All-Around Machines

​Ryan N. Fugler is a former editor of WRAPS magazine. 

Sometimes figures have the power to astound.

According to Robert Marshall, vice president market development at AXYZ International, a CNC router has the ability to offer “a staggering 366,918 standard machine configurations,” which is the case with the company’s AXYZ Series flagship product.

To put that figure into perspective, the number is larger than the population size of St. Louis. It’s more than 200 times the number of stairs in the Empire State Building. It is roughly the number of seconds contained within four whole days (plus another six hours).

In other words, that CNC router has a lot of versatility.

“A router is probably one of the most versatile tools that a sign maker can own,” says Marshall.

The fact that routers can adapt to take on many different tasks is important because, “Digital finishers are being asked to do more and more as new products and processes become available to the sign and print industry,” says Steve Alvarez, director of sales for router manufacturer Laguna Tools. Especially when several different substrates are available and being used in sign projects.

Routers truly provide an all-around solution to sign fabrication, almost limitless in the types of applications and materials they can accommodate.

Substrate Selection

“CNC routers can rout a broad range of materials,” explains Roy Valentine, sales manager, Techno CNC Systems, “plastic, wood, foam, composite, and non-ferrous metals like aluminum, brass and copper to name a few.” The ability of a router to accept such a broad range of substrates is good news to sign shops, but also to a sign shop’s customer. Oftentimes, a customer will have a specific idea of the type of sign he or she would like in place—including the type of material that is used. With routers it makes no difference if it’s a wood or plastic or metal sign, almost any type of material imagined is possible to use.

Still, customers don’t always view metals as compliant substrates. They are firm and less forgiving than other materials. However, routers have no problem with these substrates, providing a range of unique project possibilities.

“Our machines,” says Marshall, “are widely used for processing aluminum, brass, copper and even steel, provided the right tooling and cutting conditions are used.”

The right conditions and practices will allow the user to finish a customer’s project with the maximum amount of accuracy, which is critical when manufacturing detailed signage.

Valentine says, “For metal, it is recommended that a micro-drop coolant system is implemented. This system will apply droplets of vegetable based oil to the tool providing adequate cooling and lubrication to the tool.”

Other substrates require different tools and methods to be used with the router. And since routers are capable of handling so many kinds of substrates, “it's not uncommon for shops to have a large assortment of CNC routing bits for the various materials,” says Valentine.   

Tool Selection

“There is an enormous and sometimes bewildering choice of CNC router tooling available,” says Marshall. “You’ve got bits such as straight fluted, spiral fluted, right and left hand spirals, compression bits, single, twin, triple and more flutes. Selecting the right tool for the job can make the difference between a perfectly smooth and clean cut, or something that looks like it’s been hacked out with a saw.”

Much like when cutting a piece of meat, one would prefer to use a steak knife as opposed to a butter knife. The same theory can be applied to routing different materials—not all tools cut substrates the same way.

“Each cutting tool geometry is designed for specific materials and usage,” says Valentine. “For example, when routing composite wood (MDF, melamine, or finish plywood) a compression bit would be used. A compression bit has a spiral up-cut at the bottom of the bit, and a downward spiral at the top. The purpose of this cutter geometry is to avoid chipping or blowout of the material on both top and bottom of the composite material. For plastics, a single flute up-cut bit would be used. This tool geometry is designed to reduce heat and prevent the plastic from melting while clearing the chips as it's routed.”

CNC router manufacturers are putting great effort into creating a product that is not only versatile but effective. In order to be effective, these machines must also deliver on accuracy. That’s where the software comes into play.

Technology Matters

When making these precision cuts into a variety of different materials, a software program guides the router toward accurate finishing.  

“A CNC router allows you to automate the cutting process by executing the commands given from the CAD/CAM program,” says Valentine. “The machine accurately and repeatedly routes any geometric shape; the CNC software will auto nest parts improving material yields; cutting speeds are much faster than what can be done by hand; accuracy and cut quality is far greater, therefore the product finish is greatly improved.”

