BeagleBone Black project spotlight:
Pocket NC P5
By Natalie Nelms
Computer numerical control (CNC) milling machines have been around for decades. Most are industrial-sized, and are used create everything from the shaped trim on a house to the mechanical components of a space shuttle. Over the last decade, a large do-it-yourself community has emerged giving a new market to CNC milling machines as personal, rather than solely industrial applications.
Matt, Michelle, Gary, Duane and Bannor from Pocket NC have always been tinkerers and enjoy pursuing projects from their homes. After searching long and hard for a personal desktop mill, Matt and his team turned to the Sitara-processor-based BeagleBone Black to design and build a milling machine for themselves. Thus, the Pocket NC P5 was born!
“We saw an amazing opportunity for creativity that could open up if we had the ability to make real parts for projects and prototyping from our house,” said Matt, the ‘inventor captain’ from Pocket NC. “Three and a half years ago we embarked on the journey to bring a sophisticated milling machine to the masses.”
The Pocket NC P5’s subtractive manufacturing process starts with a solid piece of material and carves out the desired part according to computer generated tool paths. Compared to 3D printing, milling offers a much wider variety of possible materials to use (including metals and wood), which produces stronger finished parts.
Pocket NC P5 is driven by the LinuxCNC distribution Machine Kit running on a BeagleBone Black. The 5-axis machine utilizes precision linear and rotary bearings, stepper motors and an NSK spindle with quick change capabilities and brushless servo direct drive.
“We chose the BeagleBone Black for its compact size and functionality,” Matt said. “It’s powerful enough to drive all five axes of our machine; and it offers many GPIO pins and fast PRU pins. The features on the board gave us hope that we could bring desktop machining into the 21st century.”
Although the team’s strengths are predominantly mechanical skills, they found engineers and hobbyists to assist with the project in the electronics and software areas. The Pocket NC P5 project is fully funded by the team, so challenges arose when looking for people to contribute without an immediate payout. Finding the right people who are passionate about the project ruled out the financial hardships that came with the project. Funding the project themselves, the team learned how to be creative in finding ways to prototype their machines.
The team took sixth months to develop the design of a 3-axis mill but quickly realized many people would be more interested in a 5-axis machine. After building and learning from three prototypes, they built a fourth prototype that they took to World Maker Faire New York in 2013. Today, the team is in the process of building and testing five Beta machines before taking the product to market.
“We want to continue developing our machine to bring down the cost, while also adding more features to it,” Matt said. “We will either be working on that, or developing a perpetual motion machine. We have learned a lot through the process and are always thankful for the encouragement and support we receive from the community.”
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