I love hands-on projects, especially those that involve creating something from scratch. I have a 3D printer and a CNC machine, and while I don’t have as much time to play with them right now (reason: two boys, ages 5 and 2), I still get the occasional moment to mill, cut, or print and feed the DIYer in me. Both of these devices — the 3DP and the CNC — were hand-assembled and extremely twitchy when it came time to calibrate and iron out the kinks. The CNC machine itself was totally hand-made… cut out all the parts from plywood, bolted everything together including motors, soldered up the electronics, and then spent much time trying to figure out the special software used to control it all. I tell you this because for someone wanting to dive into these new, consumer-level types of devices, it can be a bit daunting or outright overwhelming when it comes time to actually make it all work.
As these technologies continue to improve, the manufacturers are absolutely going to have to bring down the complexity level to something that a non-techie can figure out. I figure if a device is easy enough for someone like a teacher to integrate into his or her classroom without requiring hours, days, or even weeks of training… then that company has a winner. (And I’m not saying teachers can’t be technologically savvy… I’m using this career as an example because it’s often their job to train our kids or at least introduce them to new stuff like this!)
Often, the best way to make a complex device more user-friendly is to simply reduce its size and capabilities. A small machine is certainly less intimidating than one the size of a fridge (like my CNC). That’s why I want to tell you all about the iModela. The folks at Roland were kind enough to loan me out a test unit of their iModela 3D mini milling machine… and I had a blast!
First, let me tell you what the machine does and then I’ll get into some more detailed discussion. The iModela is a milling machine — it uses a small bit, similar to what you’d put into a portable hand drill for drilling holes in wood. This bit, however, is very small and has a more intricate design than most drill bits because it’s designed to remove the most minute bits of material to leave behind a three-dimensional object. You use special software that controls the milling machine and sends that small milling bit moving all over the surface of your material… it cuts away a little at a time, moving deeper into the material until what’s left at the end of the operation is the object you designed in software first… and now can hold in your hands. (It can also do simple things like engraving and etching, as well.)
The iModela is about the size of a toaster. It’s the perfect size for anyone to learn on… including kids. It’s not meant to work on hard materials like metals; instead, you use it on certain types of plastics and woods (soft) as well as foams and wax. The milling bit spins faster or slower depending on the materials it is working on, and all of this is defined in the software. Small motors inside the iModela move the bit left, right, forward, backward, and up and down as well as the small work surface where you place the plastic or wood.
The work surface area is just a few millimeters larger than a standard business card. Small, yes, but so is the iModela. If you wanted a larger work surface, you’d end up with a larger milling machine. But the iModela has been designed for a very specific purpose — DIYers, crafters, hobbyists, those that sell small hand-made wares. Roland advertises the iModela as giving the user the ability to design small two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects and then have them cut/milled — examples include buttons, small plastic robot figurines, jewelry items, and much more. Where the power of the iModela comes in is in the precision of the work; the movements of the motors can be as subtle as fractions of a millimeter, allowing you to make precise cuts. Edges are sharp and milled surfaces are extremely smooth due to the small milling bit.
As for actually putting it to work? Let me walk you through some of the process.
First, unboxing the iModela is a piece of cake. The included instruction manual shows you the 17 non-case parts in the kit (these include double-side tape, milling bit, USB cable, and more) as well as the five pieces that make up the iModela body. Assembling the iModela took me about 45 seconds. It’s that easy to put together. Everything snaps together, including the two side pieces and the front and back clear-panels that let you look inside at the milling bit doing its job.
After putting the actual unit together, you have to install the software before connecting the iModela to your computer. This is also super-easy — there are two major software components that include the controlling software and the iModela Creator modeling software (what you use to design your objects). Let me tell you this right now — the controlling software is hands-down the easiest controller software I’ve ever seen. It’s nice to look at, it’s not complicated/scary looking, and it’s so easy to use if you follow the simple instructions in the manual. Anyone who’s used a 3D printer or CNC machine can tell you that the controlling software is often a mix of buttons, scrolling text, acronyms, and more, ensuring that the majority of the population will never want to use it. But the iModela controller software is as simple looking and friendly as they come. (While still being extremely functional!)
When the software is installed, you connect the iModela via USB cable and then the instructions have you run it through an idling process that checks all the motors and movements out. The manual said it would take about 10 minutes and that was accurate. Once the testing process was complete, it was time to insert the milling bit.
Changing out the bits on a CNC machine isn’t terribly difficult, but it can be sometimes depending on how the dangerous end is mounted. I have an actual router on my CNC machine and unless I want to remove it completely (a pain), changing out the bit involves a bit of acrobatics and luck… a third hand would make it extremely easy, but most of the time an extra set of hands isn’t available.
