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Next-Gen CNC's

CNC routers are getting higher-tech at lower-costs. Find out what bells and whistles the latest models have to offer.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Declining technology prices have brought to the CNC world bells and whistles that used to be found only in high-dollar milling machines and the result is more user-friendly, reliable, and faster signmaking.

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  • >From digital printers to LED lighting to Trivision displays, technology’s mark on the sign industry is undeniable. What was once largely a hands-on art form is in many ways succumbing to automation as shop owners seek higher levels of productivity, better quality and greater profits.

    Leading manufacturers have introduced new machines to the market to increase capacity while reducing customer lead times and overall labor costs and the impact on sign shops is measurable. Steady servo motors are replacing stepper motors that vibrate and slip. PC-based interfaces and software allow operators to catch costly mistakes and automate repetitive jobs, and automated capabilities free up employees to work on other money-making ventures.

    Servos serve up reliability
    One of the biggest advances in CNC technology is servo motors that are replacing stepper motors. Stepper motors run on an open loop whereas servo motors run on a closed loop. The advantage is dramatic, especially in 3-dimensional carving applications, because a servo motor automatically keeps track of its position.

    “Routers with servo motors generally allow you to do 3-D carving much faster and with greater reliability,” says George Klein, vice president of Techno, Inc., a New Hyde Park, NY-based CNC router manufacturer. “Because servo motors are so reliable, you don’t have to baby-sit the machine for two hours while it cuts the material anymore.”

    Techno’s LC model features servo motors, as does Gerber’s Sabre series, and MultiCam’s “A” series. All three are entry-level machines that make high-tech machining possible for smaller shops.

    National Sign and Design Group in Brampton, Ontario started using Techno’s machine to create signs with dimensional letters, but the shop has now expanded its business into trade show displays, carpentry and even wooden rocking horses. National’s President Jeff Wolf says this diversification would not have been possible without servo motor technology.

    “The rocking horse manufacturer was producing one horse every three weeks by hand,” says Wolf. “We used the Mastercam software that came with the router to extrude his 2-D designs for all the different pieces into 3-D. We use the router to cut each piece from flat stock, two inches thick, routing out the curved surfaces of a leg, for example, across 180 degrees, then turning it over and cutting the other side. Using this technique, the company can produce six horses in the time it takes to make one by hand.”

    PC-based interfaces catch mistakes
    PC-based interfaces and software make routing much more user-friendly than it once was with proprietary software controls. Features like tool-path previewer, GCODE editors, production logging and reporting, toolbreak auto-repositioning, infinite look-ahead, and continuous motion are now one-click away.

    “The control system is based on new techniques that allow us to reduce the size and cost of electronics packaging,” says Ken Koelling, president of MultiCam, a Dallas-based computerized router manufacturer. “The latest technological advances in CNC routing are software-driven. The automation of design systems is a tremendous time saver.”

    Koelling says new CAD/CAM systems have the ability to use parametric macros to automate the design of everything from kitchen cabinets to channel letters. The CAM portion of the process can be completely rule-based and processed without user intervention. Knowledge-based systems built into the machine interface, he adds, let even novice operators run complex jobs efficiently.

    PC-based controllers can also save money in repair costs, says Carl Ondracek, owner of Computerized Cutters, Inc., a CNC manufacturer in Plano, Texas. The company’s Accu-Cut X series offers a virtual software controller. “The most expensive aspect of having a router is making repairs and the most expensive repair is to the motherboard,” he says. “By eliminating the motherboard we’ve made it more affordable to operate over the long-term.”

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    Automated functions save time, money
    Just as PC-based controllers save money, automated functions save time. There are two key automation developments in the CNC router arena: auto-carving and auto tool changers.

    “Auto-Carve 3D remains the latest applications-oriented advancement for Gerber routers providing three distinct, highly sought carving styles: incised carving for V-bevel shapes and letters, chamfered carving for flat-bottomed shapes and letters, and prismatic carving for raised shapes and letters,” says Sean Childs, product manager for Gerber Scientific.

    Classic Sign & Mirror, a custom sign shop in Pensacola, Fla., leverages the power of automation in its shop with the Auto-Carve 3D functions on a Sabre router. The technology allows operators to carve letters quicker than ever before and gives the shop more time to create sculptured additions, according to Michael Sheehan, owner of Classic Sign & Mirror.

    The sign templates required to hand-router some of the trim and borders on the Eagle Creek would have blown the time budget, and the pricing would have been unrealistic without the automation technology. “The ability of the router to accurately mill down the outer border allowed us the option of using the 150-degree router bit to bevel the inner gold border in the design without having to use the more expensive option of laminating layers,” says Sheehan.

    The main body of the sign is constructed of vertical grain redwood. The light gray area is a synthetic stucco panel. The primary copy is “V” carved into the sign. The small copy “at the Moors” is prismatic carved PVC letters that are inlaid into the main body of the sign. The gold eagle is cast in resin and mounted on studs in the main body of the sign.

    Automatic tool changers allow users to set up a job and literally push a button and watch the sign take form in front of their eyes. Automatic tool changers eliminate the need for someone to stop the machine, change out a tool, initialize it, and then start the router again.

    Time to upgrade?
    With advancing technology and rapidly dropping prices, many shop owners are taking the plunge with investments in CNC machinery. But how do you know if the upgrade is worth the investment? And how do you choose the best router for your needs?

    Depending on usage, CNC routers can last from five to 15 years, so upgrades are few and far between. There are three scenarios under which you might decide to upgrade: the system will make money, the system will save money, or the system will leverage money, i.e. make a process more productive. A shop owner should examine his business to see what products and services are offered, what products and services he would like to add, how he anticipates producing these items and at what cost.

    Buyers beware: With the declining technology prices, there are some newcomers to the CNC manufacturing arena offering cut-throat prices by cutting corners. Experts recommend machines with steel frame construction, ball screws, servo motors, and steel or circulating lays. From there, serious consideration should be given to shop size constraints, power requirements and the type of work being produced.

    “Seek some feedback from end users who already own the equipment,” suggests Childs. “A potential buyer should be able to get some user names directly from the manufacturer. If the manufacturer is reluctant to do this, it could be a potential red flag.”

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