PlasmaCAM Video Review – Fact vs. Fiction

PlasmaCAMThis site has been getting a lot of visitors from the search engines due to my previous posts about the PlasmaCAM CNC Plasma Cutting Machine.

These visits have translated into quiet a few questions coming in via my contact form. Several people considering the purchase of a PlasmaCAM have received the DVD from them and have been asking me how much of it is true. After all, Stan makes it sound so easy to start creating anything you can imagine from metal with this machine. ;-)

As a result, I’m going to walk you through the video step-by-step and provide analysis to help separate fiction from fact.

If you’d like to print this out to keep handy while you are watching the video use the Print this Post feature (also at the bottom of the article) to format it a little better for that purpose.

For convenience I’ve embedded an excerpt of the video from the DVD.


If you would like the full DVD please contact PlasmaCAM and I’m sure they’ll be happy to ship you one out.

Let’s Get Started!
Below you’ll find the time marker in minutes and seconds, followed by my opinion on the issue presented at that time.

0:00 – 1:00: The DVD starts off with some shots of a wide range of parts and completed projects all cut by the PlasmaCAM.

Yes, it did cut all that stuff, though the pieces you are seeing have also been welded, finished and powder coated.

1:15: We first hear Stan Ferris’ voice asking:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could make these kinds of products with only a small amount of effort?”

Well, yes Stan, that would be nice! But frankly you can’t. Most of the projects shown required a considerable amount of artistic creation, which translates into hours and hours of digitizing followed by a considerable amount of cutting, welding, grinding and powder coating.

Metal fabrication is a dirty, sweaty, hot, dangerous, capital intensive business and should only be attempted by people who have adequate training.

Personally I’m a trained welder, blacksmith, bladesmith and power hammer operator. I had over a years worth of experience operating a plasma torch before I ever purchased a PlasmaCAM, and without it I’d have had major problems getting this machine to operate at times. I’ve also taken college level AutoCAD courses and am an expert with CorelDraw for graphic illustration.

1:51: Stan introduces himself as a:

“…nuts and bolts kind of guy…” who “…under normal circumstances I would not have tried to operate a computer controlled machine….”

Well, here are a couple of comments to get us started:

  1. PlasmaCAM ManualIf you are not computer savvy, do NOT purchase a PlasmaCAM. There is very little instruction regarding the use of the actual software, and the info provided comes in the form of a written manual.

    There is a small amount of video instruction, but PlasmaCAM desperately needs to create video tutorials on how to use the features of this product. There is simply nowhere near the amount of training material available that I think there should be.

  2. I highly recommend experience using AutoCAD if you are going to do parts production, or CorelDraw (or another vector editing software package) if you are going to create artwork.

    You are not going to want to use the PlasmaCAM software to create designs unless you absolutely have to. Think of it just as a clean-up and cutting package.

2:57:

“The robotic cutting table plugs into your computer just like a printer.”

Not true anymore.

100% of the printers sold today plug into your computer using either a USB, Ethernet, or Wireless connection. The PlasmaCAM plugs in using the old style parallel port connection, and when I was setting my machine up this was the greatest source of issues. I had to call and get support from George (who is awesome!) to get mine working.

This is a bigger problem than you might think… Since the machine requires a parallel port you have to use a computer that has a parallel port built in. This will exclude many of the PCs available today and all of the laptops.

You cannot use a USB to Parallel port converter as it won’t work. If you purchase a PC without a parallel port then you’ll have to order an add in card, and these are almost impossible to find now days as well.

Make sure you have this covered before you purchase a PlasmaCAM!

Commentary:
PlasmaCAM is well behind the curve in the connectivity arena. Not only should the machine offer USB connectivity, it should really have a wireless NIC installed that allows us to control the machine over 802.11x.

Either of these would bring the machine into the modern age, but wireless would be vastly preferable.

3:00:

“The machine uses your ordinary plasma torch to do the cutting. It’s easy to remove in case you need to cut by hand.”

Well, kind of. If by “easy” you mean “possible”. But it involves disconnecting cables, cutting plastic tie downs, plugging in adapters, remounting and calibrating things… You’re not going to really want to remove the torch unless you absolutely have to.

