Woodworking is a tricky skill to master. Students learn to measure carefully before they reach for a saw, and to cut as true to the design as hand and eye allow. But, even so, precise cutting is a painstaking job, full of pitfalls and mismatched moldings.
Now computers and their tireless calculations may bolster the skills of many people who want to create well-cut picture frames, inlays or furniture but lack the dexterity.
Alec Rivers, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues have created a prototype for a compact, computerized addition to power tools that automatically performs precision measuring and cutting.
The system, which has a tiny camera, motors and a video screen, takes part of the pain out of woodworking, by using what Rivers calls “tool GPS."
You use the new device not by looking down at the wood you’re cutting, he said, but by watching a video screen mounted above the power tool. There, a dot shows the position of the tool bit — just as GPS on a dashboard or a smartphone shows the position of your car on Highway 88.
“As soon as you put the tool on the material, it knows where it is," Rivers said. “The screen shows you the path you are on, as well as the pattern you’re going to cut."
When the bit comes within a quarter inch of the pattern, tiny motors in the device go to work, keeping the tool along its correct route.
Ilan Moyer, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT, designed the hardware for the latest prototype of the device.
“If you are straying from the path, going to the left," failing to follow the exact design, he said, “the motors will shift the tool to the right to keep it on the path."
Rivers said that “all you have to do is get within the ballpark freehand." Then the “tool GPS" and small-scale computer adjustments guarantee a precise cut.
In an online video, Rivers demonstrates the system with a router that is carving a wooden map of the United States. Many other tools, including electric scissors and vinyl cutters, might also be controlled by a similar approach, he said.
He is putting the finishing touches on the software, although the device is still in prototype and far from the marketplace. Yet it’s not hard to imagine a day when the shelves of home-improvement stores are filled with such products.
“The next thing you know, this will be an automatic feature on power tools," said Bre Pettis, chief executive of MakerBot Industries, which makes desktop 3-D printers.
Of course, computer-controlled equipment is already used widely in industry for machining. Throw the switch on an automatic milling machine, for example, and it cuts the same pattern repeatedly. But such machinery, which can cost thousands of dollars, may not be practical for many small businesses, not to mention do-it-yourselfers working in their garages.
Patrick Hood-Daniel, owner of Build Your CNC, creates kits for machines that use what is known as computer numerical control, for small to midsize companies. He says he thinks the MIT invention will offer many possibilities but mainly for hobbyists.
“This is a good product for artists and craftspeople," he said, predicting that it would find a home in many garages and workshops.
But the technology does have a drawback in comparison with fully automatic machines.
“This device does require human attention at all times," he said.
Users cannot just put in a program, press a button and exit the room, leaving the machine to create a piece again and again.
Brian Matt, chief executive of Altitude, a product innovation firm in Somerville, Mass., agreed that the MIT process was too slow and labor-intensive for making thousands of copies.
“This is for small orders, or for doing one-of-a-kind" work, Matt said.
Making the cut
To make sure the router can find its way even when the lumber, plastic or sheet metal has no natural markings for the camera to spot, the user puts standard tape with black-and-white markings on the wood or other surface to be cut.
“Then you pass the tool back and forth over the material," Rivers said, and the camera scans in the images, stitching them together to create a surface map.
Users of the tool can load in their own designs or download digital plans from the Internet.
Pettis of MakerBot welcomed the invention, and the era of computer control it might bring to power tools. He likened the innovation to the push to develop self-driving cars.
“Here’s another activity where we can use technology," he said, “to help us compensate for our shaky hands and blurry vision."