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Adding a CNC Router to Your Shop

Amanda McGrory-Dixon is a Denver-based freelance writer. 

For a sign shop that’s ready to add dimensional signage capabilities to its business, a  powerful,  versatile CNC router is just what it needs. Offering dimensional signage allows shops to pursue more customized jobs that come with a solid profit margin, and CNC routers are the most efficient way to fabricate these signs.

However, CNC routers offer so many features that a sign shop that hasn’t previously owned this equipment could be overwhelmed by its choices. Before jumping into the sales process, understanding the available options can help put a sign shop on the right path.

Top Considerations

To start, Cody Smith, sales manager of CAMaster, a CNC router manufacturer, recommends sign shops examine their available power in their shop and the size of machine needed. In terms of power, many sign shops are typically located in commercial areas where three-phase power isn’t available. Instead, single-phase power is the only option. Although some sign shops overlook the type of power they have available, this is important because some machines require three-phase power while others are compatible with single phase.

While a sign shop could use a converter to go from single-phase to three-phase power, it typically is expensive and inefficient. Smith generally doesn’t recommend converters unless it’s necessary. As far as space goes, this comes down to determining the size of material the sign shop plans to cut, Smith says. This is especially important for sign shops that are new to dimensional work. Take a print service provider, for instance. That type of shop may have never needed to order plywood or acrylic, so they may not realize that those substrates commonly come in 4’ x 8’ sheets. With available space being a common issue, that print service provider should make sure it can accommodate a CNC router that can handle substrates of that size.

Picking the Right Router

When considering new equipment, many sign shops tend to look at their current output, but that can be short-sighted if growth is on the mind, says Brent Allard, sales manager for Industrial CNC, a manufacturer of industrial- strength CNC routers. These shops may start with a hobby-class machine with a lightweight frame, but that machine won’t have the capacity to handle many signage jobs and could quickly wear out. Instead, Allard recommends opting for a heavy machine with a steel frame, which can better handle signage applications. If the CNC router isn’t sturdy enough for the application, it can physically move around its space.

“A lot of times the dollar difference between a hobby-class and industrial router isn’t that significant,” Allard says. “You don’t want to find out down the road that you could’ve had twice the machine for the same amount of money.”

What to Look for in Training

On top of finding the right type of CNC router, a sign shop should also consider the level of training and service. This is especially true for a shop new to the application, says Robert Marshall, vice president of marketing for AXYZ International, a manufacturer of CNC router systems and CNC knife systems.

With CNC routers, there are so many variables that a sign shop should anticipate facing a learning curve if it’s new to the application. Marshall suggests partnering with a CNC router manufacturer or supplier that offers robust training as well as access to a hotline in case any problems should arise.

“CNC routers are not difficult to use and can be learned very quickly,” Marshall says. “What takes longer is understanding how to process all the different types of materials. For example, what tool do you use? How fast do you cut? How deep do you cut? This type of application training is best provided by the machine supplier. Do not skimp on training—it will pay for itself many times over.”

Popular CNC Router Features

Of course, picking a CNC router with the right features is an important step in finding a unit that can help your shop grow and work more efficiently. In Smith’s view, a vacuum hold-down system is one of the key features a sign shop should consider.

“A vacuum hold-down is probably one of the most valuable features because it enables the table itself to hold the material in place, so you can cut it as quickly and efficiently as possible in lieu of having to use double-sided tape or clamps,” Smith says. “This gives sign shops the most consistency and efficiency in their workflow.”

CNC routers are also available with specialty bits, Allard says. These specialty bits allow a sign shop to create different effects, such as embossing and beveled edges, for an upscale look. By adding this kind of customization, sign shops can use this as an opportunity to upsell their product line.

“If you were cutting a carved sign, you could have simple raised lettering, but if you add a beveled edge with your router, it looks like a whole new sign,” Allard says. “You can also turn photographs into carvings and incorporate them into your signs. Specialty bits give you a lot of options to make the same sign look completely different.”

In addition to these features, most of today’s CNC routers come with advanced, network-ready controllers, Marshall says. With these controllers, the operator can copy a design straight from the computer to the router, which makes for error-free program transfers, and providing network-ready access allows for remote support diagnostics.

“Provided the customer gives us permission, as a manufacturer, we can actually dial into any of our machines around the world to diagnose faults, upgrade controllers and things like that,” Marshall says. “Solving problems remotely is much quicker and more cost-effective than going on-site, so it’s become a valuable feature.”

CNC Routers for Future Growth

By adding a CNC router, sign shops can not only add a profitable line of business, but they can also become that one-stop shop so many customers crave. With a full suite of services, a sign shop will be prepared for future growth and can capture a larger market share. SDG