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DIY CNC Machining from Scratch | The Electronics

For those of you who are following this series, this article goes through the electrical system design for the mill conversion. If you missed the first part, which covers the mechanical conversion, you can find that here.

So at this point, we have a machine that could go back and forth, side to side, and up and down automatically, if only we had something to tell the motors what to do. For those unfamiliar, the 3 axes we are talking about are usually as shown in the following image:

CNC Mill 3 Axes3 Axis Mill – Convention for X, Y, and Z

For 3 axes of motion, we need 3 motors, and 3 motor drivers. Enter the Geckodrive G540 stepper motor driver. Geckodrive make various motor controls, and the G540 is a particularly nice little unit as it is very compact but still has some powerful capability. It is actually 4 G250 drivers in 1 package, which simplifies wiring by requiring only 1 power feed for all 3 motors. I’m not using the 4th output at this stage, but if I installed a 4th rotary axis for indexing, then it could be used for that. I had used a G540 a few years before, in a 3-axis router conversion that I did, and so decided to select one for the mill conversion as it was familiar and easy to use. Here’s a really bad photo of it:

Geckodrive G540Geckodrive G540 Stepper Motor Driver

 So what does this gadget do exactly, you ask? Basically, it takes information from the machine controller (in this case a PC running LinuxCNC) in the form of step and direction signals, and uses that information to determine the magnitude and direction of current flow that it should provide to the motor windings to get them to move in the correct way. On the front panel, you can see 4 smaller connectors, and one large one. The large on is used to connect the unit to the PC, and the 4 smaller ones are connected to up to 4 stepper motors. On the back of the unit, there are various connectors for power, and input signals from things like limit switches which are used for homing the machine for a consistent 0,0,0 position.

The G540 needs a power supply which is capable of running all 3 or 4 motors. For converting AC-DC, switch mode digital conversion is a lot more efficient than the old coil type transformers. This type of technology has come down in price a huge amount over recent times, and so selecting a suitable supply was a pretty easy task. I found an Australian supplier who sells a lot of DIY CNC components and he had some reasonable pricing on Meanwell power supplies. I went with the 7.3A 48V DC unit here. I also got a few other miscellaneous items like a power socket with integrated fuse holder, and some switches.

Now that I had all the bits, it was time to work out how to package them up. Of course, I went straight to my indispensable 3D Digital Prototyping Swiss-Army Knife…… Autodesk Inventor. I started by placing models of the electronic components in 3D space, roughly where I wanted, then designing a sheetmetal enclosure to suit. I used Inventor’s wiring tools to create a simple loom and work out where I wanted to run the wiring. Trev from Hitech Sheetmetals then got to work, and produced a beautiful enclosure that exactly matched my digital model. A quick test fit of the components was followed by a spray of some wrinkle-finish paint, and the enclosure was ready to be fitted up. You can see the process in pictures in the slideshow below.

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With the electronics system now finished, I performed some testing to make sure that I hadn’t made any mistakes with the connections, and then took it out to the garage to connect it to the rest of the system.

An old PC I had lying around was to take the roll of the Machine Controller. For newbies to CNC, the controller is what takes the G-Code produce by your CAM software and turns it into step and direction signals to turn the motors that drive the machine. They usually also have feedback displays so you can see what the machine is doing, and where it is in the program. For any “real” CNC machinists reading this article, the PC takes the place of your Fanuc or Heidenhain, or whatever other controller you may have hanging off the side of your machine. A commercial machine controller like that can be worth tens of thousands of dollars, a budget that I simply did not have. Luckily, through clever open source development, a very functional and sophisticated software controller can be had for a much nicer price of FREE. LinuxCNC was my weapon of choice. I weighed it up against Mach3, it’s direct competitor, and decided to give the open source option a go, before trying the commercial Mach3 product.

Having used LinuxCNC in the past, the configuration and calibration was relatively quick and painless. Within an hour or so, the motors were happily singing away. I moved on to started cutting some air in the shape of the LinuxCNC logo, which is the default G-Code program that it comes with, for testing.

