CNC Studio Life
Nidra bought one of the first CNC Studio machines. Dragan Pajic, Managing Director of Nidra, describes where and how the machine is used and his experience with the machine.
Profiler and Profiler Pro
The Profiler is a product that arose from the joint efforts of Colinbus and the publishers of Elektor magazine. This machine is intended for advanced hobbyists, and it is sold in the form of a construction kit.Click here for more information and a list of new accessories
Profiler starting page
Profiler information page
Elektor web site
The new MetaLab has been unveiled to the media. This is an extremely simple system for through-hole plating of printed circuit boards. Although it uses chemicals, they are practically harmless to people and the environment. In addition, it requires only very small amounts of chemicals
At home in every lab
- PCB milling
- CNC Studio
Why should I mill my own PCBs?
Can PCB milling deliver the precision I need?
Isn’t milling your own PCBs expensive? How long does a milling cutter last?
What makes a PCB milling machine special?
How can I make multilayer PCBs?
How long does it take to learn how to use the machine and the software?
What is the difference between PCB Box and LaboFlex?
Can I use different thicknesses and types of PCB board material?
How do I fit my PCB board material on the machine?
What is the smallest tool that can be used on the LaboFlex machine?
- Why should I mill my own PCBs? Nowadays you can have PCBs made fairly quickly at relatively low cost.
It all depends on how important speed and cost are for you. If you only need a few PCBs a year for your current projects, and they can be scheduled easily and are not on a critical path, you are not a candidate for a PCB milling machine. Simply order your boards from your PCB vendor and you’re done. However, things are distinctly different if you regularly need small batches of PCBs or prototype PCBs that are time-critical, or if you need to make a lot of test PCBs in schools or universities. In this case your costs can add up in a hurry, and your investment in a PCB milling machine can be recovered fairly quickly. Another factor is time to market, which is getting shorter and shorter due to constantly rising competitive pressure. PCB milling is also an attractive option for companies or organisations where confidentiality is important, such as secret services, police forces, aerospace companies, military forces, etc. Another good reason arose when Colinbus launched the LaboFlex machine. The LaboFlex was the first PCB milling machine that could also make 3D models, which meant that its procurement cost could be recovered by making enclosures and models in addition to milling PCBs. It was the first machine that could be used to make complete prototypes − everything from PCBs to enclosures. One LaboFlex user told us with great satisfaction how impressed a customer was when they received a fully functional blood analysis device just one week after placing the order. Within that time the company first designed the electronics and used a 3D CAD package to design the enclosure. Then everything was made on the LaboFlex machine, the enclosure was spray-painted in the right colours, and the circuitry was fitted in the enclosure. Of course, that’s not something they do everyday, but without the LaboFlex machine it would never have been possible. Read more about this technology.
- Can PCB milling deliver the precision I need?
With a Colinbus PCB milling machine you can reliably mill isolation tracks with a width of 100 microns. This means you can run five tracks between a pair of IC pins or three tracks between a pair of SMD pads. That’s more than enough precision for current technology. The LaboFlex has a resolution of 0.23 micron, which allows it to mill 80-micron tracks, but working at that scale is very delicate and you have to reckon on longer processing times and occasional rejects. This is not due to the machine, but instead the limitations of the available tools.
- Isn’t milling your own PCBs expensive? How long does a milling cutter last?
If you follow the specified procedure, milling your own PCBs is inexpensive. The cost of tool replacement is much lower than the cost of outsourcing your PCB fabrication. One of the common mistakes is milling too deep. Milling cutter wear is caused by the epoxy substrate, not by the copper. If the milling depth is set correctly, a PCB milling cutter has a service life of approximately 35,000 mm, which is equivalent to a large stack of double-sided PCBs. Aside from the base material and the tools, the costs are practically zero.
- What makes a PCB milling machine special?
Quite a few things. A PCB milling machine is extremely precise and free from backlash, has special embedded software and a high-precision spindle, and is equipped with dozens of accessories specifically developed for this task. It took a lot of effort and ingenuity to make the LaboFlex machine suitable for both PCB milling and 3D model making, since these are two entirely different technologies. Click here for more information.
- How can I make multilayer PCBs?
