if you don’t already) to shop safety procedures. You should wear safety glasses, ear protection, and keep yourself clear of the machine’s cutter and moving mechanisms. Don’t wear loose clothing that could get caught. In many ways, a CNC router is safer than tools like a router table or table saw where you feed the work piece into the cutter or blade, but you should be aware of the risks and take steps to keep yourself clear of them.

What it DOESN’T take to be good at CNC

Many prospective customers ask us if they need programming skills to run a CNC machine. Not at all. In a sense, you will learn to program a machine, but CAM skills are more about clicking graphical interfaces and selecting options from drop-down menus than learning a bunch of syntax or commands. CNC machines operate on something called G Code, but the CAM software is going to write the entire program for you. I think it’s fair to say that if you can learn to recognize and understand just a few codes you’ll be well on your way. Even this knowledge is mainly used just to verify or debug a program.

You don’t need to be an artist either. I couldn’t draw to save my life, nor do I have the vision attributed to most artists. I’m lucky to even be able to read notes I jotted down last week. The beauty of CAD is that it allows you to correct and move things around, and let your vision come together a piece at a time.

You certainly don’t need experience. People with woodworking, metalworking, or industrial machine operator experience have a leg up on others, but it’s not necessary. MillRight CNC has been built on bringing new people into the realm of CNC. I’d estimate that 80% or more of our customers have never operated a CNC machine before buying ours and building one of our kits. I’d further assume that about half have never seen a CNC machine in person. The internet brings us all closer together, and resources like our customers’ forum helps bring experienced users and neophytes together to exchange answers for questions. MillRight CNC is here to make sure you are successful.

How do you get started?

Dive in. I’m a firm believer that you learn best by doing. Our line of machines is priced with accessibility to newcomers in mind. If you are still on the fence, come join our forum. Ask questions, follow the journey of others, and check out the projects in our projects forum made by customers that started from the same level of knowledge you have now. Still have questions? Email me. I’d love to see how I can help.

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3 Responses

  1. Ramzi Sabra
    | Reply

    Love the idea of a blog! The content rings very true. I personally started out with pretty much no knowledge and have never seen a CNC machine in person before. Millright was there to help me get up to speed. Good luck with it all. Waiting patiently for the next blog post 🙂

  2. Stephen Hommer
    | Reply

    Great start to the blog. Agree with everything you said. MillRight has certainly made it easy and affordable to me to get into CNC rather than just wishing I could.

  3. Rick Lathrop
    | Reply

    Nice Derek, great addition to your current resources.

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