Improvements have come with better technology and an emphasis on helping sign makers create the best end product.

“Over the last 10 years the major change in CNC router technology has been in the controls and software,” Alvarez says. “The control interface has simplified operation on a CNC machine to the point where someone with no CNC experience can be trained to run a machine in hours, not days. The software today is very intuitive and user-friendly allowing users to develop drawings and tool-paths very quickly for the most demanding applications.”

But these technological changes are not just limited to software. They can be found in other aspects of the router that improves the overall output.

“The stronger structure and improved drive systems—including the introduction of servo motors and helical rack systems—mean that the move from traditional to automated methods has become much easier,” Marshall says. “Delivering greater flexibility and more powerful workhorses, sign makers are able to process a huge range of materials. Technology has accelerated at a substantial rate allowing sign makers to achieve the unexpected such as cutting to a finely polished edge.”

Valentine has witnessed such changes as well, and calls them “dramatic.” He points to improvements in CNC control systems and increased routing speeds through the years.

“Cut quality has also been improved due to technological advances in electronics and mechanical assemblies,” Valentine says. “These improvements are partly credited to improvements in computer chip speeds at which they can execute CNC commands. Today's modern controllers either run from PC controllers or have computer chips built into their controller processors.”

With these new enhancements in place, Valentine believes that it is now easier for sign shops to bring work in-house instead of outsourcing jobs to a third-party. He says sign shop owners will “improve delivery schedules, lower costs, increase profits, and grow their businesses.”

This is a great case for sign shops to have their own dedicating routing machine.

Why You Need a Router

If Valentine’s call for sign shop owners wasn’t loud enough, Marshall adds his voice to the declaration.

“In recent years, products have matured to a level where the CNC Router has become an essential tool that sign makers need in order to stay competitive,” Marshall says. It all comes down to, not just the machine and its capabilities, but to what types of projects are being completed and which substrates are being used.

“When looking for a CNC machine, a sign shop needs to consider not only what they are producing now but what they plan to produce in the future, and what other media they plan to work with,” Alvarez says. For instance, “If a traditional sign shop doing only routed signs has plans to purchase a UV-cure printer in the future,” Alvarez continues, “they need to consider a machine that has the option to add additional features—like a camera and knife unit—so that the machine can accommodate the additional requirements as the company grows its product range.”

A shop that excels in one area might consider expanding into another similar practice. Many shops that perform engraving techniques on signage should assess the equipment they are employing for these jobs, especially if they are involved with other types of sign fabrication.

Rotary and Laser Engraving

“If a company is thinking of buying a dedicated engraver they should consider what other opportunities a CNC router can bring to their business,” Valentine says. “Given some serious thought, a sign shop would not buy a dedicated engraver since, for almost the same investment, they could do both operations on the CNC router.”

Some sign shops will argue that they already have an engraver or similar type of machine—they don’t have use for a CNC router. But this line of thinking isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples.

“Engravers usually have small process areas and operate using light duty spindles,” Marshall says. “The benefit of choosing a CNC Router is that it is equally as useful for routing as it is for engraving.” Again there is great emphasis put on tools and the true versatility of the router, which allows it to be such a useful machine in sign shops.

“For the market segment that wants to do engraving there are CNC laser engravers and high speed engraving spindles that can reach 34000 rpm,” Alvarez says. “Engraving onto glass and metal surfaces require these small high rpm spindles for optimal resolution.”

And the possibilities continue to expand in the router market. Today, a shop can create a 3D display using a router—on a much larger scale than a printer allows.

“Many of our customers told us about their dreams of producing 3D products,” says Marshall, “and the CNC router we provided was able to do this with ease.”

What’s next for these machines? It’s really up to the sign maker to challenge the customer and push the limits of a CNC router. Perhaps there are a few hundred more machine configurations that have not yet been realized.