After spending quite a bit of time tuning and calibrating the various aspects of the system, I started machining a few test components. I quickly discovered that with longer programs, sometimes the accuracy would not be very good, and the symptoms of “missed steps” were starting to show. Missed steps can be caused by latency in the software step generator. Interruptions to the timing inside the computer means that sometimes the stepper driver might not receive all of the step information that it was supposed to. This leads to the machine ending up in a slightly different place to where the computer thinks it is. I was getting some latency errors in LinuxCNC and after a lot of messing around, decided that the PC was just not up to software step generation.

After a lot of googling, and a lot of reading, I decided that a hardware step generator would solve my issues. I found a company called MESA in California, and ordered one of their MESA 6i25 motion control cards. After a week of bashing my head against the wall trying to configure it, I received an answer from their tech support department asking me to check the positions of the jumpers on the card. Sure enough, one was in the wrong position, and I promptly fixed that. As soon as I ran the machine, I could see that the performance had improved dramatically. The machine can now run reliably at least 3 times faster than it did with software step generation. It sounds smoother, and the accuracy is a lot better too. 

With the mill now running really nicely, I set to work cutting some 3D surfaces to not only test the capability of the machine, but also to try out the new Autodesk InventorHSM CAM software that had recently become available to me. I will cover this in a lot more detail in a future post, but as a teaser, here is a picture of the first 3D surface that I milled with a 5mm diameter ballnose cutter:

3D Toolpath MachinedFirst 3D surface that I machined

 In the next post, I’ll talk more about the CAM software for creating the G-Code, and also the LinuxCNC software which is used to control the machine.


Morgan Motor Company Ad Competition Public Voting

Recently we announced the close of the Morgan Motor Company Ad Contest. While the Judges are making their decision, the public community voting is already underway. Here is your chance to help one of these skilled individuals win a great HP Workstation.

There are about 50 great entries, but one caught my eye and I kept coming back to it

John’s choice for the win

One to drive, one to admire” by David Morgan Stark is my favorite.

I’d do the very same thing. If I had something as gorgeous as that, I’d want to admire it when I couldn’t drive it. The color scheme on the vehicle and in the setting are great and the quality of the rendering is superb. The artist knows his color and lighting, not to mention the setting and concept are sweet. The slogan and byline bring it all together and make this ad a winner in my opinion. Not to mention, I really enjoy looking at the image. It’s beautiful, and I would love to get a breakdown on the software, workflows, and lighting setup used.

David Morgan Stark Morgan Motor Company Ad entry

What are your thoughts on this entry? Does it deserve to win? Does this artist give classes?

Honorable Mention

I did want to make a mention about Tariq Ahmed’s entry: “Leave Everything Else Behind”.

Tariq Ahmed Morgan Motor Company Ad entry

I thought that slogan really set the tone for ‘just jump in and ride’. While I don’t feel that the overall ad should be the big winner, I think the slogan embodied the spirit of the Morgan Motor Company 3-wheeler more than the others.


Mike picks

Technology with history” By Germano Vieira” 

Germano Vieira Morgan motor Company Ad Entry

The legacy in the background (subtlety) and the new in the foreground. The use of the grey to make the car pop is a a nice touch…. clean, elegant, classy. This is my current pick for the win

Uno para manejar, uno para admirar” By David Morgan Stark” 

David Morgan Stark Morgan Motor Company Ad entry

I like this one for how off the wall and different it is, putting a car in a bathroom, brilliant! Would be the perfect magazine cover for something, even if I’m not sure what [ed. perhaps a car?]. The use of red and green wouldn’t be my first choice, too Christmas, but the lighting coming from the window puts the focus on the car.


Scott’s Favorites

Morgan 3 Wheeler. Timeless design, unforgettable experience” By Gus Petrikas

Gus Patrikas Morgan Motor Company Ad Entry
I love the simplicity of this entry and I just can’t help but wonder what is under that cover!?! Such a tease, is it the next Morgan 3 Wheeler?

