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Recommended CNC Mill for High School Robotics Team


Jul 17, 2017
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
I am a teacher, and one of the lead mentors of a competitive high school robotics team, based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. We are looking to acquire a small, reliable CNC mill, primarily for use with aluminum, for under C$20k all in.

We participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), and build 120lb robots. These are approximately 2ft by 3ft, and move at 10-20ft/s. They are built from scratch in about 6 weeks, with separate refinements made for about 6 additional weeks.

Our team consists of 20-30 male and female students, grades 9 to 12. The majority of these do not have previous experience with machines, but have gained experience with hand tools, as well as machines such as drill presses and bandsaws through out program. We have around 10 mentors, with various experiences – many in the science/engineering fields, but some who are millwrights or have backgrounds in manufacturing technology. While our team has a solid background in CAD, 3D printers, a little CAM/CNC, and manual mills, there is no specific experience in CNC Mills. Our students and mentors are usually quick to pick up new techniques, and are eager to learn. We would like something that is not overly complex to setup or maintain. We are happy to learn about feeds and speeds, and perform maintenance such as lubricating easily accessible components. We would like to avoid machines requiring custom G-code or complex programming in order be functional.

We build out of an old elementary school. The advantage to this is that we are able to share resources with other local teams (there are 4 or 5 other teams that regularly build out of our facility, and another dozen that visit throughout the season). It does, however, mean that we are limited to the power and space requirements of the building. On the electricity side, we can do single phase 110V or 220V, to a maximum of 35A. We cannot do 400+V setups, and we anticipate difficulty doing a 3-phase setup (but may explore it further if there is a compelling reason). Our facility has single doors leading from the outside to our shop. As such, the machine must fit through a standard 34” wide by 78” tall door. We may be able to expand the door to 58" wide by 83" tall. We are fine with some disassembly of the machine, if required.

Use case
We anticipate using the mill primarily for milling 6061 aluminum (>95% of the time), with the occasional milling of plastic (nylon, Delrin/acetal, HDPE, Lexan/polycarbonate) and steel. We spend about 500 hours a year in our shop. We expect that the mill would see light duty use, under 200 hours/year. We typically use rectangular aluminum tubes (2”x1”, 0.100” thick) and see value in being able to leverage a mill’s accuracy for positioning bearing holes. This would require an X-travel of approximately 30”. We would also like to be able to mill gearbox plates, likely of dimensions less than 8” square. Other milling would usually be fairly small components (less than 5” square). All our milling would fall into the one-off category. We would not be doing production runs. There may be a few rare cases where we make 3-4 of the same item.


We received some funding for advanced manufacturing to support our programming. A part of this was used to purchase a CNC router, and another part must be spent on a CNC mill. Our budget for the mill is C$20k (~US$15.5k), including shipping, tax, and installation. We have already increased this from C$15k as we were unable to find anything that met out needs at the previous price point, and are unable to raise it further.

Software/Technical Stack
In house, we use Solidworks for our 3D modelling, and expect to be using Fusion 360 for CAM (although we may consider HSMworks). Our existing and new machinery will be connected via Ethernet. We would like a mill to use the same setup – preferably Ethernet, but at least USB. We would rather avoid parallel/serial ports.

We require an eStop (and if the controller doesn’t provide it, a magnetic starter) as well as guarding (which may be satisfied with an enclosure). Ideally, the machine should not operate with the enclosure open.

Mills Considered
  • CNC Masters Supra – good price and specs, has a large x-travel, lacks an enclosure, poor reviews
  • Haas MiniMill-EDU – price is above budget, limited x-travel, well reviewed
  • Tormach PCNC 770/1100 – price above budget (haven’t found an educational discount), limited x-travel
  • Haas TM-1 – price considerably above budget (haven’t found an educational discount), may not fit through door

We have explored the possibility of used machines, however, many of the ones we have come across are fairly old (15+ years) and may have control systems that are not compatible with our setups. Many are vertical machining centres – which have many exciting features, but also many ways to break. Additionally, these VMCs tend to have much higher power requirements or would not fit into our facility. Lastly, we simply do not have the expertise to verify the functionality of a used machine.