3:32: What Stan is demonstrating is not something you’re ever going to see happen in the real world. He’s taken a perfectly printed photo of a single leaf, on a completely white background and scanned it. He is then converting all of the colors except the white background to black, essentially creating a single filled in shape.

Key Bottle OpenerLet’s look at a more realistic example. Here is a little key shaped bottle opener that I designed by sketching it on drawing paper with a pencil.

  1. After scanning it on my Canon MP830 I saved it as a bitmap and imported it into the PlasmaCAM software. At this stage I had to select all of the different shades of white on the right side of the screen to use as the background color – in other words, things not to recognize as completely black.
  2. PlasmaCAM Import Step 2Next, you select the size of “holes” for the software to try to fill in, and the size of random “speckles” for it to delete.
  3. PlasmaCAM Import Step 3Next you choose the resolution and smoothing for the image, which in this case won’t make a bit of a difference.
  4. PlasmaCAM Import Step 4Finally you have the imported image which, in this case – and most others, is going to require a LOT of editing before it is even close to ready to cut. We’re talking about hours of editing.

This whole process can be completed in 1/10th the time using CorelDraw. So if you don’t know how to use it go find a graphic art course at your local community college and learn Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw.

3:55: Scaling, rotation, cut path creation, copying and moving the image are actually as easy as they say. That is not to say they couldn’t use some improvement…

Commentary
One of my biggest disappointments is that there hasn’t been a single software update since I purchased the machine, despite the fact that there are a number of areas that could be improved.

This fact, combined with the lack of USB or wireless connectivity support leads me to believe that software development at PlasmaCAM has ceased.

And this is one of my greatest sources of concern for the longevity of this product. All of PlasmaCAM’s competitors release frequent updates and improvements to their installed user base.

5:10: Frankly I do not believe that they were able to cut that entire sheet of leaves out automatically and unattended.

  • Small or intricate parts tend to fall partially through the grates, but not completely. This leaves them sticking up and in the way of the torch head which in turn rams into it bending the part, knocking the torch out of alignment and often damaging the cutting tip.
  • This happens constantly with my little Plasmites (hand cut prototypes here) if I don’t baby-sit the machine. The only way I’ve found to avoid this is to cut the parts and remove them one, or a few, at a time. This is probably why we don’t see the machine cutting more than 2-3 leaves.

5:17: Interestingly, I can’t find Cash Metals on the Internet anywhere. I must have Googled for 15 minutes with no luck. I even paused the video on the pages of their catalog and searched for product names, but nothing turns up.

Despite that, I believe that everything John Cash stated was accurate.

6:35: It’s really a shame that they don’t have a video library that shows how to use all the features they are demonstrating here. It would have made learning how to use the software so much easier…

9:05: Ok, this is important to note. Between the times the machine cut the sign out and Stan picked it up, it was obviously moved from a production area machine to the machine in the video.

The plasma cutting process spits out dust and smoke in copious quantities! The floor beneath the machine would be burned and filthy, and there is no ventilation system present. Finally, without gloves, Stan would not be able to pick up that metal seconds after the machine finished cutting.

Commentary
You need to be aware that any plasma cutting process, including the PlasmaCAM, puts out a ton of airborne particulate matter that requires adequate ventilation.

When I went to the PlasmaCAM headquarters outside of Denver and got a demonstration of the machine they had it in a really cool little room that had ducting which vented the machine to the outside of the building.

If you are going to get a plasma cutting machine you need to plan to put it in an area where you can blow all of the smoke and dust either outside or through an expensive air filtration system.

9:10: Here’s a link to find more info about Dan Romano. He’s a metal artist and the things he makes are close to what I do. I agree with everything he said.

Collision Waiting To Happen11:22: This is the best example in the video of what I was talking about when I said that small or unusually shaped parts would not quite fall through the grates. Notice that the piece which was just finished tilts up and is sticking up above the surface of the original material.

If the machine attempts to move over that area, which it might well do on its way to cutting something else, it will collide and screw everything up royally.