[ed. I know we're a bit biased with Gus, but it's hard not to love his work; beautiful materials and great lighting]
Technology with history” By Germano Vieira” 

Germano Vieira Morgan motor Company Ad Entry

I think this is a really clever use of the rendered car, its composition within the background and the worn folded look. This flyer has been in a school boys trouser pocket for months, I can just imagine him pulling it out everyday on his walk to & from school. It’s the stuff great cars are made of.


Which of these entries will win it? Vote and tell us what you think. We’d really enjoy hearing everyone else’s thoughts and picks.

Here is the link to the Morgan motor Company Ad Competition submissions and voting. Voting ends April 10th, 2014.

Morgan 3 Wheeler Advert Competition – Final Call!

Autodesk 3ds Max Morgan 3 Wheeler RenderingThere are only a few days left to get your entries in for the Morgan Motor Company advertisement competition. There’s plenty of inspiration out there now & a number of tutorials kicking around on the internet. There’s still time to knock out a tidy entry and have a chance to win amazing prizes. Just in case you need some encouragement, here are prizes listed out again:

The grand prize winner will have their design displayed in the Morgan Motor Company exhibit at a major automotive trade show. The winning design will also be featured in a Morgan Motors marketing campaign.

In addition, the winner will receive:

HP ZBook 17 inch mobile workstation

  • $5,000
  • HP ZBook 17 Mobile Workstation with Nvidia Quadro graphics valued at $4,400
  • Exposure for their submission which will be featured on Autodesk®, HP and NVIDIA’s social media channels
  • A feature on Morgan 3 Wheeler’s official website
  • A feature in the official Morgan Motors magazine,MOG, distributed worldwide
  • A signed copy of the book ‘Morgan: 100 Years: The Official History of the World’s Greatest Sports Car’
  • Selection of Morgan Motors branded merchandise

One runner-up (as determined by the Judges) will receive:

HP Z1 workstation

  • HP Z1 all-in-one workstation with NVIDIA Quadro graphics, valued at $4,092
  • Exposure for their submission which will be featured on Autodesk®, HP and NVIDIA’s social media

To help you out with inspiration & tutorials, here are the list of posts we have crafted over the last 4 months the competition has been running:

Design for Morgan Motors Contest Extended

Max Morgan! A Minimalist Guide to rendering in 3ds Max

HP ZBook review – But what does the Z stand for?

Interview with MMC Contest Judge Sean Young of HP

The Autodesk Insight on the Morgan Motor Company Contest

Decide Who Wins the MMC Contest Prizes

As a final dash of inspiration take a look at Kean Walmsley’s post about Morgan’s attendance at the Geneva Motor Show.

There really is no excuse not to get an entry in before 10am on March 26th USA Pacific Standard Time.

We look forward to seeing all the entries, for more detailed information, links to software downloads and access to the datasets for Autodesk Inventor, Showcase and 3ds Max click on the ad link at the top of the page.

Get cracking then!


FORE! CFD just went mainstream

A couple of weeks ago John & I got to Interview Autodesk Product Marketing Manager, SimulationLuke Mihelcic. Some of you will have read about Autodesk’s launch of Autodesk Flow Design. Some of you may have even seen it feature as part of the Super Bowl. I don’t know about you lot, but we were pretty impressed that Autodesk managed to feature so prominently as part of the jewel in the crown of America’s greatest past time (some might say). Luke did an incredible job of fielding alternating questions from New Zealand and Florida simultaneously, while we all had fun doing so. Anyway, let’s crack on with the goods shall we?

Note: This interview wasn’t recorded unfortunately, so Luke’s responses have been paraphrased throughout.

Autodesk Inventor Flow Design FORD Pickup

D&M: Why didn’t Autodesk Flow Design get a standard Autodesk Simulation name?

Luke: With Autodesk Flow design we are targeting the designer market, rather than the traditional simulation audience. Flow Design is very similar to Autodesk Simulation DFM (Design For Manufacturability) in the sense they are both purpose built with a narrow focus. It does one thing and does it very well. Not only do we have the standalone version, but both Inventor and Revit have Add-Ins. This introduces a familiar ease of use and level of feedback appropriate for an associate degree level individual and maybe an engineer. Additionally it’s very geometry tolerant, unlike full blown simulation tools. With this in mind it’s quite likely Flow Design will mostly be used for mechanical or architectural products. That’s why simulation isn’t in the name, it’s more about helping to guide the design & make sure the basic design specifications are being met at an early stage. I know one of the things we want to do is build purpose built tools for specific applications, so don’t be surprised if you see more purpose built tools.

