Discussion of alternative controllers

Just hid a post announcing the availability of one — the terms of service here are a bit nebulous, but thus far has tended towards no sales of stuff by participants.

A mentioning may be okay, esp. in response to a direct request, but probably a for sale announcement by someone directly involved or likely to profit thereby pretty much isn’t.

In this thread, I would like to invite everyone who uses something other than a Carbide Motion Controller to note what they use and why.

I will note a couple of things which I have seen used and make some notes (I may find the energy to keep this first topic up-to-date if it seems appropriate):

  • EstlCAM — this is an interesting hybrid. It’s a CAM program, it’s a machine control program, it can also be a firmware, and it runs on pretty much any Arduino / stepper motor shield. At least one user @jimidi liked it enough to work up a dual-controller configuration: What’s better than ONE CM controller? Two of course
  • Stepoko — the opensource option from Sparkfun — this is unique for alternative controllers in that it allows one to continue to use Carbide Create/Motion
  • Gradus M1 Pro — got one of these for my Shapeoko 1 and it’s a neat board, w/ socketed stepper drivers which I prefer — on the wiki at: https://www.shapeoko.com/wiki/index.php/Gradus_M1_Pro
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Thanks for this. It gets pretty confusing on whats out there for this machine.

Going over the GRBL sponsor list here are a few more:
GRBL AIO by 3d tek
CNC XPro by spark concepts
CNC Shield by protoneer. You can get chinese clones of this one for <$5 on ebay.


This is pretty cool stuff for us new to GRBL.
I’ve only been doing (DIY) CNC for a couple years max, and used Linux and Mach3, with the old computers using the COM ports.
Kind of amazes me this works off of a laptop usb. Isn’t that one of the main reasons Flashcut charges $1000’s?
I looked at your listing (CNC Shield). I have a mini lathe retro’d for cnc, but I never use it.
I’m thinking of using one of the stepper motors on it to turn it into a 4th axis rotor, and mount the whole lathe right in the side of my XXL bed, down low where the center is even with the spoilboard.
I was disappointed to learn CM doesn’t do 4th axis, I can’t wait to learn to use one, but I’m happy to learn that there are so many alternatives for the same Hardware.
I didn’t want to give up the laptop and usb control.
By the way. Will this stuff control steppers for bigger lathes/mills, or does the bigger stuff need the COM port style controllers?
I dont understand why this isn’t more popular than say Mach3, unless there are limits that I’m not realizing?

The big thing is, it depends on the Arduino to use the hard real-time stuff — that’s why a laptop works — this also means that one can get into a situation where the computer running the comm / control app gets bogged down, the buffer runs out, and the machine slows down or even stops waiting for the next command (though this doesn’t happen much w/ Grbl 0.9 and later and their 115200 standard comm speed).

The lack of 4th axis support is one reason Mach3 stays in use (though one can fake this out w/ an indexed 4th axis — working on a design for that now) — the nice interface and direct support for probing are another. Also, Linuxcnc attracts a lot of folks who might otherwise consider a Grbl solution.

It’s not the mode of communication which determines the size of motor which is controlled, rather it’s the stepper driver chip and the current which that side of the board has available — Grbl will drive anything you can connect a stepper driver for — the Gradus M1 Pro is notable for using socketed drivers which will drive much larger stepper motors.

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Mach3 is a more mature platform. It has a plugin system that people have been using for a long time and has accumulated a large number of plugins capable of advanced features like >3 axes, complex kinematics, a more complete implementation of g-codes, and specialized workflow dashboards. I was going to include close-loop systems as well, but it seems Mach3 doesn’t support that.

The goals of GRBL are much more focused. It includes a minimal set of gcodes required to support a majority of use cases. It is easily capable of running larger stepper motors by utilizing larger stepper drivers like TB6600 modules. If you poke around the grbl issue board you can find some detailed reports where GRBL performance was put head to head against Mach3 (or maybe LinuxCNC?).

The main thing holding back GRBL currently is the arduino. It isn’t physically possible to maintain it’s current functionality and add things like rotary axes. There is a big discussion on the next generation of grbl. Once GRBL rises above the Arduino limitations the next hurdle will be around the fragmented GUI ecosystem. There are only 3 GUI’s I’m aware of which have a complete plugin system which could compete (bCNC, Chilipeppr and Universal Gcode Sender). At the moment I don’t think any of them have a large enough developer communities to reach feature parity with Mach3 or LinuxCNC anytime soon.


Thanks Will, I use Sketchup (make 2017) to draw exclusively and Estlcam for tool path generation and also to control the Shapeoko 3. Svg files get broken quite easily but using Estlcam they are very easy to fix. Actually you don’t have to fix most of the breaks as you can draw tool paths dot by dot to avoid or ignore breaks and overlaps. Single line cuts use the “engrave” command which allows you to “end” the cut rather than having to “close” it. It has a helical drill command which you can assign a diameter to a point without drawing a “sized” circle, you can use it for small pockets also. The trochoidal milling is amazing and the controller has a feed rate over ride that can be changed on the fly. The touch off options with alum. tape is so simple. It has setup presets for the Shapeoko so installing is quick. Most features wanted for CC and CM are in Estlcam. As a totally new person to CNC, Estlcam has made my transition completely easy. I only use 2 programs and get everything I want done.

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That sounds like a nice, easy work flow. Cheap too.

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I know it is going back a bit Jude but are you still using Estlcam for toolpath generation and control of your S3? http://estlcam.com If so are you still happy with it?

