“Personal” CNC Makes Parts for Studying Sharks

Aug. 18, 2009
A CNC machine tool from Tormach lets one shop quickly handle custom orders for Crittercam parts.

The right machining center can sometimes get you into some interesting situations. So says Frank Borke, owner of Master Pattern, Lafayette, Colo. Borke focuses on prototype and low-production runs with a PCNC (personal CNC) machining center, the PCNC 1100 from Tormach LLC, Waunakee, Wis. He recently landed the job of machining parts for Crittercam, a camera that attaches to sea creatures such as sharks, sea turtles, whales, and seals, and lets scientists study their underwater lives.

Engineered and machined to meet tight tolerances, Crittercam comes with a 6061 aluminum housing for withstanding water pressure at depths of 1,000 m, or a titanium version for depths of 2,000 m and deeper. An onboard microcomputer controls image and data logging.

Deployment is the tricky part. For example, when working with a shark, scientists lure the creature next to the boat and use a 10-lb, 7-ft-long aluminum pole to drop the device quickly and painlessly onto the shark’s dorsal fin. A pneumatically operated mechanism at the tip of the pole holds and releases the camera. A typical pole consists of 17 custom-machined and stock parts such as fasteners and pneumatic tubes.

Borke uses the PCNC 1100 to machine all nonstock parts for the deployment poles and camera floats. Because each marine animal is different and research goals vary, the pole and floats must be modified for almost every user. This means part runs are low.

The machining center cost $11,000 with all accessories. Options raised the price to around $16,000. Borke estimates he’d have to pay at least $35,000 for similar equipment from a major machine-tool maker. “Part of the PCNC 1100’s appeal is that it eliminates the need for expensive three-phase power,” he says. “This helps me keep a smaller and more portable shop. It will also help in the future when I hope to run the shop on solar power.”

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