D&M: Is there a cost benefit?

Luke: Cost benefit is tough to measure, but there definitely is one. For example, you currently do wind tunnel testing.  Every time you do a different configuration, you are charged for that configuration.  With Flow Design, however, you can reduce the number of physical wind tunnel tests by optimizing your design and possible configuration before you go to the testing facility.

In addition, you’re not doing any wind tunnel testing or conceptual design simulation. A problem with design later in the development process causes you to have to re-work it when it’s more expensive. Had you used Flow Design early in the process, however, you could have optimized the design and reduced the amount of design re-work.

D&M: Is Autodesk changing tack slightly with this? In the sense that this tool seems more appropriate for pre-design, whereas the full blown simulation tools are more appropriate for post design validation?

Luke: We’re not changing, but adding a new tactic instead. We’re trying to create a new audience since no one is creating these designer level tools.

D&M: How are you making it easier to understand the results?

Luke: Flow design basically just gives you lift & drag results. As long as you know what they are, you can look at what those mean & look at changing the design to alter those figures. One of the most powerful aspects to Flow Design is the CAD application integration. This translates to the ability to adjust the design and receive immediate feedback. Ideally designers don’t want to wait for a simulation to run, so that feedback needs to be fast and Flow Design doesn’t disappoint. As you play around with the design and see the result of those changes, it builds your understanding of the results, it teaches you to recognise better results. So in that respect, the visuals give you the lion’s share of the feedback for those who don’t understand that as much. For example, you might want to try to limit recirculation & streamline flow etc… It’s really about the visuals, just like DFM.

D&M: This brings up the next question nicely… Is the solver desktop based?

Luke: Autodesk Flow Design is not a cloud solving tool, it runs extremely fast locally. The development team have done a lot of creative things under the hood to achieve this. In most cases the product videos on our website & around the web are showing the tool running on a standard mobile workstation!

ANSYS Fluent & Autodesk Flow Design comparison

D&M: Have you done any benchmarking of this solver against wind tunnel results?

In terms of validation documents, you can access those materials here.  In addition, Luke wanted to pass along an even more detailed PDF with links to relevant information.

D&M: The validation document makes for interesting reading. It really is impressive how close Autodesk Flow Design is relative to highly respected & much more costly CFD software.

D&M: Is there any reason why this didn’t go straight onto the 360 platform?

Luke: Project Falcon was developed as an Autodesk LABS tool almost a full year before we had any cloud simulation tools. That said, we wanted to create tools that work where designers are using them now, and that is currently on the desktop. As designers and our target audience migrate to the cloud, however, we will re-evaluate how we want to deliver Flow Design.

D&M: What enhancements have been made since Project Falcon and prior to full release?

Luke: Most of the enhancements were within the User Interface. This started out as a very successful Labs project, but when people are being charged money they have difference expectations, so we added some polish to fulfil those. Performance has also been greatly improved, it’s pretty amazing seeing it running inside Autodesk Inventor. With regards to functionality, there aren’t any new tools, it’s still all about wind speed & direction.

D&M: Does it handle multi fluids? Such as water & air flow analysis for marine applications?

Luke: There have been a few requests for multi fluids. But it’s air only at the moment. The challenge with water, is most people want it to be free surface, which is a whole ‘nuther ball of wax, it really is full blown CFD. Plus it doesn’t really fit the target audience. The person wanting to do free surface simulation is probably a full blown engineer or analyst. So we probably won’t see that coming. In addition it’s purely external airflow, so it’s no good for pumps etc.

D&M: Which area do you see this specific focused approach to simulation being used next?

