Solving Roland MDX15/20 serial interface problems once and for all.

Description

I built a serial proxy to solve the communication issues preventing the mill to work with modern computers. An Arduino mini is used to translate a 19200 serial connection using XON/XOFF (software flow control) to a 9600 CTS (hardware flow control) accepted by the mill.

The mechanics is still good in this 19 year old mill, but the serial interface won´t work with modern computers. Before adding a serial proxy that is ;)

Features

  • Arduino mini used as serial proxy between the PC and the mill.
  • Translates 19200 software flow control to 9600 hardware flow control.
  • Solves all communication and driver issues that rendered the mill useless.
  • Powered by the USB to serial adapter

Development

The Roland MDX mill is a great hobby CNC mill perfect for milling PCBs and small prototypes. I have previously upgraded the mill by adding USB connection instead of the serial interface. It worked with special drivers on previous Windows installations but on Windows 10 it’s impossible to get it up and running. After some debugging, I realized that the timing of the hardware flow control is the critical problem where modern computers and USB2serial adapters are simply too fast for the mill. Another problem is that hardware flow control (CTS/DTS) is not available on most USB to serial adapters.

I considered replacing the printers control card, to directly communicate with the motors using a modern 3d printer controller, but then I would have to rewrite the hole infrastructure of programs that I am using for the mill. When I realized that this was a dead end, I spent way too much time trying to connect the mill to different versions of Raspberry pies with hardware flow control available (this was when I realized that the timing is the problem and the pi is also too fast for the printer).

I tried using a Raspberry pi as a proxy (it has hw flow control, but needs quite a lot of configuration).

Instead I solved the problem in a much easier way – using an Arduino as a serial proxy translating the communication between the PC and the printer, bit banging the hardware flow control in a speed that the printer accepts. With this approach I could also use software flow control to the PC. A small buffer is used to avoid timing issues and since the software flow control uses some extra bytes, I increased the baud rate to the PC.

https://vonkonow.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/20190424_180750.mp4
Prototype test showing that using an Arduino as serial proxy works great!

Since I already had a USB to serial adapter in the mill, I used an Arduino mini (5v version). The Arduino nano would have been used otherwise since it has the USB to serial interface integrated.

Arduino mini added between the USB2TTL adaptor and the mill circuit board.

After the fix, I have used the mill to create PCBs. I used my html based post processor and the resulting files was sent to the mill using putty, configured for software flow control and 19200 baud rate. It works like a charm!

Example of PCB milled with the serial proxy.

Program

The Arduino program is quite simple, the serial buffer is monitored and allows more data from the PC (XON) when it contains less than 8 bytes. When the buffer reaches 16 bytes XOFF is sent to pause communication. On the mill side byte by byte is transferred to a soft serial port and the hardware flow control CTS signal is monitored to control the communication.

One LED indicates data in buffer and one LED indicates that the mill has halted communication using CTS.

None of my programs on the PC listens to the mill, so the software RX port is not used (but could easily be added if needed).

I also added optional switches that can transfer pre-recorded commands to the mill. This is great for calibration, where different keys can be used to move the mill to 0,0,0 or 1,1,0 without using the PC.

Assembly

Since I already had the USB to serial adapter in place, I simply cut the wires and added the Arduino mini in between. In this post you can find how to connect the serial interface directly to the mill (you need to lift the TX pin on the DS14C238 IC and connect directly to the pad)

  • VCC is connected to VCC on the serial adapter (powered by the USB cable)
  • GND is connected to both the serial adapter and the mill.
  • Pin 0 – RXD is connected to the serial adapter to the PC
  • Pin 1 – TXD is connected to the serial adapter to the PC
  • Pin 10 – RX can be connected to the mill, but is not used in the software.
  • Pin 11 – TX is connected to the mill.
  • Pin 2 – CTS is connected to the mill CTS
  • Pin 12 is connected to a LED in series with a 1k resistor to GND
  • Pin 13 is already connected to the on-board LED on the mini.
  • Pin 3-7 can be connected to switches to GND for pre-recorded commands (optional)
  • DTR is connected to the serial adapter to allow Arduino programming from the Arduino development tools without the need for a special adapter.

Bill of Materials (BOM)

  • 1x Arduino mini
  • 1x USB to serial adapter
  • Some wires
  • 5x switches (optional)

Licensing

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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