It can be satisfying to build something yourself, making careful measurements and ensuring your carefully routed wood slats fit together perfectly. Except when your measurements are off by a few microns and nothing fits. Some MIT students decided that a smart machine could help matters, and designed a re-routing router that automatically cuts the right shape.
Alec Rivers, a PhD student in MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science department, inherited some woodworking tools from his grandfather, according to MIT News. He tried to build a picture frame, but no matter how carefully he measured, the pieces wouldn’t fit quite right. “I was getting incredibly frustrated,” he said. So Rivers, Frédo Durand, an EECS associate professor and member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and a mechanical engineering grad student named Ilan Moyer came up with a new handheld router.
You load the system with pre-drawn plans, and then you only have to be accurate within a quarter inch when you set it up. The router will redirect itself to rout wood along the appropriate route.
Its precision stems from a two-dimensional map the tool creates for itself. To do this, you have to move the device over the raw material first, so a camera on board can record the entire surface. To help it locate itself on the map, the user puts some black-and-white stickers on the surface to be cut. Then you load your design into a computer and this is overlaid onto the 2-D map. Place the router on the material you want to cut, and the system will automatically track its progress by taking further images, which it compares to its internal map. Motors on the router automatically adjust its path to ensure it follows the design.
It is cheaper and better than existing automatic cutters, CNC routers, because those devices can only cut things that are smaller than themselves, as MIT News explains it. This thing could conceivably cut anything. The team is actually considering adapting it to a forklift and attaching it to a flame cutter, so it could be used to carve enormous pieces of steel.
Companies could use this technology to complete tasks that now require heavy equipment, and hobby woodworkers could use it to improve accuracy on complex shapes. Rivers said it’s so precise, it cut out a map of the United States.
Rivers and colleagues will present their work at the Siggraph conference this week. Here’s a video describing their project: