Chinese CNC Tools

Maybe I’m spoiled, or just out of sync with things, but when I worked with professional CNC equipment (I worked on the control systems and servo amplifiers for big things like vertical mills, jig bores and huge lathes) the software was usually custom made for a particular machine type. If not, then it was some type of high-reliability real-time operating system or maybe a real-time OS for a minicomputer, like a PDP-11 or the IBM Series I machines.

But at the price some of the Chinese CNC tools are going for these days it would be nuts to expect them to come with custom control software. Instead, a lot of them come with Windows-based software, and some of that is of dubious heritage. As someone who likes to open the hood on things the poke around inside, Windows is a problem for me. I prefer to use Linux instead, but when the shiny new CNC tool that just arrived only comes with Windows software, then it’s time to start looking for alternative software.

I recently purchased a small CNC router from China. The router came fully assembled and ready to run. It was well packed, everything was there, and it all looked good. But the annoying part was that I had to resurrect an old Windows XP desktop PC just so I could check it out and test it. Here’s the router on its own roll-around cart in my shop:


The router uses a dubious copy of the Mach 3 CNC software. This, in and of itself, isn’t terrible, but it does have a big drawback (besides being ethically questionable): It only works with Windows, and it only works with Windows versions up through XP. So now I am looking for a Linux software package to run the router, and it looks I will need to replace the electronics in the motor drive box to do that.

So now I get to spend another $200 or so to get the router to the point where I can do serious work with it using a Smoothieboard and some additional limit switches and such. That transforms my $400 tool into a $600 tool. Once it’s finished I’ll have a decent little machine for basic jobs like cutting rectangular holes in plastic panels (which is what I bought it for, anyway).

Another example is an Anet A8 3D printer kit I recently purchased. It is a clone of a Prusa I3 extrusion printer, which is itself a nice little machine. But when I went to check out the software, I found that it too was for Windows. The 3D printer is a descendant of the RepRap. That makes it easier to find Linux versions of the design and control tools I need for it. I found the Ultimaker web site and downloaded a Linux version of Cura, and a Linux version of Repetier as well. Once it is assembled I should be able to put it to work without too much trouble. Hopefully (I’ll let you know about that, and I might do an build video as well).

I have to wonder why Windows is the first thing that the people who design and build these low-cost tools reach for. I suspect that it has a lot to do with simply grabbing something that already works and can be used with their product with minimal integration effort. Well, OK, I can understand that, but what I really don’t understand is why the effort seems to end with the first thing they can find that will start up and run the tool. Windows XP is dead, and Windows 7 is heading for the exit as well. Forcing people to dig up an obsolete operating system and a PC with a parallel port (really!) to use their new tool doesn’t seem like a good marketing strategy to me.

I also suspect that it might also be partly due to Maslow’s hammer principle: If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem tends to look like a nail.

So, if you decide to buy something like a CNC router or 3D printer from China, it is probably safe to assume that the mechanical quality will be good, if not excellent. But don’t assume that you will be able use open-source software to run it, at least not without some work. If enough people write to the vendors about this it might change–but don’t expect it to change quickly. Finding the original manufacturer for many things coming from China can be an arduous task if you don’t know the Chinese language. Even for Chinese speakers it can be a challenge. But if enough people speak up about it, then I think something will be done. We just have to let them know that we don’t use Windows XP any more, and if we’re going to support open-source hardware, it would be nice to be able to use open-source software to run it.


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