iModela, Roland's $1000 hobbyist CNC milling machine

We've covered the iModela, Roland's $1000 hobbyist CNC milling machine over at MAKE, but here's a new photo showing some of the things you can make with it. A milling machine is sort of the opposite of a 3D printer, because it carves away material from a piece of stock, while a 3D printer adds material.

I think home-based 3D printing is not yet ready for prime time, because the spatial resolution of the things you can make with 3D printers is not that great. It will get better in the coming years. But the output from this milling machine looks great (as far as I can tell from the photos).

[Video Link]



  1. Yeah, I’m seriously thinking of getting this. I know the obvious criticism is “this is just an automated milling machine and not a 3D printer”, but maybe at this point a milling machine is more practical. 

  2. Looks like this requires LOTS of final, skilled hand work: assembling, sanding, priming, sanding, then finish coats of paint.

    I was amazed, however, at my dentist’s office last week, when he milled a finished permanent replacement crown on his slick CNC machine while I watched– no finish work needed. In my mouth and out the door in one visit!

    1. The kind of 3d milling available to the average dentist… man, that shit was magic just 10 years ago even in a large mold shop.

    1. That’s a great idea! The bigger modelas (not sure about this) consider the motor a wear-out part, so it’s replaceable easily. Mine also came with a scanner attachment to build 3d-models of physical things (basically a long pin that it would drag over your object) … so it’s modular a bit already.

  3. Haha, that’s cute. My company actually makes the endmills and drills a full-size milling machine would use. It’s funny seeing one that small.

  4. I’ve owned a benchtop CNC milling machine for over a decade and use it for making master models for jewelry and accessories. The jewelry industry has adopted both milling and 3D printing technologies,  and while the iModela would be considered a training level device,  you certainly could make some wonderful things with it depending upon the software used to produce the necessary G code. 

  5. If you’re going to spend that kind of money you can get a ton more capacity and speed from a Taig CNC milling machine starting at around $1700.  It’ll happily cut many more materials, including steel.

    The Roland machine is a tiny, insanely slow, flimsy toy in comparison.   Yes you will have to do your own CAM (my favorite is VCarve Pro or MeshCAM, depending on the job) but you’d probably outgrow the included software with the Roland very quickly anyway.

    1. Second on the Taig.  The deepgroove price isn’t bad, but you can probably save some money by building your own.  Pretty straight forward when you start from the 2019CR mill ($1100).
      You’ll need to buy stepper motors, a stepper controller (Gecko works great), and wire it all together.  We control it with an old laptop running Ubuntu with LinuxCNC (much prettier than Mach3).

      After that, you can spend tons of money on cutting tools, vises and fixturing, and other tools to support your garage shop…

    2. I’ve been thinking of buying an iModela, and one thing I’ve seen a lot of is comments along the line of “It’s small and limited – look at the X or Y desktop CNC machines instead, which are much more versatile”.  Of course, you’re right, there are more versatile machines out there – they’ll mill a wider range of materials from larger blocks, faster.

      Then I look at the prices.  In the UK the iModela is £600, and the competing desktop CNC equipment is £1,500 or more.  I could save money by building one of the homebrew CNC kits, but then I’d end up with a hideously ugly thing bigger than the desk it’s supposed to sit on which doesn’t quite work because I mucked up an essential step half-way through the build.

      It’s big enough for me, it’s cheap enough for me and dammit, I’m going to buy one.

      (Although if anyone can suggest a more versatile alternative for £1,000 or less in the UK I’m all ears.)

  6. 1st world solution to a 3rd world problem.  $1,000 to create a $0.10 widget? I don’t think so.

    1. 1st world response to a 1st world solution. My employer is currently getting rich from the profit margin on 10¢ widgets.

  7. I love my Modela MDX-20 … I originally bought it for a specific project, but once that was done I used it to make custom chocolate molds for friends!

  8. Awkward price/performance point. Systems that will work over a much larger surface are available in the $2500 price range, from woodworking catalogs.  Conversely, homebrew is quite possible, though of course that requires that you do a great deal more of your own programming to drive it and you’re unlikely to optimize the paths as well as a pro will.

    At half that price, I might be interested. Or same price but scaled up.  As ’tis…

  9. BTW, I detest their audio track. The telephone-like noises make me worry that I’m missing a call, and the completely irrelevant keyboard clacks are simply distracting. I can understand why their marketing folks thought it was cute and appropriate, but … No. Definitely not.