A collision of this sort will bend the piece that is sticking up, knock the torch head out of alignment, move the base material -making it difficult to line back up and restart cutting, and potentially even ruin the torch tip ($15 wasted instantly). I’ve also had the entire torch head assembly pop off the unit during one collision with thick material.

Bottom line, this is not good… the only way I can think of to solve this issue is to have a tighter mesh of grates to hold the material, but neither PlasmaCAM nor anyone else I’m aware of have yet solved this problem.

11:39: I’ve not yet tested the indexing of parts longer than 4 feet yet, mainly because I’m scared of ruining a large, expensive piece of steel. Whenever I do test it, I’ll post about it, but if anyone else has tried please provide some comments below.

Remember, you can cut things longer than 4′ but not wider than 4’! So, a 3.5’x7′ sign would work, but a 4’2″x 5′ would not. The table is a square 4’x4′.

13:21: Stan claims,

“This part is being drawn to exact dimensions in only 14 seconds.”

There is something strange with the video here, because Stan claims it’s just 14 seconds, but when I play it back it’s more like 11 seconds. This makes it seem as if the video has been time compressed.

Additionally, they would have to be typing in lengths – while creating the part – in order to make it “exact”, so I just don’t see anyone being able to go that fast.

11:15: Some people have asked about the thickness capability of the PlasmaCAM. Here we see it cutting 3/8″ thick material. Later you’ll see 1″. The thickness of cut is going to be determined by your selection of plasma torch, not the PlasmaCAM.

I use a Hypertherm 1000 which will cut at least 1″ thick material. But keep in mind that the thicker the material, the more it weighs. And you have to be able to load the sheet on the machine…

14:02: Jim LaTour from Turbo Engineering Corp provides good examples of what the machine can do. For his type of business the machine is perfect.

Conclusion
There is far more content on the DVD that I’m not going to go through. But if you are interested in seeing it, by all means contact PlasmaCAM and order the DVD. They’ll be happy to send it to you.

Now, I know this review comes across as being fairly harsh on the PlasmaCAM video, but please keep a few things in mind:

  • I own one of these machines. I love it. You can take it from me when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.
  • As a former VP of sales for a major multi-national company I think this is a fantastic marketing video. They have done a great job of emphasizing all of the strengths of this little machine.
  • Since the video is so well done I worry that people with no welding, fabrication or plasma cutting experience will be lulled into a false sense that they could actually operate this machine. Trust me… you can’t!
  • The PlasmaCAM is a serious hobbyist level machine that will perform admirably for people who are comfortable with computers, know how to use graphic design programs or AutoCAD, and have general fabrication experience.

Frankly, there is a short list that will let you know if a PlasmaCAM is right for you:

  1. Do you have space restrictions? If so, this is one of the smallest machines you can get.
  2. Do you have a forklift handy? If not, this machine is one of the only ones you can actually unload, build and move yourself (~300 lbs.)
  3. Do you need something reliable and simple to operate? With a little practice the PlasmaCAM becomes second nature.
  4. Do you want to wait 2-3 months to get a machine? My PlasmaCAM shipped one day after ordering. Other machines I was considering would have taken months to deliver after I paid for them.

I hope that this information was useful. If so, please drop me a comment below to let me know. :-)

Article Written by
John P.

John P. is CEO of Livid Lobster and co-host of Geek Beat TV. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Comments

  1. Steve says:

    Years ago after seeing PlasmaCam ad in a magazine, I thought what a great machine. I sent for the intro package including video and it looked so easy. Well, I saved for three years to purchase this machine.
    Like you have said. The delivery and setup was fast and simple.
    Now here’s where I wish I had seen your blog. I have absolutely no CNC experience and not really an expert on the computer. I have been working with the tutorials for a week and not getting much out of it.
    If I spend a lot of time I can get through their test samples but would not be able to remember all to design my own projects.
    The video that they sent made it look so simple.
    I’m 73 yrs old and my memory isnt worth a dime. My question is, can I make this machine work for me? My learning ability at this age is not so good. Going to school to learn CNC would not be an option.
    If I purchase one of their already made software programs would that be a ready to cut option? Its got to be simple otherwise this machine was a dumb move for me.
    Thanks for any assistance or recommendations, etc.

