Is there such a thing as the perfect CNC router? That begs the bigger, existential question: is there anything that’s perfect? Probably not in both cases, but CNC routers now come in so many different configurations and capabilities that while you may not find the perfect router, you’re likely to find the ideal router for your workflow.
First, and for the purposes of this article, it’s important to differentiate between CNC routers and digital finishing machines, such as those manufactured by Esko, Summa and Zünd. Typically, digital finishing machines are designed to cut thinner, lightweight material and include a vision system to align and cut out graphics already printed and applied to the substrate.
The 1624R CNC Router/ Engraver from Vision Engraving Systems is designed to handle for a wide variety of jobs including milling, drilling, contouring, routing and even Braille applications. (Image courtesy of Vision Engravers)
Routing Top to Bottom
John Harris of MultiCam, Dallas, which manufactures both CNC routers and digital finishing systems, explains further: “When you move into a CNC router, you typically have a larger open height under the bridge and with that you have more stroke so the router has more programmable Z-axis movement. You can machine a piece of six-inch foam or do 3-D carving. The machines are bigger, heavier and more powerful. If your business is producing graphics on lightweight materials day in and day out, then a digital finishing machine may be right for you because they’re extremely fast and agile. A router by nature is fast, but it’s maybe 60 or 70 percent as fast as a digital finishing system. For the company that’s doing a wide variety of work on both lightweight and heavier, thicker materials, a hybrid may be the best bet for them.”
So, hybrid routers for hybrid shops that do a mix of heavy routing and digital finishing. Then there are those who do more “traditional” sign work and require just the heavy-duty strength of a dedicated router, which are available in a wide range of models and prices with a variety of features.
“You can make a lot of signs with a traditional router by itself; routers are quite flexible machines,” adds Harris.
Flexible indeed, especially now since you can essentially get everything from very basic routing capabilities to a full suite of options for all types of sign and graphics work, including engraving. Vision Engraving and Routing Systems recently introduced the 1624R CNC router/engraver, which is touted as being ideal for light to heavy-duty applications, including tool and die work, tags, deep metal cutting, ADA/Braille signage, plastic engraving and other applications.
Small Shop No Problem
Vision Engravers emphasizes the relatively small footprint of the machine with its 33" x 33" footprint and 16" x 24" work area. The addition of machines with smaller footprints is an ongoing trend in the CNC router market, in addition to the aforementioned hybrid capabilities for digital printing.
The Buddy is a compact CNC router from ShopBot that incorporates many of the same features as ShopBot’s full-size industrial systems, yet weighs less than 600 lbs. and occupies very little floor space. (Image courtesy of ShopBot)
ShopBot, for instance, focuses on the needs of smaller shops with limited budgets and limited space. ShopBot seeks to shrink that footprint even more with the upcoming introduction of its Handibot line of hand-held robotic power tools. Handibots are basically portable desktop-sized router tables.
ShopBot’s Buddy Tools, though not designed to be hand-held miniatures, are built with maximizing space and scalability in mind.
“They are nominally four feet wide and you can put any size deck on them that you want: You can have a 4' x 2', 4' x 4' or 4' x 8' tool, making them configurable for small shops doing dimensional carving or cutting boards for signs,” says ShopBot owner Ted Hall.
Narrowing the Choices
As noted at the beginning of this article, there is a CNC router for every budget and practically every production workflow. Narrowing the choice down requires a fairly detailed inventory of the type of work you’re doing now, and what you plan to do in the future.
Granted, spying future work can be difficult; no one knows what the future holds. However, five-year projections and other similar business development and marketing plans are less about what will happen and more about what you make happen.
So, if you print for point-of-purchase, part of the growth plan may include building the displays themselves. A CNC router would kill two proverbial birds: one for cutting sign boards and the other for the display structures.
“We started around 1969, building routers for numerous industries: woodworking for cabinets, closets, furniture and wood components; composite markets for aerospace and defense; plastics for thermoforming and cutting sheets; and, of course, signs,” says Jason Susnjara of Thermwood Corp. “Not only can CNC routers cut materials for the sign industry, but other markets as well. So sign companies can look in other directions to add revenue if need be, as some did during the recession.”
A good CNC router can come in very handy when tackling a precision acrylic cutting job. (Image courtesy of MultiCam)
Do Research, Ask Questions
To help match your production needs with a CNC router (or a digital finishing system), a good start is to do some research by checking out the May 2013 issue of Sign & Digital Graphics, CNC and Digital Die Cutter Report, which begins on page 76. Generally speaking, CNC router features have not changed all that much over the past few years; the emphasis has been on improving features that are already standard or offered as options, including oscillating knives, tangential knives, vacuum hold-down, automated tool changing and so forth.
Additionally, J.B. Benson of Vision Engravers offers the following list of questions to ask manufacturers:
- Does the system handle the largest items I want to create?
- Does the system have the capability to use the materials I want to work with?
- Do I have adequate space for the machine?
- Do I have adequate power requirements?
- Is my door large enough accommodate the machine when it arrives?
- Is the manufacturer coming to set it up and provide training, and how much training will I receive?
- What kind of support do I have after the install?
- What is the warranty on the system?
- Where is the machine manufactured, and where do the parts come from?
- Does the operating platform offer the ability to work with multiple software systems?
- What kind of accuracy can I expect?
- What kind of 3D cutting capabilities does the machine have?
- How is the material held down to the table?
- What is the spindle horsepower, size of the cutting head and router/knife options?
“In the last the two years, complementary processes have been combined to give sign shops the ability to be more creative and differentiate themselves from others. One of the most popular is combining the print-to-cut capabilities of a router with a printer,” adds Benson. “Having this technology on a CNC router allows you to cut heavier-duty and thicker materials, such as doing a life size cut-out of NASCAR drivers on a 1/2" PVC. And, having a full 48" x 96" work bed allows you to meet all your customer’s needs.”