3D printing promises to be the gateway to a world where a person's ideas are literally made manifest. Draw it up on a computer, hit the print button and a short while later, there's what you just designed, sitting before you in the real world. However, 3D printing isn't suitable for everything, with materials issues and desired finish quality to take into account. Enter the X-Carve, a domestic device aimed at the emerging maker market that allows the home-based enthusiast to work in more than just extruded plastic.
The X-Carve is produced by a Chicago-based company called Inventables, and although a multi-axis milling machine (which is essentially what the X-Carve is) is nothing new to the hobbyist market, Inventables has come up with a twist that is borderline brilliant: the X-Carve is scalable.
A multi-axis milling machine, from the ones that hobbyists use all the way up to those found in factories, is essentially a flat plane where the work piece is held in place to be machined down into the finished product. Moving over this un-carved block (it could be wood, metal, foam, almost anything really) is a cutter head that removes any of the unwanted bits, and, when finished, leaves the complete piece ready for use or finishing.
This process used to be done by very skilled people, generically referred to as machinists. Then someone had the bright idea of using a computer to control the cutter head. And then someone asked, "Why does this have to be a giant machine big enough to fit a car in? What happens if we make it smaller?".
Very good question, and the even more exciting answer came from people like those at Inventables. We previously covered the company's rather slick little machining unit prototype dubbed Carvey, which easily achieved its crowdfunding goal and is set for delivery in the US autumn of this year. It is designed to sit on a home desktop, where it won't make a big mess since it's covered.
The X-Carve is Inventables' latest desktop 3D carving machine and is capable of creating precision parts from plastic, wood, metal and other materials. Created for a workshop setting, the X-Carve is both customizable and expandable. So if a maker already has one of Inventables previous machines, they can upgrade and expand their existing device by adding new X-Carve components.
The X-Carve is offered in two sizes, standard and large, both of which are capable of a resolution of ~0.075 to 0.13 mm. Standard has a 500 x 500 mm (20 x 20 in) plane and the large comes in a 1,000 x 1,000 mm (39 x 39 in) size. The workable area (that is, the largest piece of material you can put into the X-Carve) is about 300 x 300 x 70 mm (12 x 12 x 2.7 in) for the standard and 800 x 800 x 70 mm (31 x 31 x 2.7 in) for the large. Inventables says the largest size is big enough to work on "a full-size longboard" – we're assuming that's skateboard, not surfboard.
"We heard over and over again that people want to build machines in different sizes, with different electronics, and motors to fit their specific needs," said Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan. "In response, we built a tool that will allow them to customize a machine to do exactly what they want without having to buy unnecessary parts."
And here's the really trick feature: The machine can be configured into any size that the buyer wants. The standard and large sizes are just the two ends of the spectrum. If there's a maker out there that wants to have an X-Carve that's 503 mm x 997 mm, they can get that. The X-Carve and all of its bits and pieces (rails, drive belts and the like) are all available a la carte, so creators can mix and match to their heart's content.
"We've made the machine easier to assemble (It uses 50 percent as many parts) and it's 100 percent open-source, so the physical size is just one aspect that we expect to see users modify," said Inventables marketing person Michael Una. "Granted, 80 percent of users will just use the machine as it was designed and be happy woodworking all day long, but we love and support the community of hackers and tinkerers who push the boundaries of what can be done."
Users can custom design the exact machine they want, and parts will also be available individually. Think of the X-Carve as being a Lego set for adults that allows you to make more Legos. As well as making the device's design open-source, Inventables was also smart enough to make the X-Carve fully compatible with what it terms its "3D Carving ecosystem." This includes its Easel design and machine control software, a project-sharing website, a selection of hundreds of carvable materials, and the aforementioned Carvey.
Speaking of materials, the X-Carve is capable of working with quite a broad spectrum of stock. The company says it can machine ABS plastic, Corian, cork, Delrin, foam, machinable wax, a variety of metals, wood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and even paper and cardboard – and that's only about half of the list. The X-Carve allows you to make the finished product (out of say, ABS plastic) as well as also creating patterns and templates for the more sophisticated user to employ in a larger project.
Those in the know say that 3D printing and desktop manufacturing is currently where the personal computer was in the early 1980s. They say that within 10 years, the vast majority of households will have some sort of 3D printing/manufacturing set up the same way they have internet access.
And in the grand scheme of things, the X-Carve is pretty inexpensive. The upgrade kits start at US$200 for upgrading the company's preexisting Shapeoko 2 machines. The 500 x 500 mm standard size machine containing all the components for a functional unit starts at $799, and the fully loaded 1,000 x 1,000 mm kit runs at $1,256. Deliveries are slated to begin on April 30 of this year.
Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan and and chief engineer Bart Dring describe the X-Carve in the video below.