steel and acrylic

CNC Router Advancements

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at pgladych@gmail.com.

In the last five to 10 years, the CNC router industry has seen numerous changes for the better, including technology and software. Because of these advances, competition in the industry has increased. More companies are making CNC routers so the price has come way down giving even small sign and digital graphics shops the opportunity to own their own machine.

There are also better-quality parts to keep these machines running, says Pär Turesson, owner of CNC Step USA in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Turesson says he started in the business in 2011 and the CNC machines his company manufactures in Germany have slightly improved over time, including a better frame and a better controller, but the price has stayed the same.

One of the biggest changes coming to CNC Step USA is a new machine coming out that offers a closed loop stepper motor instead of expensive servo motors. They are cheaper and easier to install, he says. They also are more powerful, run faster and, because they are closed loop, they don’t lose steps.

“They maintain their accuracy even if there is a problem. That is a great advancement,” Turesson says.

It used to be that there were different machines for different applications. A shop would have a CNC router for routing and a laser for laser cutting and an impact engraver for that specific purpose.

“Today, there is more modularity. Our machines are made in Germany by CNC Step. We have one of the widest ranges of accessories for our machine. For us, it just keeps growing,” he says.

Now, shops can own one machine that uses numerous attachments, like a plasma cutter, laser engraver, tangential cutter, oscillating knives for cutting thin materials, vinyl cutters, scanner and 3D printer head. You can even put on a diamond tool that does scratch engraving or a pneumatic impact engraver like a dotting tool.

CNC Step also offers stone engraving heads and a welding tool.

The company’s new software, KineticNC, will be up to 80 times faster than most of the controller software on the market, he says.

“It’s just going to be a fantastic improvement that will allow you to run all these different tools with the same software,” says Turesson. The software also comes with hardware, the CncPOD, which is modular so it allows a shop to add many different tools that they want to use simultaneously or many different systems that need to be integrated.

“You can connect it all and do so much more than you did with the previous software we had,” he says.

CNC Step’s High-Z machines come in STANDARD and TURBO models. The T-Rex is the company’s largest CNC router, which comes in four sizes up to 4’ x 8’. It has a steel frame and is a very heavy duty machine that works with sheet materials. It can be used for routing, milling, tangential cutting and laser engraving.

Electronics and software are the greatest enhancements to hit the CNC router industry, says Roy Valentine, owner of Techno CNC Systems, LLC in Ronkonkoma, New York.

“These new advanced systems have allowed us to expand beyond the 3-axis cutting router. We now offer multi-axes with a variety of accessories, such as knife cutting devices, vision system, fourth axis rotary carving and drill banks, just to name a few,” he says.

It offers an oscillating knife and a tangential knife, which are designed to cut a wide range of materials, such as graphic foam board, closed cell foam, corrugated cardboard, gasket material and rubber.

Techno vision is a print-and-cut process with a workflow management software suite. It is designed for optical mark recognition and exact-edge finishing on digitally printed materials, he says.

The four-axis rotary carving allows the machine to automatically rotate a part, allowing the machine to cut, engrave or carve 2D and 3D patterns into the round material stock. The drill bank is more suitable for the woodworking market when adjustable shelf holes are required. This accessory is popular with cabinet makers, custom millwork, point of purchase, store fixtures, exhibits and stage builders.

Techno offers a wide range of products from small desktop machines to large format routers.

The company’s most popular models are its HD class of routers.

“Our HD-II 2436 model comes standard with a 2HP HSD spindle, 7-1/2" gantry clearance, and vacuum t-slot bed. The larger format HD class comes standard with a 4HP HSD spindle (tool changer is optional), 4-zone vacuum table, and pump. We build our machines using first class grade A components. This quality assures buyers longevity, and quality routing, thus improving the customer's bottom line,” Valentine says.

Techno started selling affordable 3-axis CNC routers to the sign, wood and plastics market in 1988. Since that time, electronic technology has advanced to the point where the company’s engineers have developed high-speed controllers, which greatly improve the machine’s performance, speed and cut quality.

“With the new modern computing power available today, we have been able to advance our system to high speed, low cost cutting systems. We expect this technology to continue to improve and costs to decrease, which will keep us competitive in today’s and tomorrow’s market,” Valentine says.

AXYZ International in Burlington, Ontario, Canada has a new product called Trident, which is a hybrid machine that combines a high-powered routing spindle with two knife cutting units.

“The reason we’ve done that is because lots of sign makers these days are also getting involved in wide format digital printing. There is a big requirement for finishing of whatever is being printed,” says Robert Marshall, vice president of market development for AXYZ. “These days, printers don’t just print on paper or vinyl, they print on heavy duty materials as well.”

The company’s hybrid router can cut through aluminum, acrylic and natural wood. It also can cut through lightweight and flexible materials like card and vinyl, with its two knives.

The Trident is perfect for sign shops because most don’t want to have multiple machines. They want one piece of equipment that does a little bit of everything, Marshall says.

The machine is also configurable, meaning customers can customize their machines with special tools or a wider process area.

A nice technical feature of the Trident is that its vacuum bed is split into a number of zones. As the machine cuts, the system automatically switches on or off the vacuum to different zones on the bed so that way “we’ve always got maximum vacuum hold down on the zone the machine is cutting in,” Marshall says. “It is not necessary to have a vacuum on the far end if the machine is cutting on the front end. We optimize the hold down and it works really really well.”

The system produces less waste material and is easy to operate.

Another advancement that AXYZ is pushing is its remote diagnostics and training service.

“These days we can do an awful lot remotely. Since our machines are all connected to a customer’s network, they can all be connected to the Internet. If a customer has a problem, we can dial in remotely from our headquarters. More often than not we can diagnose their problems by looking at the log file and looking at how it was configured,” he says. “We can remotely upgrade the machine if necessary.”

The company also provides remote training for customers, which is very popular, he adds.

The Trident offers a smart console that when hooked up to the Internet can access help documents and give interactive guidance depending on what the operator is doing.

“It is all designed around ease of operation, fast learning for new operators and occasional operators,” Marshall says.

There are hundreds of tools that can be used with the Trident router.

“It is important to get the right tool for the right material,” he says.

There are always new developments in cutting technology. The Trident has short blades for cutting really thick foam and a blade that is held at a 45-degree angle for putting a V cut in material that needs to be folded.

“It is an ongoing process. It is not something you ever finish. There are always new materials, new technologies around. It is important to keep up to date with those developments and make sure you can accommodate them,” Marshall adds.