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Expand Your Business With CNC Routers
Is using computer technology to automate control cutting, drilling and fabricating sign parts worth the investment? Which table should I get? What software should I use? CNC routers bring a laundry list of advantages to a growing sign shop. Productivity is always a concern in a small business and the ability to add new services, like 3-D engraving, is a potential revenue generator. Greater quality and scaling capabilities, of course, are critical. Add all these factors together and the result could equal greater profitability for your shop.
"If you need to make several of the same item, CNC routers are a huge advantage," says Marc Bourque, president of Larken CNC Router Systems, a CNC router manufacturer in Ontario, Canada. "You can also save job files for repeat jobs."
CNC routers save labor costs, adds Tom Propes, sales manager for Computerized Cutters, Inc., a CNC router and CNC channel letter fabrication manufacturer in Plano, Texas. "It can save you time. Time is money," he says. "I can cut out a whole set of letters with a router in the time that it takes to cut out one by hand. You can make money but you can't make time."
Expanding your services
Gerber senior product manager Scott Anthony says sign makers can test their local market by first outsourcing dimensional signage to a larger company.
"When you start to outsource about $700 or $800 a month then you want to think about bringing routing in-house so that you can control the product, the quality, and the profits," says Anthony. "Dimensional signage is a strong niche that supplements existing business with higher profit potential."
"Taking control of in-house routing gives sign makers the capability to do both interior and exterior signage," says Ken Koelling, president of MultiCam, a CNC router manufacturer in Irving, Texas. "Sign makers can get into the commercial signage business, for example, or channel letter fabrication. It gives them a pretty broad capability to enter multiple markets."
Sign making customers of Techno-isel, a New Hyde Park, NY-based division of Designatronics, tell company executive vice president George Klein that there are many functions they can perform with the CNC router that they hadn't initially considered. "The less obvious functions are secondary things like making frames and other things associated with the signs, including bracketry, fixtures, even things like furniture pieces and shelving applications," says Klein. "So a router is not only a boost to business it's an expansion of the business' capabilities."
Aiming for higher quality
Then there's the ability to adjust the scaling at the touch of a button. "You can draw something up and decide that you want it to be bigger and in a minute you've got it bigger and ready to cut again," says Bourque.
Automating for profitability
"A lot of times they are already producing components that can be produced on a router and in reality the total cost of ownership becomes less and the parts have higher quality and cost less to produce," says Koelling.
Now we are back to the bottom line: greater profitability. It's all in the numbers. Depending on the substrate, says Propes, a carved sign could run up to $150 a square foot. But the material is not nearly that expensive.
"You are looking at a vinyl sign that's maybe $15 a foot versus a routed sign that's $150 a foot," he says. "True, every customer is not going to choose or be able to afford the routed sign, however, if you don't offer it you'll never sell it."
Choosing a router that fits your needs
Start with ease of use. User-friendliness of both the software and the hardware is a key consideration.
Sticking with the industry standard
Gerber's Anthony says custom engineering and specialized tools differentiate the Sabre line from other routers on the market. Priced at about $35,000 to $42,000, the Sabre models are built with aluminum instead of steel to make a router that is lighter and more rigid.
"We are in an industry that uses and abuses equipment and they don't spend any time taking care of their capital equipment," says Anthony. "We use different drives that require less maintenance and offer software, service and support systems for customers."
"If you are a first time router buyer, having application assistance is important," says Koelling. "Application assistance, not only in terms of learning the software most sign making firms are pretty savvy when it comes to graphic design and so the software isn't usually that difficult but the applications and knowledge of specific cutting techniques is real important."
Avoiding downtime is a major factor, says Bourque. Koelling agrees, and stresses the importance of choosing a vendor that can provide service to its hardware.
"Choose a size that's going to fit in your space and that's going to be suitable for the type of work that you are doing or want to do, and then selecting a supplier of that machine that's going to be able to give them local service," says Koelling. "That's something a lot of people forget."
Techno-isel counsels its potential customers to concentrate on quality. "You have to educate yourself as to what is on the market," says Klein. "You've got to be careful now because there's an awful lot of companies pretending to make routers. Let the buyer beware."
Getting a glimpse of the market
Their "M series" is specifically designed for the needs of the sign industry. The entry-level system features the adaptation of I-cut vision systems so the machine can be easily integrated into digital printing on rigid substrates. The prices range from $30,000-$60,000 depending on the dimensions of the table.
Koelling points to the design's user-friendliness as a key attraction for sign makers, an important consideration when training employees. "We've condensed the user interface to very basic functions, so it's not intimidating to learn," says Koelling. "That's really why they are so prolific. It's more difficult than a vinyl cutter because of the technique, but the functionality of the machine is not much more difficult."
Examining all the options
"We went back to proven technology," says Bourque. "We had the basic screw before. Basically, it's go all the way with the screw or don't go at all because you need to have a big, heavy duty ball screw or it's not going to work for you. If you go with the big screws you are talking about much more expensive machines."
Larken's CNC routers sell for as little as $18,000 for a 4X5 table and run up to $30,000 for a 5X10 model. Larken's reputation for manufacturing tables that are built to last has made the ShopCam a favorite among sign makers.
Assessing price versus features
Computerized Cutters' machine runs at $20,000 plus shipping. The company keeps its costs down by eliminating the controller card that takes information from the computer to the machine. The company instead took a software product designed for the engraving industry, developed it further, and uses a desktop computer to run the table. "Suppose I want to upgrade my operating system," says Propes. "I can download it over the Internet. I don't have to go out and buy a $3,000 control card. You can buy a nice Dell computer for $800-$900. It's very easy to use, too, instead of having an LCD screen with a lot of sub-menus, you have a 17" computer screen."
Getting the biggest bang for your buck
Making the final decision
The advantages are clear. The equipment is available. Whether its worth the risk is up to you.
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