Buying something new can be confusing. This is especially the case when we’re talking about technology as it often moves forward at a break-neck pace. Luckily for us all the core “value added” behind SWI’s CNC offerings hasn’t changed too much over the years. For those of you out there looking to pick up a used ProtoTRAK this is a great thing as it equates to a ton of bang-for-the-buck in the older products.
The goal of this piece is to highlight major differences between models to simplify your used ProtoTRAK experience. Such highlights are underlined. The following is by no means a complete list of every feature or change over the years, and some deviations in software or hardware among models are bound to be out there, so please keep that in mind as you read on. When in doubt ask about a specific feature or CNC ability.
FYI: The service/support section of the manufacture’s website links to additional support material for each model.
A short history of ProtoTRAK CNC mill controls…
The MX series of ProtoTRAK cnc was in my opinion SWI’s first launch into a “modern” CNC control. The MX featured a gold colored CRT screen that displayed numerical as well as graphical illustrations in a straightforward easy-to-use interface. MX2 vs. MX3? MX2 = 2 Axis, MX3 = 3axis. This control was sold attached to TRAK brand knee mills, bed mills, as well sold in a retro-fit form. You’ll often see this CNC retrofitted on Laguns and Bridegports. Even by today’s standards it’s still a very capable user-friendly cnc control. It’s still fully supported by the factory with quickly shipped repair parts.
CNC interface at first glance: Hard push keys sealed behind an environment proof overlay allowed the user to easily navigate between control menus, input programming data, and to alter the function of the machine while machining. Layout was simple and clean. A push button RSG switch on a wire cord was an available option which enabled instant Stop-Go while in the machining run mode. The CNC menu interface is near identical after the MX, all the way to the current SMX series CNC. All programming was conversational in nature and done in a graphical ‘geometry-based’ fashion meaning, programming was now done with a ‘this is what I want to make’ thought process vs. the older ‘follow this tool-path Mr tool’ mentality like on G-Code based controls (even those of today). You simply answered simple questions to define your part geometry and tooling. This made for very straightforward programming and therefore pretty darn easy for non-technical users; anyone can learn it.
The CNC can be used manually if desired …with easy DRO, jog, power-feed, and do-one event ability. Programming itself was done easily at the control with ‘canned’ routines for: mills, arcs, pockets, frames, drilling, and circular bolt pattern events (plus drill, bore and helix on 3xis). Using additional mirror, rotate, repeat and copy routines then unlocked the ability to produce a seeming endless pattern of holes and or cutting events. A math assist feature was also available to help calculate needed program data, if it was missing on a CAD print-out for example. After programming the user could display a visual illustration of the part outline or run a visual toolpath simulation (the 3 axis was displayed in 3D or 2D)… this was in addition to running a quick trial run. Tool setup was simple, just enter cutter/drill diameter and touching off the Z heights on the 3 Axis.
Getting a bit more technical, the MX allowed for CAM program importing via floppy or RS232, as well as a DNC interface accessory box if your CAM files got large. The MX3 could run a rotary indexer, coolant or mister via the optional “auxiliary functions”. Like all subsequent ProtoTRAK models, the 3-Axis version could be run in 2-Axis mode if desired for your simpler parts. The MX featured dual feedback for positional accuracy; 1 via the DC servo motor itself, and a 2nd via SWI roller wheelie encoders (or optional precision glass scales). A nice feature of dual feedback was the ability for the machine to auto-compensate for wear and tear via the ‘auto backlash’ service code. Three service codes were all you ever needed to know to keep your machine cutting accurate parts; code 123 – to calibrate, code 12 – gib/table friction, and code 11 – backlash. Easy service!
Programs were stored on a single density 1.44″ floppy drive which also stored the MX program software. Even with this single shared disk limitation, a user could store numerous detailed programs without an issue. The control ran on 110V making it great for smaller shops without 3 phase, like in your garage work shop.
The advent of Auto Geometry Engine (AGE) brought us a few more added features and a slightly more robust computing system. Not that in practicality it made for a big performance difference, but the best part was the addition of dual density 1.44″ disks and the separation of programming and CNC software disks. Now programs were on their own diskette and those disks were ~2X in storage size, so it was easy to swap programs bigger programs on these larger disks without a worry of damaging CNC software while doing so. CAM machine code anyone!
Changes to the control: Visually near identical. Identical pad layout, same gold CRT screen, and menus for the interface worked similar. But, there was a new button named “LOOK” that allowed the user to instantly toggle between the program mode interface and a graphical illustration of what he was programming; very convenient. And a built-in “AGE” software feature was added that would automatically calculate missing geometry data if not entered by the user, also very convenient. “Teach” was new, so now you could move the control manually around to points on a cardboard bracket mock-up for example (without having to create part drawings or take measurements), then have it cut the part in aluminum when you ran the CNC; pretty neat feature for quick fab work. “AGE profile” was new which allowed a user to more easily program in a seamless chain of mill and arc events. Also the ability to do irregular pockets was added; previous were limited as uniform circles, rectangles and 3-4 sided uniform polygons. Tool setup on the AGE3 was now done with offsets and a single reference tool making tool setup even easier. All things considered the AGE offered some improved functionality but by no means obsoleted the MX line.
[... and then along came a factory spinoff called the M series: M2 & M3. Which is essentially a re-badged AGE sold occasionally sold factory direct around dealers such as we were at the time (thanks SWI). Screen is white vs gold but a very similar CNC otherwise.]
Let there be color! The SM was a tech jump forward in hardware & software. It merged the computer and monitor into a single compact unit with modern hardware inside, had a larger color LCD flat screen, and ran on the windows platform which allowed for LAN networking with other desktop computers via a standard internet connector. It had a 1.44 floppy drive for backward compatibility with older MX AGE programs, but now stored files locally on a flash memory hard disk drive. Programming was very similar despite the new button layout and visual feel of the CNC; canned event ability was largely unchanged. New features like “spreadsheet editing” simplified working with long lists of tools and or programs that contained a large number of events. A PC based software option “DXF converter” now also became available which made importing complicated 2D tool paths simpler. All and all it was a nice performance upgrade with a few programming conveniences added.
And along came a less sophisticated ‘budget’ prototrak cnc. The edge was by no means junk, it was just a simpler CNC than the SM product. Less programming features, less processing power, less screen size, and all for less money. For those on the fence looking at a DRO for their mill, Edge was a serious alternative worth heavy consideration. As a rough estimate I’d say it was about 70-80% of what the SM offered. But at the end of the day it was still pretty powerful and easy to use like all prototraks are.
To be continued…
Part 2 – ProtoTRAK CNC Lathe Controls