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Tormach Moves From Mach3 to LinuxCNC: PathPilot

Path-Pilot-Contoller-and-MonitorWe usually don’t do News Stories, per se, but this is really big news in the lower end CNC Controller world.

I just got the announcement today that Tormach is releasing PathPilot for Beta Test.

I’ve had a chance for a while to use the first incarnation of Path Pilot with my Tormach Slant Bed lathe, and I really like this controller software.  It’s been rock solid for me, and since it is pre-configured by Tormach by the factory for their machines, I have had none of the head scratching over configuration that I had when I used Mach3 with my Mill.  The user interface and built in conversational wizards have been very nice as well.

Why Switch?

Here is what Tormach says:

With PathPilot you’ll be on track with a well-supported controller, and one that is engineered by the same people who designed your machine. PathPilot is a development of the Tormach. Tormach will address any bugs found and we will continually be working on improving features, functions, and usability. This is a significant contrast to our original control since the authors of Mach3 announced several years ago that there would be no more updates or improvements.

Basically, they’re saying it’s more stable and has more features and capabilities than Mach3.  That’s been my impression of it too on the lathe, and I am looking forward to having an opportunity to play with it on a Tormach Mill as well.  Having met some of the folks working on PathPilot at Tormach, one thing I would add to this is that there’s a lot of brainpower behind the project.  Not only are the Tormach software developers excellent and dedicated, but the crew that do LinuxCNC are also very solid.  The Mach3 folks are excellent too, but there are fewer of them and they’re pretty tied up trying to get Mach4 to work.  That’s left an opportunity, or a challenge depending on how you want to look at it, and Tormach is dealing with the challenge by having invested 4 years of development and quite a few dollars into PathPilot.

The primary areas Tormach focused on with PathPilot include the user interface design, improved motion control (they rewrote the trajectory planner), improved conversational routines, more dependable operating system, and integrated offline tool height measurement.  In addition, there is a hardware change.  The parallel port, which was cheap but created a fair amount of trouble in Mach3, has been replaced by a Mesa Card.  These cards are similar to the hardware support I’ve mentioned in the past for Mach3.  Between the new trajectory planner and this hardware assist, PathPilot should be even better at driving your tools along a tool path than Mach3 has ever been.

Aside from the carrot of all the goodness, there’s a bit of a stick–Tormach will quit supporting Mach3 12 months after PathPilot ships for real (it’s only in Beta right now).

What Do I Lose With PathPilot Versus Mach3?

Always a good question to ask, but in this case, there are a couple of things but I believe they’re well worth it and would recommend switching to PathPilot.  The most major thing is the customizability.  Mach3 has made it easy over the years to redesign the screens in all sorts of interesting ways.  Yes, it’s not incredibly well documented and can be a bit buggy to mess with, but it is an amazing capability.  This doesn’t exist, at least not yet, for PathPilot.  I suspect Tormach prefers everyone having the same user experience (ala Apple Computer, actually) to make it easier to support the machines.

From what I’ve seen of the Lathe’s control software, customization will not be missed by many.  I like my lathe screens as well as any I ever used with Mach3.  They’re well laid out, simple, and easy to use.

Perhaps a bigger deal for many users will be the switch from a Windows machine to a machine running Linux.  If you were used to running any other software besides the control software on your PC connected to your Mill, that will likely have to stop.  Think of the Linux machine (unless you’re one of the few who actually likes running Linux instead of their normal desktop OS) as an appliance.  I surprising number of things that seem like appliances turn out to be just fairly normal computers running Linux under the covers.

With PathPilot, you’ll want to get a separate machine for your shop computing needs.  I know I’d hate not having computer access in my shop.  The good news is now you can feel fine about connecting the Internet to your machine as it is no longer your controller.  FWIW, I have always had the Internet connected to my Windows Mach3 machines without incident, but I run a Smoothstepper hardware pulser that makes them a lot more bulletproof.

All in all, these seem to me like reasonable trade offs.

What About Non-Tormach Users Who Want to Switch From Mach3?

Are you getting excited to try PathPilot?  Well, there is some bad news here too.  Unless you’re running a Tormach machine, it’s not available to you.  I don’t know whether the Open Source nature of LinuxCNC means PathPilot can be made available by someone else for non-Tormach machines, or not.  But it would be nice.

What Will the Future Bring?

For Tormach and its Community of Users, the future is clearly PathPilot.  For the Mach3 world, we’ll have to see how the transition to Mach4 goes.  We’re seeing more and more independent controllers though, and a lot of them are Open Source.  As they continue to get better and better, it’s harder not to take a look at them.  If we can see more easy-to-use, easy-to-set-up, and inexpensive LinuxCNC-based controllers, I would expect to see that base accelerate its growth.

Tell us what you think about these developments in the comments below.  I’m really curious as I’m sure are the other readers.

 

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