Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines are typically used for cutting hard materials such as steel, aluminum, wood, composites and plastics. The original Numerical Control machines were first developed in the 1940’s to replace the manual process that required an operator to physically move the levers or gears directing the cutting tool. Using the idea of player-pianos, the concept of a punch tape to instruct the motor positioning was implemented. This allowed for a consistent and uniform machining while improving output with lowered cost.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and this technology has been cost reduced and simplified to the point where it’s available for home use. One company in particular, Cricut, has developed products that are safe and easy for children to use. While not as robust as a true CNC machine, these desktop-sized devices can cut thin metal foil, vinyl, felt or paper into an amazingly creative application of shapes and sizes up to one-half inch thick. These “consumables” are relatively inexpensive, with packs of 35 vinyl sheets for around $30.
As with all CNC type machines, this is a subtractive process by which a sheet or block of materials is loaded into the machine and material is removed or cut until what remains is your item. This differs from the new 3-D printing technologies (see article on MakerBot), which use an additive process where a physical object is created one thin layer on top of another.
The design process starts with cartridges which are factory loaded with templates for designs. These are typically themed (e.g., Food, Animals, Celebrations, Starter Bundles) and there are multiple different cartridges with each them. Inserting the cartridge into the Cricut Machine, a shape is selected an cut from the material. It’s possible to load multiple shapes to create a unique pattern. For the more ambitious design, Cricut also offers an CAD (Computer Aided Design) type program where shapes can be edited and downloaded to the Cricut Machine.
What was once a difficult, often hazardous, task performed by skilled machinist is now a safe and fun pastime enjoyed by children and hobbyists. For examples of what can be done with a Cricut Machine, please view these Circuit Examples.
There are also a number of under $10 books to get you started with your Cricut, and give you lots of interesting ideas.
The Complete User Guide For Cricut Explore (paperback)
The Ultimate Beginners Guide For Cricut Explore ( paperback)
What will you create?