I've just been chatting with Bill Parodi, an embedded systems designer and the founder of a recently-launched company called Draw2CNC that will be of interest to anyone who needs to create rapid prototypes.
Ten years ago, Bill founded an avionics company called UAV Navigation. When Bill and his colleagues were making their first inertial units, they discovered great services to prototype the electronic portions of their designs — like ExpressPCB for the printed circuit boards — but they couldn’t find anything similar to prototype the mechanical components (enclosures, mounting brackets, etc.). This forced them to use traditional machine shops, which have several shortcomings, including long lead times and multiple iterations on designs to match manufacturing capabilities.
The way this typically works is that you generate your 3D CAD drawings using an expensive and hard-to-use program. You send these drawings to the machine shop; the folks at the machine shop examine the drawings and inform you as to any elements in your design that may cause manufacturing problems; you re-spin your drawings and return them to the machine shop; and so it goes. At the end of the day, the folks at the machine shop are going to bundle all of their service and support costs into the price of your prototype.
Now, although there are some companies that do provide mechanical prototyping services, such as Front Panel Express, these companies tend to work with 2D objects. What Bill required was the ability to quickly and easily prototype 3D mechanical objects.
Based on his experiences, Bill decided to create a solution that would offer the simplest way to draw something and have it machined in a few days. The key features Bill wanted to provide with his solution are that end users should not have to purchase expensive and hard-to-learn-and-use CAD programs, they should not need to iterate their designs to match manufacturing capabilities, and they should not obliged to commit to large orders.
Bill crafted his solution, Draw2CNC, based on his experiences with ExpressPCB. The idea here is that the folks at ExpressPCB provide a free schematic capture and board layout package. This is a stripped-down, no-frills package with limited capabilities, but with the corresponding advantage that it's quick to learn and easy to use. More importantly, this package is 100% integrated with their board manufacturing process, which means that it simply isn’t possibly to create a design that cannot be manufactured. Once you're happy with your design, you press the “Go” button and your boards are manufactured.
Similarly, in the case of Draw2CNC, you start by selecting the type of material you wish to use and the size of the block with which you wish to work. The materials that are currently supported are 6061T6 aluminum (with an optional post-machining alodyne treatment) or Teflon, but Bill is planning on adding additional material options over time.
You then use the free Draw2CNC 3D CAD software to draw arbitrary cuts in five of the block's six sides. The great thing here is that the Draw2CNC software won't let you create a design that cannot be manufactured.
This enclosure for a Raspberry Pi single board computer was created entirely using Draw2CNC, including the enclosure itself (alodyned aluminum), the lid (not shown here), and the port covers (Teflon, also not shown here).
When you are ready to rock-and-roll, Draw2CNC will give you a detailed quote that breaks our material costs and machining costs (based on the complexity of the design). Once you press the “Go” button, the standard manufacturing time is eight working days from order to shipping (an express process is also available).
Personally, I think this is a brilliant concept. There are all sorts of small mechanical parts I wish I could have had fabricated over the years. In fact, now that I come to think about it, I have a current project that could benefit from a little tender loving care by Draw2CNC; watch this space…