Looking for a CNC Mill, for aluminum, that can fit through a 34” door, has an x-travel of 30”, an enclosure, and costs under C$20k. Any advice on what to consider, look for, or avoid would be appreciated.

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The limit of 34" door width is going to be the biggest problem that I can see. Haas has a minimill that may fit, but it doesn't have the travels that you want.
I've read this twice and I think the Tormach 1100 will meet all the requirements you outlined except the 30 inch travel. Pretty much anything in your price and size class will have the same issue. Honestly you probably don't need 30 inches of travel to do what you want to do you need a creative setup for that part.
Thanks for the replies. We may be able to increase the door opening to 58", but that would require breaking a part of the wall, which we cannot confirm is possible (if it makes this possible, then we will definitely pursue that option). The door is 83" tall.

Haas has informed us that we can get the MiniMill to fit the height by removing the cable carriage to get 80", and that it would fit through the door (likely 58") if we removed all the enclosures.
You might explore any existing or new relationships with manufacturers in your area. I once sold a nice running Kitamura K0 mini mill to a local high school for their vocational ed program for $500. That was really just to cover the cost of the rigging and move. Company got a nice tax write-off in exchange.
this is one of those cases where slow and low powered is a plus
novices learning there will be crashes.

Tormach pcnc1100 without the tool changer or the 770 if you can live with the smaller
work size. upgrade to more features if you find more money down the road.

unless you can get some short of deal from HAAS.

yours is kind of the situation the Tormach was designed to fill
We definitely don't have any needs for fancy features and automatic tool changers. We expect that the Tormach or Haas could meet our needs - both are used by other teams. Given the investment, we are interested in whether we are missing anything in our analysis (other options not mentioned, etc.) as well as how to overcome the limitations we have (e.g. how difficult would it be to setup a piece to make two 1-1/8" holes, 30" apart, within 0.002" accuracy, if the x-travel is less than 30"). If we can achieve these objectives with a Tormach, then it is definitely something we would want to explore further.

On the Tormach front, the PCNC1100 has a base price around US$8.4k - going with the educational package and after shipping, electrical upgrades for ESA certification, etc. the total cost comes out to over C$30k. We would be quite willing to go with the PCNC1100 if we could get the price down to C$20k, all in.

Even a Haas TM-1 will not really do what you want, because the X travel is 30" and you need a little margin in case the piece with 30"-center holes is not exactly centered on the machine's travel. In addition, I cannot imagine needing 0.002" accuracy on 1-1/8" holes spaced 30" apart on an FRC robot. (This sounds like flange bearing holes in frame rails.) I mentor FRC Team 100 (Woodside High School) in their shop. They have a Haas TM-1 with a 10-tool umbrella changer. The team finds it is very useful for profiling sheet parts, where the 30" travel comes in handy.

Your best option might be to find a mentor in a machine shop or engineering outfit, who knows about CNC machines being surplused and can fix them. Local Team 199 (spun out of Team 100) found some kind-hearted company to donate them a halfway decent Bridgeport and a big old Hurco VMC with a ton of tooling. The Hurco would work in your situation but would take someone knowledgeable to get it going (and through the door!). With kids, where there's a will, there's a way! Get the kids on it. Team 199's Hurco is stuck for lack of a proper room to house it, but the Bridgeport is up and running.

Good luck!

Great to hear from another FRC mentor. The purpose of the 30" travel is exactly as you described - bearing holes in frame rails. Last year, we used belts on our drive train, and found that they would slip when changing direction if the tolerance was not fairly accurate. This year, we used chains and didn't have an issue. The belt does save some weight though, although I feel the chain is the better option. We had a sponsor laser cut parts of our chassis this year, which greatly helped, but would love to be able to do those types of things in house, if we have a mill.

We have come across a few used Bridgeports - without CNC capabilities. Most advice we have seen is that they would make a great manual mill, but if we are looking for a CNC, we should not try to upgrade a Bridgeport. We are always on the lookout for new mentors - we will add those with CNC experience to our list.
I'm not sure how the 8.4k Tormach wound up over 30K Canadian, that seems crazy.