Secondly, have you re-flashed the Carbide controller board or are you using something like Spark-Concepts xPRO? http://www.spark-concepts.com/cnc-xpro-controller-v3/

In a recent correspondence with Christian Knuell (Estlcam’s creator) he was unsure whether Estlcam would work with the more recent Shapeoko machines, although adding another controller stepper board would be OK.

The Estlcam webpage advises that the Spark-Concepts xPRO V3 controller is now supported by Estlcam.

Love to hear your thoughts after all these months.

I have no knowledge of this item. I am not running the cnc currently as I’m involved in a major repair project on my house from hurricane irma. But I have used Estlcam and absolutely love it. I have the Shapeoko3 with the version 2.4D control board. The flashing with Estlcam has been perfect with every Estlcam upgrade, I am currently at 10.39 version, when I am back in the workshop I’ll upgrade to the newer 11.?? version. I do not use Carbide3D software at all because Estlcam is so flawless and the results of drawing only in sketchup and cutting with Estlcam has kept me from needing any of the high end programs although I’ve not gotten into 3d sculpting yet. I haven’t talked with Christian in a long time. Summary, Esltcam has been my perfect cut file tool and viewer and code generator for the Shapeoko 3. Hope this helps, thanks for the questions, Jude


Hey Jude, good to see you here on the forum. Good luck with the hurricane cleanup, I’m sure that’s a truly awful experience that I hope to never go through myself. I had definitely noticed you missing around here and remember you mentioning the hurricane, sucks that it made a mess, grateful “you” made it through, I always need help “musing” on things and you’re good at that :wink:


Thanks Dan, musing about not musing or just no time available for musing… appreciate the good thoughts, I’ve been keeping up with the progress here on the forum but haven’t had the energy to muse. Definitely like the discussions on the screw z axis upgrades and your progress as well. This was my 3rd major hurricane, could be the 4th but Jeanne and Francis were 3 weeks apart and I count them as one cuz I didn’t have time to clean up before the 2nd one hit back in '05. Gotta pay for all this sunshine somehow. I did find out how tough I am… the ladder split down the side rail and spit me out horizontal into an 8 foot fall onto the concrete onto my shoulder and side, got xrays and nothing broke but sure was painful. Took a couple days off and back at it. I threw away my ladders and built a scaffold with reinforced planks, solid as on the ground, much safer and not to bad to move around. Been musing about ladders ever since, you know that they have a rating of 195 pounds? Just enough so they can make them as cheaply as possible and if they break (like mine) “well how much do you weigh, their safety rating is 195 lbs and you exceeded that!” so they say. I’m 210 and thats only 8% beyond the rating, apparently they make them exactly to the rating limit so they don’t waste any extra material. Oh well, thanks again and good to “hear” from you also. Jude

Glad you weren’t hurt. I heard in med school that the biggest accident risk for the over 50 set is falls from ladders. Don’t know how old you are, but that includes me. 'Course I use ladders anyway…

I’m not afraid of heights or even falling, it’s just that dang landing that goes wrong once in a blue moon that bothers me. I’m going on 62 and knowing how to fall is the trick. I played hockey as a youth and the first thing you learn is how to fall, that ice is harder than concrete. “Fall on your Dupah (sp? german word for butt)” it’s a built in cushion. Too bad they never thought about concussions back then, “shake your head until your eyes straighten out, there you okay now?” Thanks Tito for the good thoughts and watch your step… Jude

Thanks Jude for your comments about Estlcam both here and in another thread. I will go ahead and get it. I have looked at all Christian’s videos and am impressed. I think my S3 is the same model as yours so I should have no problems there. Didn’t realise that I hadn’t seen you on the forum for a while until I read Dan Nelson’s comment above, I’m sure it is age related :grinning:. Welcome back anyway. Sorry to hear about your run of bad luck with the hurricanes and also your taking a tumble off the ladder. We ‘mature’ people need to be especially careful. I am not a stranger to hurricanes, we call them tropical cyclones here in Australia - but 5 in the one area - that’s too much. Again thanks.

I’m up around 215, but my problem isn’t the weight limit of the ladder, my last fall I just didn’t even bother with the ladder, stepped right past it and went straight to the ground…that was one BIG step!!! Luckily I only fell off the engine of a 767, not off the top of the whole airplane. Ambulance scooped me up, couple days of bed rest, no serious damage done. Glad you’re ok, watch those shoulders, I’m 2 for 2 on shoulder surgeries, trust me when I say they are no fun. Back to musing, I mean, work, I’m at work, gotta remember that.


You’ll love this “falling” muse…back when, the engineering firm was overseeing the cleanup of a glue factory that had exploded. Everything was coated in glue, so you HAD to keep moving, one of the drafters wanted a “field” trip and went down there. Wearing a tyvac suit, he stumbled and fell down, glued himself to the floor and had to be scrapped up off the floor with a fork lift. Now this was during the time when that commercial “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” was prevalent. He never lived that down. All for now, don’t laugh out loud, you may still be at work. Jude

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Glad to see you back around here Jude (@grumpa) and I’m glad you came out of the hurricane. I spent many overtime hours working during this past season, tracking infrastructure damage from all the hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria).
Back on topic, I may try Estlcam one day, but for now I have tried both UGS and bCNC recently. Personally I think bCNC is a bit better and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a different G-code sender for now. Mainly because it doesn’t require a reflash of the controller board, you can try it and if you don’t like it easily go back to Carbide Motion. The only real reason I have to change senders is in anticipation of building my own ball screw Z-axis and avoiding the hard coded limits of Carbide Motion.

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