I found that most of the desktop CNC's I know of won't fit into my requirements. Many of the CNC kits are too large and cost more than I'm willing to spend. Even the popular open-source CNC routers such as PrintNC are not suitable for my application, being optimized for bigger, customizable volume rather than precision.
I started looking around at my usual shopping destination, Aliexpress, where some choices became apparent. My budget allows for it, so I discarded the options with a plastic frame. Here are some of the options I looked at:
1310 is the smallest frame I considered. It features a sturdy-looking aluminum frame. It is so little I find it somewhat adorable. I even found a video of it milling aluminum, though equipped with a much beefier spindle than the often featured 80W one. What concerns me about this one is the bed size - I can't imagine having enough space for fixing stock in place.
1419 features a similar aluminum frame but has a much larger bed. Both this machine and its little sibling feature trapezoidal screws. Striving for precision, I started looking for something with superior ball screws.
The next thing I found, a model called 3020, ticks all the right boxes.
It has a rigid frame with a comfortably sized bed and ball screws. It seems to be produced by a Chinese company called LY Group.
There seems to be quite a variety of 3020 sized CNCs. Let's go through some of them.
If you search for 3020 on eBay, many machines feature unappealing beige color, but otherwise seem quite ok:
More often, you will find machines without that coat, just plain anodized aluminum.
What I find somewhat reassuring is that this very same frame is inside of the Desktop Mill from a reputable manufacturer of professional CNC's, Haas. With a nice enclosure and controls, it sports a price of 6,995€.
The frame I eventually decided to buy has a little bit different design and is not so common as the other types.
For it, I paid total of $410 with shipping. That for a frame with steppers motors, TB6600 drivers and ball screws on all three axes. I also really like the presence of supported rail on the longest axis.
With all this, I should be on the right path towards somewhat precise CNC machining.
I purchased my delta 3D printer back in 2016 for a mere $200. When I bought the machine, 3D printers were gaining in popularity but were not very widespread. While dealing with this cheap kit from AliExpress was a source of a lot of stress, it also provided me with hands-on experience that eventually led me to robotics. Back then, I had no idea what an Arduino was, and the MKS Mini inside this cheap 3D printer was my first exposure to the fascinating world of microcontrollers.
Now, four years later, I find myself in a similar position as back then. I want to expand my capabilities as a maker. While FDM 3D printers lead the way in fast, cheap, and undemanding prototyping, they lack the precision I want. Even if I can get parts printed somewhat precisely, 3D printing artifacts such as warping often haunt the results.
I could get around this by buying a new 3D printer, but this would expand my capabilities a bit. 3D printable materials no longer cut it for me.
While they are not yet as mainstream and straightforward as 3D printers, CNC routers seem to be on the rise, and there is quite a variety of capable and accessible desktop machines.
With this project, I hope to share my adventure of choosing, buying, assembling, and finally operating my very own CNC router.