  10. I have this thing’s larger cousin, the MDX-20, and I get a fair amount of use out of it.  I know now that I could have gotten more machine for less money elsewhere, but it’s not a bad package.  I’ve upgraded the spindle motor on mine and made a couple of other improvements, and I can produce very detailed parts in brass and aluminum. Not quickly, but it works.

    I love the idea of 3D printing, but for functional parts I feel like a milling machine gives you much better results for any geometry it’s capable of producing. You can work with a much greater variety of materials and produce a better surface finish.

    My biggest complaints about the MDX-20 are the difficulty in changing tools while keeping the proper Z axis setting, and the fact that the stock machine doesn’t give you any easy way to hold down your work aside from double-sided tape.

    Making double-sided parts can be troublesome, and there’s a surprising amount of stuff to learn about how tool geometry affects what you can and can’t fabricate.

    The machine is also handy for engraving work (I handed out dozens of brass medallions at Burning Man engraved with a map of the city that cost me almost nothing to produce) and to some extent PCB fabrication. Mine does most of its real work customizing plastic end panels and enclosures for small runs of electronic devices.

  11. Most of the things seen in the photo (next to the iModela) can be made by hand with a little bit of patience and some basic hand tools. Buy yourself a block of Balsa wood, plastic, clay or foam and some simple carving and modeling tools and have at it. Sand it, paint it, polish it… Whatever…. Done.

    Want to make duplicates? Buy some rubber mold compound a d make a mold. Cast your pieces from one of the many materials available.

    My two cents….

    1.  Oh, I’m sure they can be for those with substantial artistic talent. All you need a chisel and some stone, really — Michelangelo managed with that, after all. But for for the rest of us this sort of thing (if not precisely this model, given the speed and other drawbacks mentioned by others) would allow people who are better at designing things in software than working with our hands a chance.

  12. When I was a child I got something called a Vac-u-form one Xmas, and made stuff like that. It was hideously fun and would never get anywhere near the marketplace today. It was a kind of manual injection molding device, and made evil fumes that were somehow delightful to the 8 year old nose. Damned thing was one of my favorite toys, ever.

  13. In my experience the biggest hurdle with any milling machine is the software to generate the tool paths.  Having lived with one of the more active contributors of code for the EMC2 project, and always having these, “It would be great if…” ideas that were often shot down because we didn’t own $20,000 or $30,000 worth of solid-modeling software and toolpath generators, I know from experience.  There’s a Mori-Seiki “Junior” (which weighs several tons) sitting in our personal shop, and we had a 4-axis “Max” desktop milling machine as well.  If you wanted to make fairly simple geometric things with lots of precisely cut openings and precisely drilled and tapped holes out of aluminum or steel or wood or whatever, the “Junior” could go all day using AutoCAD output.  But if you wanted to mill one of the flowing, organic shapes like many of those in the photo above, good luck.  It wasn’t a machine or controller limitation; it was toolpath generation software limitation.  I sort of imagine the same is true of RepRap-type machines.  If you have the toolpath software, though, a milling machine with a reprap extruder mounted next to the chuck would have some serious possibilities.  You could “rough out” an object with the extruder and then go back and mill it to the final shape, saving a huge amount of material and extending milling cutter life tremendously.  In real estate, it may be “location, location, location,” but in CNC milling, it’s “toolpath, toolpath, toolpath”…

  14.  I’ve never run into a machinable shape that the Modela software wouldn’t generate a toolpath for, but it’s certainly not as efficient as it could be.

  15. The case almost has the same color palette as the Roland TR-909 drum machine.   For that alone, I like it.

  16. Apples first laser printer the “Laserwriter” sold for $7500 back in 1985 when it first came out (3 times the cost of the Mac you needed to drive it), and it only printed 300dpi at 8 pages/minute. It was widely criticized by typesetters for having too low resolution and limited selection of fonts. In spite of that it (along with Pagemaker and the Mac) created the whole industry of desktop publishing, and basically decimated the typesetting industry.

    I think we are in a similar place now with low end 3d printing and home CNC machines, in that the output of these is not the same as the professionally output products we are used to.  I imagine between revised expectations and improved devices we will see home fabricators become quite popular within a couple of years, perhaps sooner if there is some kind of killer app like desktop publishing that develops.

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