ESP32 Grbl Controller Breadboard Prototype

An ESP32 plus Grbl motion control software seems like a good candidate for running an old industrial XY table, definitely promising enough to move forward with prototyping. I had originally intended to use an Olimex ESP32 DevKitC, as it was equipped with two rows of sockets. This is easy to connect with jumper wires while not leave pins exposed to risk of short circuits.

This plan was short lived, because I quickly ran into a problem: The ATmega at the heart of an Arduino is a beefy 5V part that can supply up to 40 mA per pin. In contrast, the ESP32 is rather delicate 3.3V part that should not exceed 12 mA per pin. The data sheet for the ZETA4 controller I want to connect to this board expects a minimum of 3.5V to signal step and direction, which means I need external components to shift the ESP32 voltage level up to what the ZETA4 expects. When I made this discovery I was momentarily tempted to switch back to an ATmega solution, but the siren call of higher performance carried me forward.

Since I would need external components, the project brain switched to my HiLetgo ESP32 development board which is mostly identical but came equipped with two rows of pins appropriate for a breadboard. Four level-shifting units were installed, each built around a 2N2222A transistor. They were connected to the step and direction pins for X and Y axis, and each received a LED (and corresponding current-limiting resistor) to indicate activity.

Staying consistent with the system I used for Glow Flow, red LEDs indicate X axis activity and green LEDs indicate Y. These LEDs allowed me to perform a quick test to verify the presence of blinking activity. Next step: connected them to ZETA4 controller to see if the motors move as commanded.

Evaluate Grbl For XY Stage

I considered driving an old industrial XY table from a 3D printer controller board. I have a Melzi board on hand to use but its onboard stepper drivers were too well integrated to be easily adapted to this project. I considered running Marlin on an Arduino directly, but if I’m going to start building my own control board instead of one already tailored for Marlin, it makes sense to look at other options. Given the popularity of the Arduino platform, there’s more than one motion control project out there for me to consider.

Enter Grbl.

Unlike Marlin, which is primarily focused on 3D printing, Grbl offers a more generalized motion control platform. Provisions already in the code include pen plotting, laser cutting, and 3-axis CNC milling. All of which could be done with Marlin as well, but with different amount of code modifications necessary.

But an even bigger advantage in favor of Grbl is the existence of an ESP32 port. Marlin’s development team is working on a 32-bit hardware abstraction layer (HAL) to take it beyond ATmega chips. It looks like they’re up and running ARM Cortex boards and have ambition to bring it to ESP32. But a Grbl ESP32 port is available today and stable enough for people to use in their projects.

The headline feature is, of course, speed. While AccelStepper topped out around 4 kHz pulses, Grbl on ATmega is good for approximately 30 kHz. Grbl on ESP32 claims “at least 4x the step rates” which is likely a very conservative claim. After all, we’re comparing an 8 MHz 8-bit chip to a 240 MHz 32-bit chip. Though running on the ESP32 does incur more overhead than bare-metal code running on an ATmega, which is important in time-sensitive applications like motion control.

There are upsides for this real time operating system (FreeRTOS) overhead, as it allows the ESP32 to handle things beyond motion control. The best part employs its WiFi module to present a web-based control interface. A control interface would have required additional hardware in a Grbl machine built around an ATmega, but with Grbl on ESP32 I just need a web browser to start testing.

And since I already have an ESP32 development board on hand, this looks like a great venue to explore. Let’s try running this XY stage with an ESP32 running Grbl.

Evaluate Retired Melzi Board for XY Stage

In an effort to put a salvaged industrial XY table back to work, the Arduino AccelStepper was used as a quick test to see if the motors and controllers still respond to input signals. Things moved, which is a good sign, but the high precision of the Parker ZETA4 controller demanded step pulses at a far higher frequency than what AccelStepper could deliver.

The search then moved on to something that could generate the pulses required. I’m confident the hardware is capable of more, as AccelStepper topped out at less than 5 kHz signal on a 8 MHz chip. Pulsing a pin isn’t a task that requires over 1,000 instruction cycles. Given familiarity with the 3D printer world, I started looking at Marlin which runs on Arduino hardware.

The problem with running Marlin on my Arduino Nano is that I would have none of the associated accessories. No control panel, no SD reader, etc. However, I do have a full control board retired from one of my 3D printers. This board called itself a Melzi Ardentissimo and a search led to the Melzi page of RepRap wiki. Thanks to the open nature of this design, I could trace through its PCB layout. Much to my disappointment, the step and direction signals connected straight from the tiny pin on the main processor to the motor driver without surfacing in an easily tapped fashion. The intent of this board is integration and it’ll be quite some work to defeat that intent in order to decouple the processor from its integrated stepper driver.