Luke: Designers already have crazy ‘early on’ tools already, such as the Force Effect group of applications. We really want to make sure we have the right tool, for the right person, at the right time in the design process. We have done a really good job hitting people with mid-range tools & then full on high end SIM tools with CFD & Mold Flow. We will probably start to see ‘point tools’ to address the gap between Pre-Design and Post-Design, along the lines of tools seen in Inventor Professional, DFM & Flow Design are recent examples. This is how I see the really high level general road map.

Autodesk Simulation DFM

D&M: How have users reacted to the Inventor Add-in vs the standalone application?

Luke: The functionality is identical between the two. The add-in allows real-time modification, whereas the standalone application extends Flow Design out to Non Inventor and Revit users. The feedback has been hugely positive, especially in relation to how geometry tolerant it is. You just don’t have to clean up geometry, there’s no mesh for the user to deal with, and you just run your simulation.

D&M: What kind of adoption have you seen?

Luke: Well that’s to be determined. We will see more clearly once the Labs project expires.

D&M: Which industries are most prevalent?

Luke: With Autodesk Revit having an Add-In, the AEC industry can study any adverse effects of their designs. Of course there’s a lot of opportunity within the automotive industry, such as people making components and after-market parts. A lot of start companies would likely find this useful. The Morgan Motor Company is a great example of a company that could benefit in the early stages of their designs.

Autodesk Revit Flow Design City high rise simulation

D&M: So what does it cost?

Luke: $35 USD per month, or $210 per annum. We’re only offering term licenses which can only be purchased on our e-store. At this stage it’s only available in English. Unfortunately there’s a technical issue preventing us from selling it in Brazil at this stage. Our team is working on resolving it ASAP.

D&M: What support is available for Flow Design?

Luke: Basic support is included which will primarily be executed via email and the Autodesk support forums.

D&M: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Luke, as always it was a pleasure!

Design and Motion have been given access to Flow Design, so we will setup it up and take it for a spin. Keep an eye out for a post in the next couple of weeks.

To cap off this interview, take a look at Flow Design in action at Super Bowl XLVIII in the videos below:

What does everyone think about this Designer tailored approach to simulation? Let us know in the comments below.

Special thanks to the Autodesk PR team for choreographing the supporting information for this interview.


Max Morgan! A Minimalist Guide to rendering in 3ds Max

What better motivation to learn a bit about Autodesk 3ds Max than a spectacular Morgan 3 Wheeler, a competition with cool prizes, and a 15 minute tutorial that will generate images like this:

Autodesk 3ds Max Morgan 3 Wheeler Rendering

If I spend too long on the preamble, you’ll get bored, so fire up 3ds Max and get stuck in.  I’ve presented the videos using as little jargon as possible, and aimed them at someone with no Max experience, so whatever your skill level, you should be able to generate an entry for this competition!

The first thing you’ll need is the model.  There’s an Ad at the top or bottom of this page to take you to the competition website where you should read carefully the rules, then download the model.  I’ll just reiterate just two of the rules: Firstly, you must own the copyright on any images you use – we’ll cover that later.  Secondly, you must use “iRay”.  If you are new to Autodesk 3ds Max, iRay is a recent addition that provides a “GPU accelerated, physically correct, photo-realistic rendering solution”.  Or in English, wicked pictures.  If you spent a few extra dollars when you bought your graphics hardware, it’s about to pay off.  All the work you see in the video is completed on my HP 8570W Laptop with an NVIDIA Quadro K2000M graphics card, so it’s not a top-end workstation by any means.

Navigating the UI

This short video will introduce you to a few basic viewport and object manipulation tools.  It’s worth spending a few minutes practising moving between viewports and seeing how the different commands work.  When you are comfortable, just re-open the scene without saving the changes you just made and you’ll be ready to take on the next step.

Backgrounds and Perspective matching

I visited and looked through their selection of images for something I could use as the setting for the Morgan.  (The images I use in the video are from the “freebies” selection, but there are some stunning images for less than 10 euros.  My personal favourites are under the HDRE section called “Urban”.)  Wherever you get your backgrounds from, make sure you read their terms and conditions.  I know it’s the second reference I’ve made to ownership of copyright, but you must be certain you can use these images; otherwise you could be disqualified from the competition and get yourself in trouble!

This next video shows how a background photo is brought into Max, and then how you reconstruct the camera that took the photo.  All too often you see renderings where the perspective of the model and the background don’t match, and there’s no excuse when there are some simple tools for getting it right.  Seasoned 3ds Max users will know the old Camera Match tools, but 3ds Max 2014 introduced a new “Perspective match” function that is so quick and easy to use, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.  Having used Max for a few years, this has to be among my favourite new tools of 2014.

Environment and reflections

You could spend weeks reading and studying lighting and environment design, so I’m going to take a real short-cut here and just use two image files to create everything we need for the scene.  In the previous step, you probably downloaded images from the site. In this next video, we’ll use the JPG backplate images for the background, and an EXR file for the environment.  When you look at a material like polished chrome, its colour comes from its surrounding environment.  To a lesser extent, the same is true for shiny colours like car paint, so getting the environment right will make a huge impact on your renderings.  In the following video, the “environment” image will be wrapped around an imaginary sphere that surrounds your model. This means that anything shiny on the Morgan will reflect the environment.  By having the background image and the environment image of the same courtyard, the rendered output from this next exercise is surprisingly rewarding.

iRay, Materials and Shadows

iRay is the rendering engine you’ll need to use for the competition, and it’s all set up ready to use when you first downloaded the model of the Morgan. If you visit the website and have a look at the “Classic” model range of 4-wheel versions, you will see they come in a range of engine variations – one of which is the awesome V8.  As rendering engines go, iRay is the V8.  It’s designed to take advantage of every available electron in your computer and use it for rendering.  If you just hit “Render” you will notice Windows (and other background apps) will become very sluggish because iRay grabs all your hardware for itself.  There are settings that allow you to use CPU and/or GPU rendering, but I don’t cover these here.  The other unusual thing about iRay when compared with traditional rendering engines is that it never “finishes” a rendering, it just keeps refining the solution.  This is the default setting in the Morgan scene, so remember to hit Cancel unless you plan to sit there for ever.  Once the rendering has been cancelled, the image will stay on screen so you can inspect it, or save it if it’s one you want to keep.

The ground that the Morgan stands on is another bit of iRay magic: You need something that will catch the shadow of the Morgan, but still lets you see the background photo.  We typically use something called a “Matte” material, but that feature has not yet been exposed in the interface of Max, so we need a workaround.  Download this plugin called iRay Manager.  The following video describes the download and installation process (you’ll be surprised how easy it is!).

The last segment of this video looks at an iRay material and what you can do with it.  From pearlescent two-tone metallic-fleck car paint to leather and glass, you should find a template to help you put your personal mark on the Morgan.

Finishing up

Autodesk 3ds Max Morgan 3 Wheeler Front Corner Rendering

So now you have your rendered image of the Morgan, you need to turn it into an advert that sells the car.  If you don’t have any image-editing software, then I strongly recommend Gimp.  You can download the GNU license of Gimp here:

Gimp is a fully featured image manipulation tool along the lines of Photoshop and others.  You shouldn’t need anything else to complete the work for the competition.  Good luck, and I hope you enjoyed your first project in 3ds Max.

Useful references



Design for Morgan Motors Contest Extended

Design for Morgan Motors ContestThe “Design for Morgan Motor Company” contest entry period has been extended. Talenthouse will be accepting submissions until March 26, 2014. What does that mean for you?

More chances to win cash and prizes including:

  • $5000 USD
  • HP ZBook 17 Mobile Workstation ($4400 Retail)
  • Winning submission featured in various outlets
  • Second place and popular vote prizes include:
  • HP Z1 all-in-one workstations
  • HP ZBook 15 Mobile Workstation

It’s So Simple!

A rendering of their model in a new advertisement page. You render it; add a catchy ad theme, and submit. Yes, it’s that simple. If you enter, you might just win. Your ad will become part of their new ad campaign, and you get the cash and prizes too.

Check out the rules and requirements by clicking on the ad at the top of this post.