I would consider a Bridgeport with Prototrak since you are probably working in 2.5D. I'm pretty sure you could get into that for < 10k US (used of course).

Good Luck,

Jon P.
The Tormach PCNC1100, in Canada, is distributed by Studica. The base cost is US$8.5k, the educational package is US$16k. Studica sells this for C$23.6k. Additionally, Studica charges C$2.8k for freight, 1.1k for ESA modification and certification, and (optionally) C$2k for setup. This gives a before tax total of C$29.5k.

We are hoping that we can purchase directly from Tormach and get a lower rate, as well as foregoing some of the options included in the educational package (we want the enclosure and stand, but the rest we can probably get elsewhere). We still have some unknowns (is the controller provided just a computer - i.e. if we opt against the controller, can we just install their Pathpilot software on one our existing computers?). We also have other tools that will require ESA certification, so hope to bundle these together. (Although, it would be great to know what electrical modifications are needed to meet the ESA standard).
I'm not sure how the 8.4k Tormach wound up over 30K Canadian, that seems crazy.

Agreed. You can get a nice 1100 package for $16K USD. His numbers seem awfully high. What electrical changes need made? A Haas would be nice but if you can't afford a Tormach I don't see how a Haas is possible.
Great to hear from another FRC mentor. The purpose of the 30" travel is exactly as you described - bearing holes in frame rails. Last year, we used belts on our drive train, and found that they would slip when changing direction if the tolerance was not fairly accurate.

That's what they make idlers for. I Don't think there is a single drive belt on the planet
that relies on hole spacing for proper tension. Maybe a ribbed or conveyor belt here or there,
but even a cogged timing belt has a tensioner.

I applaud your enthusiasm and the fact you are out there teaching kids to do cool stuff. My better
half is an elementary school teacher and I got suckered into the First Robotics thing... But 8th
grade and under its LEGO's!!!!! I don't have to machine nothing!!!!

I think you are asking a lot.... And a lot of it is contradictory to other things you want... Kind
of like saying I want a car that can accelerates like a top fuel dragster, handles like a Ferrari, looks
like a '70 Hemi Cuda, gets 65MPG and can haul 4 tons of gravel in the trunk while carrying 6 fat adults....
And oh yeah... $500 is the budget and I have to be able to carry it up the stairs and fit it in a broom closet...
AND it has to be NEW..

I've got no suggestions, except to listen to these guys and ask more questions. You won't find any better
advice any where else... You might find more polite advice, just not better.
Totally agree that some form of belt tensioner would be the solution - however FRC is always a balance of time, complexity, and weight. We were a second year team last year, and simply couldn't find the weight and time to add the tensioner.

As much fun as Lego Robotics (FLL) is, I think the mentors enjoy the FRC one as much as the kids. We get a chance to learn new things alongside the kids - and it is amazing seeing students who hadn't touched a screwdriver before, wiring up robots.

I am definitely asking a lot - in the hopes that we can find the best solution to meet what we want. I think that is part of FRC (and negotiations in general). You ask for a robot that can fly, and gradually pare down that request to something that is attainable. We have a little flexibility in some of our constraints, but not much. Some of that comes at the cost of extra setup time (we could take the enclosure off, or build or own enclosure), and some of it comes at the cost of usability (we can settle for a 16" x-travel). That is exactly why I am here - to find out which of these trade-offs we should be making.

Given the number of times our searches on machines brought us to this site - and the information we have gleaned from simply reading existing posts, I am certain that we will get great advice here. Already I have seen support mostly for the Tormach or Haas. The Supra doesn't seem to be getting any votes. There are also suggestions for making do without the 30" x-travel. Taking it all to heart.
I don't think for the prices you have been quoted, you would be well served by the Tormach. It doesn't have the travel you want. For this application, I would look for a used Haas TM1 or TM2 without the tool changer. Everyone that ever bought one of these hated it with abandon, so you can rest assured that it has low hours and the former owner will be willing to about give it away. They are noisy, messy and slow. I had one and I think I eventually gave it away to a school because no one would run it. However, it would make a great school mill. Plenty accurate for what you are doing.