Fortunately, I’m not limited to the world of AVR ATmega chips, nor Marlin software. There’s another very capable processor on hand waiting for such project… an ESP32 running Grbl software.

Arduino AccelStepper Under The Scope

The standard Arduino library includes a stepper motor control library. The external AccelStepper library adds the capability for acceleration and deceleration curves. I thought that would be important for driving industrial equipment as the large pieces of metal impart far more momentum than what I’m familiar with in a 3D printer.

As it turns out, I was worrying about the wrong thing. I connected my bargain oscilloscope to the output pins of my (knockoff) Arduino Nano and watched the pulses go by as I issue different commands to AccelStepper. As I issued commands for faster and faster speeds, I could see those pulses come closer and closer together until they were almost but not quite 0.2 ms apart. Running a test program in a tight loop, an Arduino running AccelStepper is indeed failing to reach 5 kHz pulse speed.

A little web search indicated this is roughly comparable to what others are saying online. AccelStepper is good for roughly 3-4 kHz and things get dicey beyond that. For the ZETA4 controller, configured to 25,000 microsteps per revolution, this is simply not fast enough to get decent speed out of the box.

How does this happen? Further web search indicated this is because all the timing for AccelStepper is done in software. Perhaps for the goal of leaving the very precious hardware timer resources for other user programs? That’s merely speculation of the design decisions involved. But one thing is certain – AccelStepper limits meant it is not sufficient for generating high frequency pulses required to drive this particular salvaged XY motion control table. I’ll have to look at something more specific for motion control, possibly a 3D printer control board.

Old Industrial XY Stage Moves Again On Arduino AccelStepper

A decades-old piece of industrial equipment has failed and been retired, but its motion control table was still good and salvaged for a potential future project. It is a far cry from the kind of motion control equipment I see on a hobbyist 3D printer. Much more rigid chassis, more precise linear guides, finer pitch thread, far beefier motor, under the command of a much more capable control box. One example: the A4988 stepper motor popular in 3D printers features the capability to generate up to 16 microsteps in between whole steps of a stepper motor. In contrast this Parker ZETA4 unit features up to 255 microsteps.

Pulling from the electronic hobbyist world, I set up my Arduino to run the AccelStepper library generating stepper motor direction and pulse signals. It was connected to one axis of the XY stage for the first test. It was exciting when the motor started turning, but it was very very loud! I doubted it was supposed to sound like that. A bit of examination found two problems: the ZETA4 was configured to take whole steps — no microsteps — which is always noisy. And I amplified this mistake by accidentally choosing a speed that caused a resonance.

Once the ZETA4 was configured to its default of 125 microsteps, things were much quieter and smoother. It also slowed down significantly, because each pulse on the step pin moved 1/125 as far as it did before. (And a full revolution of the motor was only 200 steps.) The obvious answer was to increase frequency of those pulses, but I seemed to top out at around 5,000 pulses per second. This surprised me: The ATmega328 chip on board an Arduino is running at 8MHz. I would have expected it to easily generate pulses faster than 5 kHz. Time to put this guy under the oscilloscope and see what we see.

New Project: XY Stage

The next project seizes upon the opportunity to work with a piece of industrial equipment whose price tag is far too high for me to justify spending on a hobbyist project. It is a combination of two linear stages bolted together at right angles to each other, allowing precise motion control along two axis. A configuration like this usually ends up handling the X and Y axis, so I’m going to call this the XY Stage project.

It formerly controlled the movement in some sort of inspection machine. The machine is decades old and, when the ancient DOS PC running everything died, the machine was retired rather than repaired. The old computer, associated software, and camera system were not interesting: the world has long since moved beyond their capabilities. The XY stage, however, is still perfectly functional and was salvaged for potential use in a project. Its capabilities has not been entirely outdistanced by its modern counterparts.

The control logic entry point for the system are these Parker ZETA4 Drive Compumotor modules. The design has long since been retired. However, machines built on them are still running and there’s still a market for those modules. Available new for around two thousand US dollars, they are also available used for several hundred dollars. On the side of this module is an imposing looking chart detailing all the ways it can be configured. But if we can temporarily set them aside, we see the method of control are two pins: one for direction, and another for step.

ZETA4 step dir

That makes it a lot less intimidating! Control protocol for this big box is basically the same as the A4988 stepper motor driver boards popular in hobbyist 3D printers. From a system architecture perspective, this is “merely” a larger, more expensive, more durable, more precise, and more powerful cousin to the little fingernail-sized circuit boards in my 3D printer control box. It is completely within our capabilities to command such a device.

I don’t know what we might be able to do with a XY stage, but I know it is too good to be gathering dust. I want to see if I can get it to do my bidding, and once I have a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, I’m confident a suitable project will arise.