CNC is not a cheap proposition. The mills are expensive. The materials can be expensive. And good software can be expensive. So while we can’t do much about the first two, I’ve been thinking about how to attack that third one – the software.
I’ve looked at the alternatives and there are many.
I started with the premise that 2D AutoCAD is not sufficient anymore. Not, that there’s anything wrong with AutoCAD – I’ve used it for years and I’m pretty proficient. But the advantages of 3D are pretty significant and if it can be had for a reasonable price, then it would be a big improvement for me.
There are plenty of free or inexpensive 3D CAD systems (see Peter Eland’s site for a list: http://www.eland.org.uk/pages/Misc/cadnotes.html), but I’ve always been a bit leery of shareware. The documentation is lousy. The support is non-existent.
A few weeks ago, I came across another alternative. Autodesk now has a product called the AutoCAD Inventor LT Suite which includes both an up to date copy of AutoCAD LT (mine is really old) and a copy of Inventor LT. The latter is a light version of Autodesk Inventor – the $5,000 CAD system that I would buy if money grew on trees.
As far as I can tell, the only things that make Inventor LT different from the $5000 seat of Inventor are that (1) it only handles single parts, and (2) there are no partner applications that integrate with it (no API). But I don’t need any of those things for my projects. I just need a good 3D part modeler that can output model data into a format that I can convert into g-code. Inventor LT can do what I need for around $1,000 which is within my budget.
Here’s a good 3D modeling example video that I found on YouTube.
There are also a good number of instructional videos on YouTube if you search for Autodesk Inventor.