We're not sure who or what this tool ends up targeting, but Dr. Alec Rivers. MIT students, have developed a self-correcting router that can make intricate cuts to preset paths with only loose guidance by the hand. The system is actually quite compact and uses a computer to guide the router along its path. All you need to do is keep the mechanism within approximate limits. This really begs the question: when will this be available for vehicles…but I digress…
The system uses an integrated camera to show the path to cut, and there are motors that "float" the mechanism to perfectly line up with the cutting path using the motors. Rivers calls is a "utility GPS" – that's a good way to describe it.
What may not appeal to a professional woodworker is the fact that instead of looking carefully at the wood you are cutting, you can focus on the LCD display, making sure you stay within the system's correction tolerances (denoted as a circle/target through the center of the screen ). If you keep the center point on the cutting path, the system does the rest – you can really see in the video that the router moves within the mechanism, staying perfectly on the complex cutting path (in this In this case, a map of the United States).
The current clearance – tolerance – for self-guiding routers is 1/4". That's pretty generous. Stay within that tolerance and the motors will guide the bits where they need to be. Now, (for us ) Where this seems a bit shady is how it intersects with the idea of cheap CNC machines. It's one thing to put down a router and use it to round or chamfer the edge of a piece of wood, but carefully carving out a pattern starts coming into the design areas of expertise, including craft work, sign making, etc. A traditional woodworker might not be interested and excited about such a design. One, because it actually involves more work (setting up the design in the computer), and two , because it takes art out of the equation and replaces it with a stiff, useless pattern cut. This video uses what looks like a DeWalt DWP611PK compact router to demonstrate the system.
Having said that, we can think of plenty of uses for self-guiding routers in commercial shops where repeat cutting is critical to throughput and productivity. The difference, of course, is that while the system provides excellent control, you still have to look after it—unlike a programmable CNC machine. That's where we'll just have to wait and see. The desired application and target market will largely determine the success of the tool.
One area where we think it's well suited is for applications where the system needs to be critically cut or engineered in an "off-site" location. CNC machines are hardly portable, and hand cutting precise cuts to one-off positions could really benefit from such a system.