    • John P. says:

      Steve,

      I don’t think your age has anything to do with the problems you are experiencing. The same things happen to people who are 20, 40, 50… the problem is experience.

      Even if you purchase premade designs, that isn’t going to help a lot because you need to be able to manipulate them. Resize them, move them around on the table, etc. Plus, you need to have plasma torch experience. Because you are going to be having issues with the torch that are normal cutting issues having nothing to do with CNC. On top of that, you need to understand how your compressor affects the torch, and other things.

      I can’t answer for you whether or not you should keep the machine. Its a good machine, just complicated to use. If you are willing to get help and really stick with it, you could master it. But its going to be an exercise in frustration no matter what. These machines always are.

      Good luck,

      John P.

    • James says:

      If you have the machine still and want to get rid of it I am looking to be able to get one soon.

  2. Ed says:

    I see the original post is older with newer comments so I wonder if there has been any update to the parallel port option. From the DVD for Plasmacam I see it offers Windows 7 compatibility so at least some newer porting appears to have been done.

  3. Fred Lasch says:

    Two years of Auto Cad (1995) years as a carpenter and hobbie welding both gas and electric. So I guess I can handle the machine. Although it sounds like it needs a space of its own, like a paint booth. Space is limited without a building permit and money. Very, very, very helpful. Thank you, Thank you. Maybe I will ride my bicycle a little bit more. A age 68 I should go to Florida.

  4. mark says:

    Is there any one out there that will write cutting programs for the plasmacam?
    Mark

  5. Mark says:

    I have a plasmacam and get alot of slag, I have tried turning up the speed but does not seem to help . Can someone tell me what is a good air dryer to use?
    Thanks

    • John P. says:

      Even the little Harbor Freight air dryer should be sufficient if you are looking to add one. But one of the other important considerations is making sure that you have sufficient piping for the air to cool when coming out of the compressor. You should have a minimum of 25′ of pipe before you hit a water separator or air dryer. That gives the air time to cool down so the air can drop out.

      Having said that, I’ve run my air straight into the torch 5 feet away and never had slag like you are describing. It might be time for a new torch tip.

  6. eric says:

    i agree wih the author.a plasmacam is awsome, but if u dont have any fabrication skills or basic CAD kowledge u might have a tough of time of it.

  7. jim says:

    hi, I am considering purchasing a plasmacam or torchmate for my business. I don’t want to buy a piece of junk or something that is more headaches then what its worth, what do you recommend?

  8. steve snow says:

    I have read everything you have said and could’nt agree more. One of the biggest problems I have with my machine is maintaining height control which is supposed to sense the set height when lifting and re-setting between cuts. sometimes it works ,sometimes not so much. It will move down and contact the metal and push the handle up in the holder which throws off the height of the cut. Another problem I have is warping of the metal when doing alot of cuts on a large project of thinner metal.any suggestions on either of these problems? thanks,Steve

    • Kevin says:

      If you can you may consider laying out sections of copper plate 1/4 inch thick or so and moving them around as needed . ( bigger the better ) There weight will help but mostly the copper will absorb the heat faster than steel and help prevent warp age by dispersion especially stainless. And the copper will not warp.
      Add some moving air under the table to draw the heat.
      Program a pause between cuts.
      Hope this helps.

    • Kevin says:

      Really this picture shows up .
      Also start the next cut the far side from the old cut and work toward the old cut

    • eric says:

      increase your speed and space your pierce points out from one area to another , it alows the steel to cool .if youhave problems with heighth sensing, double check your grounding to the table (and the part} .. may be adjust your arc volyage down,( 1.3 or less) or make sure that u have the right material thickness entered in the system settings. if u see any slag on the back side that you cant wire brush off youre probably going to slow

  9. Daniel says:

    Hi I would like to buy a PlasmaCam, but I am a little concern about the life time. Is anyone able to tell me the life time, or the fiability of this machine regarding of a 15 hours a week duty?

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