Cost of learning CNC is well worth it

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If you are considering a CNC purchase, one of the thoughts that will pass through your mind is: Will this investment work for my business? While every situation is different, there are factors to consider before a potential purchase that can make the final decision somewhat easier.

For us, we spent most of our first 12 years honing our woodworking skills and designs without putting in enough thought to our business practices and methods. We were behind the curve, so we hired a consulting firm to do a total business review. We received a tremendous amount of good advice and practices that are put to use daily. Lengthy discussions about goals and aspirations were had, which included the possible ownership of CNC. It was determined our company would need to increase revenue by $200,000 annually to make CNC a viable purchase.

Editor’s note: Wilson Cabinetry in Billings, Mont., has evolved during the last 23 years from a one-man shop with minimal tools and resources into a 13-man operation with a KOMO CNC machine as its primary tool. Currently, all of the cabinetry projects, and a portion of the millwork, involve the use of CNC.

We were advised by the consultants not to pursue CNC. I thought we could really benefit by using this new technology. More difficult designs could be achieved with less effort. So Wilson Cabinetry pressed on, trying to make a plan that would work. This venture seemed like an unobtainable goal at first.

Benefits of sharing
A decision was made to purchase the machine and take on a partner who would use the machine for his cabinetmaking business. The partner mainly does commercial cabinetry for hospitals and commercial-type businesses and there is no direct competition for each other’s work. This partnership effectively cut the needed increase in revenue to a more palatable level.

At the time of purchase, we had secured several large jobs that would take us through three years. The economy in our area was very solid and we were optimistic. We took the plunge. The timing of the purchase and the partnership proved to be a solid move. The machine payments are now completed and the initial stress of the whole ordeal is over. Our sales and productivity reached the goals needed. We are fabricating our best product ever, and the design-intensive cabinetry is much more manageable with the addition of CNC.

CNC helps production transition from style to style. In any given year, it will be rare to build two identical cabinets, and long runs of similar cabinets do not happen. For the company to be profitable, there is a need to react quickly because custom projects are the exclusive product.

How many of you lay out your difficult angled or radius cabinet and furniture pieces full scale on 4x8 sheets to determine part sizes that need to be cut? I did this for years, and it works. But bending over 4x8 sheets, doing manual layout — sometimes for hours — there was a realization there had to be a better and quicker method. Pulling the layout sheets out to double-check sizing on parts as they were being cut was tiresome.

Drafting skills
The first bit of advice for prospective CNC buyers is to purchase a computer drafting program and learn how to do manual layouts on this program. The knowledge will be invaluable for your step into the computer machining of custom-shaped parts. I’m not talking about cabinet design software like CabinetWare or Cabinetworks. I strongly feel you will need to know CAD drafting skills before you purchase your machine if you do a lot of custom-shaped pieces. There are many CNC owners who use cabinet-design software but haven’t picked up CAD drafting skills, and this limits their ability to fully use the capabilities of the CNC machine.

Wilson Cabinetry was drawing parts on CAD and e-mailing them to another shop with CNC several years before our machine purchase. It is important to be proficient in using your cabinet design software. If you are receiving cutting lists with part sizes that are wrong, your machine will also cut them wrong. You don’t have the luxury of manually correcting the known problem parts as you cut. Get your cabinet-design software program dialed in, or the result will be a pile of unusable parts.