The machine and the software are both specifically designed to support this, so it’s actually very easy to make multilayer boards. It doesn’t matter where you place the board on the machine − the software handles mirroring automatically and ensures perfect outlining of the various layers. The machine has a mirror line, and the board is placed against this line. After you mill the first layer and turn the board over, the software knows exactly where to mill the other layer. The same principle applies to all inner layers. After all of the layers have been milled, you can use the Colinbus MultiLab unit to through-plate the holes if desired (in the case of multilayer boards, this is essential). MultiLab is a small, lab-grade through-hole plating machine with three baths. It is based on black-hole technology and is therefore relatively environmentally friendly. The entire metallization process takes approximately 45 minutes, after which the PCB has the same characteristics as a PCB made in the conventional manner.
- How long does it take to learn how to use the machine and the software?
You can learn to make PCBs quite quickly. Most people are fully comfortable with the task after an hour or so. The excellent tutorials provided with the machine are a big help. Making 3D models is more complex. What takes time is not learning how to use the machine and the software, but instead learning how to work with many types of material. If you only make models using the plastic material specially prepared for this purpose, the learning time is relatively short − usually around three hours. Working with other materials is a matter of experience. Colinbus has various tables and information available for this, which can certainly be very helpful when you’re getting started. One-day training courses are available for both PCB milling and 3D modelling. They provide good quick-start information on how to obtain the best results in the least time.
- What is the difference between PCB Box and LaboFlex?
The PCB Box is the least expensive PCB milling machine on the market, which occasionally leads to some understandable suspicions. For instance, we are often asked why there is such a large price difference between the LaboFlex and the PCB Box. The fact that the PCB Box is inexpensive does not mean that it delivers inferior results. In fact, PCBs made with the PCB Box are visually perfect, and most users are very satisfied with the machine. Still, if the same manufacturer asks nearly twice as much money for one machine as for another machine, there must be a difference. One of the primary differences is in the spindle. In the PCB Box this a separate quill that is driven by a DC motor using belt drive, which limits the maximum speed to 40,000 rpm. The LaboFlex is equipped with a spindle that is driven inline by an AC motor controlled by a frequency converter. It runs at 60,000 rpm and is both more precise and more powerful. The construction of the two machines is also very different. LaboFlex machines are assembled one at a time, and they are structurally more robust than the series-assembled PCB Box machines. The electronics and the associated embedded software are also different, with the result that the LaboFlex machine has higher precision. The price difference is in fact large, but they are two totally different machines. The PCB Box and the LaboFlex are both unique machines, each designed for a particular target group. With the PCB Box you have a machine that mills outstanding PCBs and is suitable for many other activities in an electronics shop or lab. The LaboFlex machines are used worldwide for micromachining, applications with zero fault tolerance, making very precise and special PCBs, and 3D modelling (including 3D circuitry).
PS: The PCB Box is now also available with a high-speed spindle and automatic tool changing.
- Can I use different thicknesses and types of PCB board material?
This is possible with all Colinbus PCB milling machines. Unlike many competitive products, the PCB Box and LaboFlex are equipped with a motor-controlled Z-axis. In fact, both models are full-fledged 3D machines. This means that you can use any material thickness you wish as long as it is not thicker than the maximum Z-axis travel, which is usually 40 mm. These machines can handle virtually all types of material commonly used in the electronics industry.
- How do I fit my PCB board material on the machine?
PCB milling machines have two small pins, which can be moved along the centre line of the machine. The PCB board material has two small holes that fit over these pins. This allows double-sided PCBs to be fabricated very precisely. Colinbus can supply pre-drilled PCB board material, but you can easily drill the holes yourself in material obtained elsewhere. This can be done directly on the PCB milling machine or on a drill press.
- What is the smallest tool that can be used on the LaboFlex machine?
We have some customers that mill fineline structures using a 0.03 mm tool. You read that right: three hundredths of a millimetre! If you choose the right parameter values, this is actually not all that difficult − it just takes a lot of patience. The LaboFlex is clearly the only machine in its price class that can work with such tiny tools. This is why more and more universities are buying one of these machines, so they can use it for all sorts of micromachining tasks as well as PCB milling.
What are the main advantages of CNC Studio machines?
How much do installation, training and support cost?
How much maintenance does the machine need?
How long does it take to learn how to use a CNC Studio machine?
What about the warranty?
How are CNC Studio machines delivered?
