What Is CNC Anyway?

What's All the Excitement About ShopBot CNC Tools?

A ShopBot is an amazing do-all tool for precisely cutting, carving, drilling or machining all kinds of things from all kinds of materials.  With a ShopBot, you use the included software to design your parts on your personal computer, then, like a robot, the computer controls the cutter to precisely cut your parts.  In the past, tools like ShopBots were strictly industrial tools and were referred to in factories as CNC (for Computer Numeric Control) tools.  Now, the types of tools that create things by cutting material away or building up material in layers to create an object are called digital fabrication tools, and ShopBot's innovations have made them affordable for individuals and small shops.

Table & Benches / Scott Cox Toy Cradle / Tim Merril   Cabinets / Robert Ball Carved Headboard (for Extreme Makeover) / Dave Hines  Molding / Bill Thorp
'Quick' Storage Shelves / Gerald Martin Chair and Models / Erik Land Stair Stringers / Gary Campbell    Foam Model Airplaine / Dan Schwartz Numbers / Robert Ball
Guitar / Rick Samish     Cribbage Plaque / Jim Frost    Coffee Table / Bill Palumbo    Toybox / Robert Ball

Each of the examples pictured above and below is a project described in the "Virtual Show and Tell" Section of our Talk ShopBot Forum.

How It Works

A ShopBot is like a large plotter that moves pens around the surface (in X and Y axes) to create a drawing. Only a ShopBot moves a cutter around a big table (X and Y axes) and moves it up and down as well (Z axis) allowing it to make 3D movements and cut all sorts of shapes. The cutter looks like a drill bit and is spun by a motor called a router or spindle. Unlike a drill bit, a router bit is designed to cut from the sides as well as the tip. By precisely moving the cutter through material, a ShopBot CNC tool can create virtually any pattern or shape and will do it in materials such as wood, plastic, foam, aluminum and many composites.

A ShopBot CNC can cut material in the same way you would with a saw. It can cut in the X or Y direction ...

Or on any diagonal. It can also make the cut at any depth, or even at varying depths. 

A ShopBot can also cut circles and holes. These can be any size from as small as the size of the cutter itself to the size of the whole table. It can also cut arcs, ellipses and curves - at any depth or at varying depths within the cut.


…or chair parts

In short, a ShopBot can cut any type of shape you can draw - a shape with any level of complexity.


Screen from design software.

What is sometimes surprising to those experienced with traditional tools:  It is just as easy for a ShopBot CNC to cut a curved or complex shape as it is for it to cut a straight line.

Are You a Woodworker?

If you are a woodworker, you may have a table saw, a drill press, a chop saw, a lathe, a router, a band saw, a joiner/planer, a shaper or a panel saw in your shop. A ShopBot will do the work of each of these tools.  It is a multi-purpose tool that can cut, drill, shape and machine in the same way as traditional tools.

For example, a CNC tool can be used to plane the surface of a board.

In this case, two large planks have been planed into a glass-covered, dining room table.

Rob Bell

Michael Dresdner of Woodworkers Journal discussed why he views ShopBot CNC tools as the new multi-tool for woodworkers and how he thinks about what they can do. Here’s a link to his discussion. [Click]

With the New Way of Making Things, It’s Not About Cuts or Holes Anymore -
It's About Parts

With traditional woodworking, making a part involves organizing a set of tool operations or procedures.  For example, if you are making shelving you might use the table saw to cut the boards, move to the drill press to put in a series of holes, then perhaps finish by cutting some grooves or edge treatment with a router.  Several operations - several tools.

With a ShopBot, you design the part or parts you want, including all of the features such as holes and grooves. You load and secure the material, then the work is done in a few minutes (or a little longer if the part includes carving) by the ShopBot CNC, with the sawing, drilling and grooving all being carried out in the single process of making the part.  You still need to think about woodworking issues like grain, direction and speed of cutting, choice of cutters, method for holding material during the work, how you will finish the part, etc. But this thinking is shifted to the design and planning phase or your work and does not involve making use of a number of individual tools.

Importantly, with CNC you have capabilities to do complex and precise cutting and carving; you can use curved lines rather than straight cuts where desired; you can easily machine pockets or shapes; you can do holes of any size; and you can add carving to a project.  You can make what you want and are not limited by your saw or drill-press, or your manual skills.

