CNC control packages have evolved significantly in the last ten years.
Earlier, industrial CNC controllers were the only choice available. However, with more hobbyists and small-scale machinists taking over production tasks, CNC controllers have evolved to simplify the hobby CNC space.
Many features available in industry-grade CNC control packages are now finding their way in CNC controllers for hobbyists.
In this article, we will review the best CNC control packages in 2022.
But before we get into that, let’s first understand what CNC controllers are and how do they work. This will help you better understand your machine and find the right controller for it.
What are CNC Control Packages?
CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, which only goes on to say that controlling is one of the primary functions of the machine. A CNC controller could be called the brain of the CNC machine. It is where the information gets in and is transformed into meaningful results.
A CNC controller connects the CNC machine with a computer, allowing you to put the desired data into the computer and get the machine to materialize something out of it.
For instance, the brain receives and interprets external stimuli through sensory signals. Similarly, a CNC controller interprets signals from a computer and passes them to the machine to function specifically.
A CNC controller uses G-code to send the signals to the machine’s motors, getting it to perform certain tasks.
CNC controllers can be broken down into two basic parts: the physical board and its software. Different controllers come with different software. Some manufacturers offer proprietary software with their controllers, while others come with third-party software.
CNC controllers serve three main functions:
Axis Control: CNC controllers can control several axes at the same time, allowing for seamless machining.
Interpretation: CNC controllers also interpret the signal sent from the computer and translate them into signals that the machine understands.
Interpolation: Interpolation is the governing factor that actuates the movement of the trajectory. A CNC controller matches the data sent by the computer with the machining speed and accuracy.
Types of CNC Controllers
CNC control packages can vary depending on the industry and the nature of the application. Broadly speaking, you can categorize them into three types:
Motion control is the most basic form of a CNC machine. A CNC controller helps provide automatic, precise, and consistent motion control in CNC machines. Each CNC machine comes with at least two directions of motion: the X and Y-axis.
Generally speaking, CNC controllers determine the motion type (rapid, linear, circular), the axes to move, amount of motion, and motion rate using the signals from the computer.
These CNC controllers loop mechanisms to execute certain tasks. These types of controllers can further be classified into open-loop and closed-loop systems. In an open-loop control system, the controller transmits the signals through the input device. In a closed-loop control system, the system also collects feedback from the control system.
Axis control CNC controllers are designed specially to control various axis movements in the machine. These CNC controllers come in various configurations from two-axis (X and Y) to 5 axes (X, Y, Z, A, and B).
Microcontrollers are self-sufficient controllers. They are tiny controllers with a small circuit board that run without a computer. These controllers are also known as plug-and-play because you can practically plug them in and out of your machine any time you want without having to shut down anything.
There are also CNC retrofit controllers, which are used to convert manual machines into CNC.
Now that we have learned about the CNC controllers and their type, let’s take a look at the best CNC controllers in 2022:
#1. Centroid Acorn (Best for CNC Conversion)
Centroid Acorn offers industry-level controls and features at a hobbyist price range. It runs on all types of CNC machines and connects with a computer through an ethernet connection.
It is one of the most popular CNC controllers among hobbyists and small-scale machinists. Part of the reason for their popularity is that they can save you a lot of money by transforming your old machine into CNC.
In fact, Centroid claims that you will be able to save more than 50% on an Acorn control compared to buying a CNC machine.
The Centroid Acorn comes with a Beaglebone green motion control CPU. Similar to Raspberry Pi, the Acorn is an open-source single-board computer allowing for CNC machining without the help of a computer.
Acorn uses Centroid’s proprietary AcornCNC12 software. It is optimized for retrofitting, gets regular updates, and comes free with the controller (base version limited to 50kb g-code files).
Centroid’s Acorn has an active and lively user community, which can help you eliminate any doubts about the controller and streamline your machining process. Not to mention, Centroid also offers phone support for Acorn. So, you can check and make basic changes to the program right from your phone.
#2. WixHC Mach4
The Mach4 comes as an upgrade over the Mach3. It comes with a complete rewrite, containing only 1% of the codes from Mach3.
If you are a hobbyist looking for an affordable machining, the WixHC Mach4 could be a great option. It is flexible and can be adaptable to large files.
You can use Mach4 to run a wide range of CNC machines, including lathes, routers, plasma cutters, and 3D printers.
The controller can also support up to 6-axis machining and offers up to 2000KHz step pulse frequency. Mach4 is great for stable, powerful, and accurate machining.
Besides the usual features, the Mach4 also comes with LED to indicate the status of the USB connection. What’s more? It’s hot-swappable, allowing you to connect and disconnect without shutting down your computer.
If you are seriously thinking of expanding your shop and improving your production, Mach4 will not disappoint you.