Why does the CNC Studio machine have an integrated controller?
Is CNC Studio a true 3D machine or a simulated 3D machine?
Is it possible for the bridge of my machine to get skewed relative to the table?
Why are two motors used to drive the bridge? Isn’t that a waste of money?
Isn’t a welded table much more stable than a bolted table?
Isn’t the CNC Studio too light to be a good milling machine?
- Excellent value for money
- Stable steel construction
- Comparable to machines costing up to five times as much
- Integrated controller
- High speed and acceleration
- Software compatible with all major CAM programs
- Remote diagnosis and repair via the Internet
- Integrated sensors for self-diagnosis
- Especially easy to operate
- Low cost shipping
- Can be installed anywhere and easily relocated
- A true 3D machine with extra large Z travel
- Unique expansion options
- Easy maintenance
- Belgian product
- How much do installation, training and support cost?
The Colinbus installation team is available for customers who don’t want to assemble the machine themselves. In this case your CNC Studio machine is assembled in the factory or on site at your premises. Transport costs depend on distance and accessibility. If the machine is delivered fully assembled, the customer must provide a suitable fork-lift truck. Training courses are conducted periodically at our offices in Hulshout (Belgium) or at one of our authorised dealers. Training courses on operating the machine, machining materials and various CAD and CAM packages can also be conducted on site. The prices of all the services mentioned above are stated on our price list. There is no charge for technical support from Colinbus. It can be obtained by e-mail or by phone. Colinbus’s unique remote service system enables our technicians to check your machine remotely, detect any problems that may be present, and remedy them if necessary.
- How much maintenance does the machine need?
CNC Studio machines are designed to allow users to perform maintenance themselves. This means that service calls by Colinbus technicians are rarely necessary. The user guide supplied with the machine includes a section on maintenance and troubleshooting. It clearly describes what the user is expected to do. The most important maintenance task is periodic basic lubrication of the machine. Other maintenance, most of which is required only once or twice a year, is limited to checking the parts subject to wear. All CNC Studio machines are equipped with low-maintenance brushless drive motors and have diagnostic routines that constantly monitor the electronics and software to ensure that the user is notified promptly if something goes wrong. The machine is fitted with sensors that automatically adjust the machine the way it should be if the user needs to change anything in a drive system. Most of the components are industry standard and can therefore be purchased virtually anywhere in the world.
- How long does it take to learn how to use a CNC Studio machine?
The user interface of the CNC Studio machines is so intuitive that even people who are all thumbs when it comes to technical matters can learn how to use them very quickly. Unlike other CNC machines, the user interface is entirely graphical and no program code is necessary. People with CNC training can use the machine in the way they are accustomed to if they wish, but most of them change their habits after they become familiar with the Colinbus interface. Working with the machine itself is very simple, and you can learn how to use it within 15 minutes. Aside from that you need to become familiar with the supplied software packages. The learning time for this may vary depending on you needs, ranging from around two hours for simple tasks to four hours on average for more complex tasks. Most users can easily handle their jobs within this standard environment, but in some fields it is common practice to work with other specialised software. CAD and CAM packages are available in all sorts and sizes, from very simple to highly complex and from free to very pricey, and the learning time depends on the package concerned. As the CNC Studio interface can import all commonly used file formats, the options are virtually unlimited.
- What about the warranty?
We are proud of the quality of our machines, for which reason we provide a one-year warranty on all CNC Studio machines. This warranty applies to the entire machine with the exception of parts subject to normal wear and tear. Accessories such as spindle motors, vacuum pumps and so on that are not made by Colinbus are covered by the warranties of their individual manufacturers, which may differ from the machine warranty.
- How are CNC Studio machines delivered?
Unlike all other Colinbus machines, CNC Studio machines are delivered in the form of several components for assembly by the customer. The customer bolts the mechanical parts together and plugs the cables into the connectors provided for this purpose on the industrial controller cabinet. If you think this sounds easy, you’re right. All critical components are pre-assembled in the Colinbus factory. The only thing we leave to the user is the assembly of the table. This approach has major advantages: transport costs are cut dramatically, the machine can be installed in even the most unlikely places, and the price of the machine is significantly lower. The CNC Studio concept ensures that no compromises are made in quality. A test procedure in combination with built-in sensors is run before the machine is put into service to verify that everything is exactly as it should be, and mistakes are practically impossible. Naturally, Colinbus can also deliver fully assembled machines if so desired. Our charges for assembly and transport are stated on our price list.