An article in American Woodworker describes how a group of traditional woodworkers incorporated a ShopBot CNC tool into their projects. [Article PDF]

You can make one set of parts for a project, or you can go into production.

  Toy Cradle for Toys-for-Tots etc. / Tim Merril 

You Can Work in 3D

Because a ShopBot moves in X, Y and Z axes, it is capable of doing intricate carving - you can think of a ShopBot as a carving robot.  3D is one of the more amazing things about CNC, and we devote a whole section of our website to explaining it and considering how to design for 3D.  [Click here for more on 3D.]

Door Knocker / Brian Harnett Headboard for Extreme Makeover / Dave Hines Placque / Tim Merril

Lettering and Signs

Signs are a good example of the precision cutting that can be done by a ShopBot CNC.  They can be as straightforward as simple lettering or can involve complex carving.  Signs are a natural for a ShopBot CNC and are a way that many ShopBotters start making money with their ShopBots. Check out our Signmaking Application Section and be sure to explore the Virtual Show and Tell Section of our Talk ShopBot Forum - there are lots of interesting sign examples to study.

A First Sign / Brian H. Sign with swapable hours / Ryan Gustafson
Sign / Scott Cox

Getting Going with ShopBot CNC

CNC is amazing, but it is not magic.  There are skills and techniques to learn.  But with ShopBot CNC, the challenge is designing and planning a part rather than physically pushing material through an unforgiving tool. Your ShopBot will handle the cutting with precision, reliability and repeatability.  And, we make the design process easy by providing our full featured ShopBot Design Software Suite.  If you are comfortable with a computer, or think you can get comfortable with one, you'll be cutting out your projects in no time.

To help you get started, we provide:

-- Are Your Concerned about SAFETY ? --

Making Shops Safe and Non-Intimidating

CNC allows you to create and produce in a modern way in which you are not personally/physically feeding a piece of material into a cutting tool. The ShopBot does the work. It moves the cutting tool and holds the material. You are standing out of harm's way, usually across the room by your computer.

We read a lot these days about new safety features for table saws and other power tools. These are important and can certainly improve your chances of avoiding injury or reducing the damage to your body when an accident happens. But as long as the cutting or shaping process requires putting yourself in proximity to dangerous spinning cutters, these tools will always put you at risk in a way that a robotic tool does not.

With manual power tools, because you must lift, hold, and position either the material or the tool, force and dexterity are required just to get a good cut. Thus it is not surprising that using manual power tools can be intimidating for many. While the kind of physical interaction required by manual power tools confers a kind of macho, it is no longer the smartest approach, the safest approach, the most productive approach, or the best way to make good parts or well-crafted, impressive projects.

ShopBot CNC tools make it possible to express your most creative ideas - in a fun, satisfying and safe way.

CNC Definition for those who want to know what the letters "CNC" actually mean

CNC stands for “Computer Numerically Controlled”. The terminology was previously just “NC” because for 60 years or more, some machine tools in factories have been Numerically (digitally) Controlled by paper tapes with punched holes or magnetic tapes. As the tape was passed through the machine’s reader, rows of holes representing numbers gave the tool’s motors instructions on where to move the cutting head to cut or machine material. The tapes were programmed by engineers or technicians using a scheme called “G-code” which was designed to cram as much information as possible onto the tape. The tape process seems a little primitive today, but it does indicate that the technology for providing a tool with sequential digital instructions for work to do goes back a long way. The recent addition of “Computer” as the first “C” in CNC reflects replacing the punched tape with a computer in order to provide the tool with instructions more directly. The addition of computers makes NC tools considerably more powerful and flexible, and helps make them easier to use. 

For a ShopBot, the computer as is a standard Personal Computer (PC). We take advantage of the incredible power and flexibility of the modern personal computer and people’s increasing familiarity with how they work. With a ShopBot, you use a PC to run the tool. You also use a PC (perhaps the same one) to design your parts using ShopBot's Design Software Suite or with other software you may choose to use. Both for running the ShopBot and designing, you work within the familiar Windows® framework. You do not need to learn to work a strange set of buttons and controls or interact with the human-unfriendly, G-code language (though ShopBots do understand G-code if you would like to use it).

Our goal has been to make the "idea to cut" process as simple as possible. Think of it as 3D printing. You develop the design for your part or project, and then "Click to Print". Well, there's a little more to it because you will need to figure out what type of bit you will be using, install the bit, and load and secure the material -- but that's about it.

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