With the iModela, I couldn’t believe how easy they made it to insert and tighten down on the milling bit. First, it’s thin… No 2 pencil lead thin. You open the sides of the iModela, lay down the front and rear clear plastic covers, and tip back the top part of the machine. Insert the bit, tighten it down with the included Allen wrench, and reverse the process to close it all up. Total time? About 30 seconds. (There’s also a very tiny plastic fan blade you insert over the bit that blows the dust away from the cutting.)
After inserting the bit, it was time to calibrate the iModela. This process is often complicated with a larger CNC machine, but I couldn’t believe how Roland managed to simplify the process to a series of 10 steps. It involves moving the milling bit to three different coordinates — X, Y, and Z. If you remember back to your basic math, you’ll remember than on a two-dimensional graph, 0,0 was where the X and Y axes crossed. The iModela instructions explain how to set the milling machine so that it considers the lower-left corner of the work surface to be 0,0. Then, if you tell it to move X +5mm (for example), the motors would move the bit to the right 5mm. The Y axis increases up (away from you) so a command of +10mm would move the bit away from you and more towards the rear of the work surface. As for the Z axis, Roland simplifies this by having you use manual controls on the screen to slowly move the tip of the bit until it is touching the material. You zero it out (set this as the Z origin) and then, combined with where you zeroed out the X and Y axis (0,0) you now have a starting point for the iModela defined as 0,0,0.
Using this simple coordinate system, the controller software along with the modeling software will know exactly where the bit is at any moment, and the software can instruct the motors to move the bit in such a way that it cuts into the material following the path you created in the modeling software. (I know… I might have just gone a bit too far and some of you may be scratching your heads, but trust me… the instruction manual makes it much more clear than I can explain and does so with images.)
And now it’s time to cut. The modeling software comes with a bunch of tutorials that walk you through using the software. Honestly, the software is about as uncomplicated as it comes. Think of a simple graphics program with capabilities such as adding shapes, letters, and lines, and you’ve got the idea. You use all these basic drawing tools to actually lay down the shape that you wish the milling bit to cut into the material. The work space was rendered on screen at actual size (on my computer, at least) so I could see exactly what the final shape would look like when it was cut out. I chose to use a tutorial that had a shamrock.
The shamrock tutorial explained the various settings I would need to configure in the controller software (about three settings in all — not kidding). These settings include the type of material used (I chose balsa wood, but plastics can also be selected), the cutting tool’s diameter, and the shape of the tool head. Tap the Cut button and the machine gets moving!
Compared to a standard CNC machine, the iModela is extremely quiet. With the plastic covers on front and back, you can see the cutting as it’s done but the whining of the milling bit never gets loud enough that you can’t hear a song playing on your computer. If you know what the sound of a Dremel makes, you’ve just about got it, but it’s actually a bit quieter due to the walls of the iModela base.
Cutting time depends on the item you’re milling, but the shamrock was estimated to take around 30 minutes. That might surprise you, but remember… this shamrock is being milled in such a way that a fraction of a millimeter is being taken off the wood. The bit moves in the shape of the shamrock, removing a hair’s thickness of material one lap at a time. To cut 5mm deep into the shamrock took about 25 minutes, actually… and it might have taken a few minutes longer if I’d chosen to go a bit deeper with the cut. As you can see in my photos, my balsa had a slight curve to it, meaning that one side of the shamrock got completely cut but the other side needed more. If I had a flat, consistent material, this wouldn’t have been a problem, so chalk this up to user error, not the iModela’s.
I loved this machine. Loved it. I could totally see my 5 year old son and me cooking up all kinds of small things to cut out. I play with electronics and robots quite a bit, and with the right type of plastic, I could easily design up my own gears and frames and custom shapes (lightning bolts, for example) for decoration. For those of you who make your own crafts for selling at markets and on sites such as Etsy.com, this little machine could allow you to expand the items you sell, as well as give you a sharper, more polished final product. (Think about using the iModela to cut out the blanks in wax for creating molds for casting, for example.)
The iModela is not only the perfect little machine for the home hobbyist, but it’s also a great little device for introducing computer-controlled manufacturing to a younger audience. Kids will easily figure out the modeling software, and the safety provided by the self-enclosed iModela can gives kids actual hands-on time with a technology that can not only inspire creativity but also encourage further study in a number of subjects.
My 5 year old loved watching me play around with the iModela, and I think he actually panicked when he saw me boxing it up to return it to Roland. But I assured him that if he liked what he saw, I would start introducing him to some of the bigger toys in the workshop. I can’t wait to see what that little mind of his comes up with once he starts figuring it all out. Up until the iModela was running, my son had shown little interest in that big CNC machine. And again, that’s one of the benefits of this little machine — making a complex technology easier to understand and use for the rest of us.
You can read the full specs on the iModela here, as well as find purchasing info. The unit comes with its own protective carrying-case and power supply.