CNC Design is a small manufacturer, based in Cornwall. The company’s Pulse Train Hat is shortlisted for the Hardware of the Year category at the awards. The device is a Raspberry pi add-on, produced to support high-end, accurate automation solutions.
Despite being a small, 2.5-person team (which you’ll learn more about below), Sean from CNC Design was kind enough to give us a few words about the project.
The Company
CNC Design Limited is based in St Columb Major, Cornwall designing and manufacturing CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines. We design the mechanics, design the electronics, develop the processor firmware as well as write the software to control it.
 

Custom machines have been built for a number of small and large companies such as Rolls Royce Plc, Moog and Fiamm. Machines have also been built for Falmouth University and Birmingham UniversityAs well as custom, bespoke machines CNC Design stock a range of their own production machines and have supplied to over 50 different countries worldwide. Clients include; British Sailing Team, Logitech, Google California and NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre. 

We are also excited to partner and get involved with local projects. One of the latest is being a strategic partner with the University of Plymouth and the Automated Brassica harvesting in Cornwall project (ABC). Low cost machining services of wood, aluminium and plastics are also offered to local companies throughout Cornwall and Devon.
The Team

Being a small company, small workshop, small budget and a small team of 2.5 of us.

The two full time geeks of the company class themselves as Mechatronic Engineers as our disciplines include, mechanical design, electronic design, firmware development, software development, Documentation, web development and CAD/CAM experience. As well as doing all the sales and support calls.

We do not have the luxury of having different departments to handle each of these complicated areas and have to make sure we keep up on the latest technology and what is available to meet the design we are working on.

The .5 is our part time admin that does the boring paperwork and bill payments. And also tells us off for not keep the delivery notes that get chucked across the workshop floor on busy days!

Even though we are a small company in the depths of Cornwall, we pride ourselves on being a Microsoft Partner and always having the support and updated information we need to do our job.

The development platforms we prefer are Visual Studio 2017 using C# as our programming language and when it comes down to processors we tend to stick to using/coding the latest ARM M4 processors or Microchip Pic Chips for our embedded solutions.

All our web servers and email servers are hosted on our network in the workshop and connected via high speed broadband.

The Project

As automation is the end solution to 95% of all our products, when the low- cost Raspberry pi came out, it did not take us long to start at different ways we could use this little computer within our projects.

After a few years, we soon realised that although there were a few add-on controllers for the Raspberry pi out on the market to control motors and that could be used in automation designs, none of them were really any use for the high end, accurate solutions we were designing and building.

So, we set about designing the Pulse Train Hat (PTHAT).

 

The PTHAT mainboard

Stepper and servo motors can be very accurate and very fast in automation projects and can be very complicated when it comes to controlling/monitoring them in any project. Often dedicated controllers are used that need programming at a low-level language and can be very complicated. You need to control the speed, interpolation, ramping and positioning.

With the PTHAT design we wanted to open 12 million+ Raspberry pi owners up to a simple way of controlling motors that could be used to control a variety of home/industrial automation projects from as making a simple ticking clock to controlling a multiple joint robot arm.

This is where the PTHAT came about and allows the developer to send simple ASCII commands to the PTHAT that then can control various motor drivers and provide a very cost effective and accurate solution.

We spent a lot of time developing the product, going through a lot of prototypes and months of coding, not to mention setting up a dedicated website, where we cover every aspect of the controller and how to program it, along with examples of the PTHAT being used.

But the end result was worth it and we were surprised it was adopted by more of the bigger companies that needed to automate machinery in commercial environments, rather than the education/hobbyist market that we first targeted.

 

We keep developing the PTHAT and releasing new firmware as we add features along with examples to help the end developer out as much as we can.

We are not restricting the use to just the Raspberry pi computer. The PTHAT can now also be used in stand alone mode with a PC connected via the USB port or on other development boards such as the popular Arduino family.

On Digital in the South West

Most of the machines we design do not actually go to customers in the South West, but most of our customers around the world actually know Cornwall very well and spend more time reminiscing about the time they had a great holiday down in Cornwall rather than actually getting down to the nitty gritty bits we need to know!

But this is not a problem and they seem to be comforted that they can simply pick up the phone and get a one to one service, with someone that has the time to actually listen to their needs. As well as what they are having for tea tonight 🙂

 

PTHAT Expansion board

We get clients fly down to sign off machine builds from the UK and Europe to Newquay Airport and they are amazed that we can just pick them up and drop them off when needed. Most usually get down a day early and go out to experience a bit of local hospitality which can make them a bit worse for wear when we have our meeting the next day. But a coffee and a local pasty usually brings them around.

Supporting the local small businesses that are around by offering low cost machining services can be very awarding. Our machinery has been designed and built to help us prototype our in-house designs, but when we are not using them, we will do other work for other companies that need their designs brought to life but do not have the machinery to do this.

The same with anyone that has an idea they want designed and brought to life. We will do our best to help them out or advise them the route to follow.

On the awards

We love to get more involved with local networking events and different awards, but like other companies we are so busy and getting time is our main struggle.

But the South West Digital Awards stood out as being a more down to earth approach to recognising South West Business, so we thought “Lets enter”.

What’s next?

This year has gone crazy. Usually January and February is quiet time for us and we get to play a little out in the workshop, working on prototypes and updating current products. But 2018 started off at a fast pace and we have not stopped since.

The TO-DO list is getting caught up on a little at the moment, but we have so many projects in the pipeline, that this year is going to be a record-breaking year.

As well as having customers designs to accommodate, we also have a list of our prototypes we would also like to develop and get to market.

Technology is moving at lightening speeds and each day we see new components being released that would fit into ideas that we have been knocking around for years, but never been feasible due to cost or other restraints.

We have had the computer boom, the internet boom, the smart phone boom, the tablet boom and now is the time for the embedded/IOT boom which includes robotics and automation. So exciting times a head.

You can find out more about the entire shortlist here.

Thanks to CNC Design’s Sean for giving us a great insight into the company and PThat.

Join hundreds of innovative nominees & sponsors at the awards on 27th September at Plymouth’s School of Creative Arts. The evening is an opportunity to highlight, reward and encourage digital innovation whilst enjoying a feast of locally-sourced, gourmet street food.