CNC as studio tool for artists

9 years, 9 months ago 2
Posted in: studio notes

Over the past nine months I’ve been involved as a founding member of Hackerspace Charlotte; it’s involved a lot of logistical crazy and manual labor, but the hackerspace is established enough now that I’ve been using it as a larger lab area for my studio work.  I’ve been able to have access to more materials, tools, and resources – and one of my goals for the summer is to learn how to really use the CNC machines at Hackerspace Charlotte and incorporate these automated processes into my studio practice (at the basic level, CNC stands for computer numerical control – it’s a way of having a computer mill or carve a design out of a material like wood, plastic, metals, etc.)  Last week, I built a desktop variable power supply for the studio, and I used it as an opportunity to learn how to take my design for the front panel and have the computer carve it out of a pressed bamboo material.  Here’s a picture of it:

(yes, that’s Futura…)

I did the design in Illustrator, then had to open it in Inkscape in order to use an Inkscape to generate the g-code (the programming language that CNC milling software uses.) In order to generate the g-code, I had to futz around with a lot of finicky, complicated settings…manually.  I had to manually take the size of the bit into account, and manually adjust the width of the stroke on the paths, and do a bunch of other manual calculations and adjustments. Then, I took the g-code and imported that into the milling software. Only then was I ready to mill the design.

The problem is that this is a totally ineffective solution for artists.  It adds unnecessary layers of complication and removes the immediacy of working with materials in the studio.  There has to be a way to automate all those manual calculations and adjustments. Right now, using the CNC machine feels like programming my own analog synth patches, when what I want to do is just pickup my keyboard and start making music right away.  Or, it’s like I have to write my own OS every time I want to use my computer, when what I need is a plug-and-play solution. I’ve decided I’m going to try to figure out some sort of solution to this problem so that artists can retain the creative relationship with materiality with minimal hassle.  What I’d like is to be able to go relatively directly from my drawing to the milling software, with all the calculations taken care of more or less automatically and invisibly.  You know, like a file conversion: I upload my Illustrator (or whatever vector graphics format) file, and it gets translated into data readable by the milling software.  Maybe I have to check a few boxes or input a few numbers, that’s fine–I just need to have the process streamlined enough to make using the CNC machine something artists can use in their studios (without also having to be programmers and engineers).   Like I said earlier, I imagine that CNC can be a pretty revolutionary tool for artists to use in their studios – not just me, but other people as well. 

Now, I know there are both expensive and proprietary solutions out there – things like CAD and CAM software – but there’s a pretty big barrier to those solutions.  Mainly, they’re designed for industrial engineering, large-scale factory manufacturing, product design, etc, and they require years of specialized technical training.  That’s not going to work for fine artists – first, we need something like SketchUp that you can learn in an afternoon that doesn’t require engineering degrees or a background in computer sciences to become proficient in. Second, the things we’re going to produce are small-scale, one-off pieces that are, because of the nature of art, impractical and based off of imaginative and creative processes and don’t adhere to the same standards and compliances of some industrial widget thing.   I’m hoping that somebody has already figured out a solution to this problem. If so, let me know! I’d really appreciate any and all suggestions. If not, I guess I’ll have to figure this out myself. Either way, I’ll post updates about my progress on this particular problem.

2 Responses

  1. JuxtaposedIrony says:

    I am not sure how much this will help but under the GNU license agreement you can find a lot of free software, in particular you can find CAD import/export programs as well. Though this may not help since you may be looking for an all in one program! I have not look at many of these programs, but I am emailing someone at UNCC who has built their own CNC and am hoping they might also have some insight.

  2. JuxtaposedIrony says:

    This is the response to my email

    You can do all this for free if your friend is so inclined…

    I suggest downloading the e-book from the tutorials tab from this site and
    looking over what can be done with these tools. If he wants to stay with
    what he is using, he should look on the links tab. I think Meshlab might
    convert a file of the type he can export to an stl file. I personally use
    3dsmax and gmax for modeling, export the file to a .stl file (the
    standard), create toolpaths with MeshCAM (primarily a 3D toolpath app that
    cost $175), and run the gcode on Mach3 (also costs $) which is installed
    on my CNC. If he needs a 2D app, maybe Sheetcam (costs $), or look into
    this CNC forum which can provide much useful information…


    I hope you find this useful!