#3. Mesa 7I76E
This one is for the fan of LinuxCNC. If you find Linux OS the best alternative for CNC machining, the Mesa 7I76E is right up your alley.
The controller connects to your computer through the ethernet cable and controls stepper and servo motors on up to 5 axes.
LinuxCNC is one of the most popular CNC software out there, besides Mach3 and Mach4. But unlike those two, LinuxCNC is open-source and can be integrated with third-party extensions.
You can use LinuxCNC on Mesa7I76E to run mills, lathes, plasma cutters, drills, etc. Some of the most outstanding advantages of LinuxCNC are its flexibility, robustness, reliability, performance, and active user experience.
One thing to note about Mesa 7I76E and LinuxCNC is that it has a steep learning curve and might take some getting used to.
However, once you get the hang of it, the Mesa 7I76E offers some breakthrough possibilities with machining.
Buildbotic CNC controllers are one of the most advanced open-source controllers. It comes with a built-in web interface and a faster G-code processor.
It can drive up to 4 stepper motors and a range of tools, including spindles, laser cutters, and plasma torches.
The Buildbotics controller is also plug-and-play, which means you can simply plug it into your computer and start working.
Running on raspberry pi, the Buildbotics offers some unique advantages over its peers. For one, you can use the raspberry pi inside to connect the controller with the computer over WiFi and ethernet.
With open-source software, you can rest assured that your CNC controller will remain up to date over the years, unlike brands that ship with proprietary software.
You can connect your Buildbotics controller with a keyboard, monitor, and mouse and use it as a computer.
The Buildbotics might come as an expensive option. Nevertheless, it is one of the few controllers that ship with stepper drivers, which pretty much covers up the cost.
There is a wired gamepad included with the package as well. You can use it to move the machine around easily and intuitively.
All in all, Buildbotics is a great option if you are looking for something powerful and versatile. It will amp up your production, improve your production value, and give you space to experiment with your process.
#5. Masso G3
From the up-and-coming Australian CNC manufacturer, the Masso G3 is a high-grade controller that is easy to set up and easier to use.
It requires firmware from USB that you can download from the Masso CNC website. You can set up your Masso G3 with stepper motors, spindle, speed, and acceleration with ease.
Like a few other controllers mentioned here, the Masso G3 does not require a PC to run and can control up to 5-axis CNC. If you have a 3-axis Masso G3 and you need to upgrade to a 5-axis, you can do so by paying an extra fee.
The best part about the upgrade is that it happens over a software update, which means you don’t have to integrate additional hardware to upgrade your machining.
You can use the Masso G3 to run CNC mills, lathes, and plasma cutters. The hardware remains the same for all machining types, but the software differs.
For offline operations, Masso offers a handheld MPG (manual pulse generator), which you can use to move the CNC in any of the five directions, control feed override, and spindle override.
#6. Fafeicy Mach3
One of the most popular CNC controllers among hobbyists, the Mach3 remains the go-to choice thanks to its versatility and affordability.
While Mach4 has been out and about for a while now, many hobbyists still find themselves going back to its predecessor. It comes with a variety of features, including a customizable interface, visual g-code display, and “mini programs” that anyone can write to streamline the machining process.
The Faceify Mach3 also offers a variety of functions such as automatic probing, emergency input, and limit switch.
You can use the Mach3 to work on 4-axis machining, which is one of the best features a hobbyist machinist could ask from you. Not to mention, both the hardware and software support almost all types of CNC machines with a maximum pulse rate frequency of 110KHz.
Faceify Mach3 is also one of the best-rated CNC controllers out there and offers comprehensive community support.
We hope this article helped you understand more about CNC control packages and how to choose them. CNC controllers are the brains of your CNC machine. Therefore, you must be very careful while choosing one for you.
Most of what you should look for in a CNC controller is its versatility, ease of use, axis support, and included features. For hobbyist machinists, a CNC controller capable of churning out 110KHz frequency is enough.
You can also look for the retrofitting CNC control packages if you are looking to convert your old machine into CNC. You can reach out to us to learn more about CNC conversion.
In fact, if you are looking to transform your old mills, lathes, drill, grinder, router, or other machines into high-performance machines, CNC conversion is the only affordable option.
CNC conversion will provide the same features as you would expect from a full-fledged CNC machine.
You can let us know what kind of machine you work on and whether a CNC conversion seems the right way to move to automation. And we will help you find the best CNC conversion kit for your unique requirements.
Better yet, we will build a turn-key CNC machine for you from scratch and deliver it to your doorstep.
So, while you are on the lookout for CNC controllers, look for those that work with CNC conversion. We promise you will not be disappointed.
Thanks for reading.