You can have a CNC controller be as simple as a parallel port from your computer, or as complicated as a dedicated synchronized multi-axis board. But no matter what you choose, you’ll need some sort of software to control it. This article will show you the more popular options to actually control your CNC machine from a computer.
Mach3 is one of the most popular CNC control programs available, and for good reasons. Not only does it work great for multi-axis CNC control, but it also works great on Windows. Note that if you’re using a parallel port to control your CNC machine, Mach3 requires a 32-bit operating system. A 64-bit system will not work. At any rate, not only does the program work well, it has plenty of features and even supports plugins. If you require more pulses per second than is available on the printer port, various 3rd party hardware motion controllers are available and compatible with Mach3 through a plugin. The price is currently $175, which is reasonable for hobby projects. This is universally regarded as the best CNC control software available for hobby CNC work today.
EMC is another popular CNC motion controller which runs on a computer. It doesn’t offer as many features as Mach3, but it does have one important selling point. EMC is free and open source, which means you don’t have to pay a dime for it. The only real catch is that it only runs on Linux. So if your computer runs Windows or Mac OS, you’ll need to install Linux in order to use EMC. Of course, many Linux distributions are free, but just be aware that it may take a little more time to set up and start playing with EMC. There is even an EMC live distribution which you can burn onto a CD so you don’t even have to install Linux onto your computer if you really don’t want to.
KCam is another software CNC controller which runs on Windows. KCam is significantly less popular than Mach3 due to lack of features and some performance issues. However, the software is very simple to use, and can also make use of the printer port. I’ve always had trouble getting past 5 or 6 thousand pulses per second, so be aware that it might be an issue if you want very high speed. The main advantages of KCam are that it runs on Windows, it’s simple, and it’s slightly cheaper than Mach3, at $95. This software is not as well polished or as functional as Mach3, so keep that in mind if you decide to purchase software to control your CNC machine.