- Why does the CNC Studio machine have an integrated controller?
It’s true that low-cost CNC machines are rarely equipped with their own processor board, although this is normal with more expensive machines. At Colinbus we are convinced that omitting the integrated controller is not the right way to lower the price. This is why Colinbus has been building machines with integrated controllers for over 20 years and assuming responsibility for the embedded software. Machines that operate without a controller are controlled directly from the PC, which makes them very vulnerable to communication problems. As Windows was never intended to be used for machine control applications, these packages often run under DOS or an Windows shell, but the basis is still the old-fashioned DOS operating system. Most manufacturers use the same software from an American vendor and are therefore dependent on this vendor. Generating a more user-friendly user interface (as Colinbus has done) is impossible in this situation, and making customer-specific modifications is entirely out of the question. At Colinbus we wish to have control over the entire process so we can respond to the needs of our customers. This is why we develop not only our own CAD, CAM and controller software, but also our on electronics and mechanical systems.
- Is CNC Studio a true 3D machine or a simulated 3D machine?
CNC Studio is a pure 3D machine, which means that all axes are interpolated. There are still quite a few machines on the market that are able to mill 3D workpieces but interpolate only two axes. You can hear this when the machine is moving, and you can clearly see the effects in the end products. These machines can execute smooth motions in a single workplane, but not in multiple planes. Sometimes “slicing” with a 2D machine is referred to as 3D machining. In this case the software slices the workpiece into dozens or even hundreds of layers in the Z direction, and the machine then mills these layers one by one to form a 3D object. This method is very labour intensive, and the quality of the result is naturally not especially good. CNC Studio is a full-fledged 3D machine that can move smoothly in all three axes at the same time.
- Is it possible for the bridge of my machine to get skewed relative to the table?
This is impossible with the CNC Studio machines because they automatically check that everything runs parallel and at right angles. Any deviation that occurs is corrected immediately. This is one of the benefits of the sensors integrated into the CNC Studio machines. In addition to initial setup and servicing, they are used to check the orthogonality of the machine.
- Why are two motors used to drive the bridge? Isn’t that a waste of money?
Two motors also means two drivers, two reduction gearboxes, extra rack-and-pinion sets, extra sensors and cables, and more complex electronics. However, the upside is that they make the machine a good deal more powerful and more robust. The two drive motors operate in perfect synchronisation to effectively prevent bridge deformation when relatively thick or heavy material is being machined. An incidental but nevertheless very important benefit is that the machine can automatically correct bridge misalignment. For example, if the built-in sensors indicate that the bridge is skewed by 0.01 mm, the controller issues instructions to the motors to correct this deviation immediately.
- Isn’t a welded table much more stable than a bolted table?
CNC Studio machines are designed to have practically the same stability as similar models with welded tables. After making extensive tests and measurements, we chose the bolted version without any hesitation. To the extent that a welded model is in fact more stable, this is totally insignificant compared to the advantages offered by a bolted model. In any case the difference in stability is so small that it is difficult to measure and virtually imperceptible in the milling results.
- Isn’t the CNC Studio too light to be a good milling machine?
There’s no question that more weight makes for a more stable machine, but the real question is how heavy a machine needs to be to perform a particular task. It should also be clear that there is a direct relationship between the weight of a machine and its price. Heavy machines also require heavy motors and consume a lot of power, which means they can only be used in industrial environments. In contrast to other machines in their price class, CNC Studio machines are made from steel. There are two reasons for this. The first is that steel has a much smaller thermal coefficient of expansion than aluminium, so the machine is much less sensitive to temperature variations. We know from experience that machines of this sort are often installed in rooms with temperature variations, especially between day and night. With aluminium tables this has a considerable effect on accuracy. The second and most important reason is weight. Colinbus builds quite a few machines with aluminium profiles, but when we were designing the CNC Studio machine we had no doubts about the choice of material. We wanted maximum stiffness and stability, high speed, and a versatile machine that could be installed in all possible situations, and that was only possible with steel. In conclusion, CNC Studio machines are more than heavy enough for their intended use, and light enough to be installed everywhere.