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Cost of learning CNC is well worth it

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.

Be a student
There’s no way to “kind of” operate CNC. Be prepared for a huge learning curve. You can dramatically reduce your anxiety level if you ease into it by learning to use CAD as well as cabinet design software. It’s not necessary to have to learn everything at once. Most anyone can turn on a saw and get some cutting done without a lot of training. CNC operation will require a little more finesse to make it a viable piece of equipment. It’s just a big expensive boat anchor until you learn how to operate it.

As with any computer-related device or machine, the “garbage in, garbage out” rule applies. An operator who is very computer literate and also a dynamite cabinetmaker is a huge plus. It works best to have somebody with both sets of skills in the driver’s seat.

It’s beneficial to get your machine working as soon as possible after you acquire it. At the time of our CNC purchase, we had two people who were proficient in CAD or cabinet-design software. Within a few weeks after we unloaded the KOMO MACH II CNC from the truck and the crane operators jockeyed the machine into position, we were cutting our first kitchen project. Even so, armed with this previous CAD and CabinetWare knowledge, it took us a year to become profitable with this new tool addition.

There is so much to learn. Selecting the right tooling and learning the correct cutting-speed programming for various materials are all time-consuming. It definitely costs to learn.

Have a plan
There are quite a few advantages CNC has given us. We can more efficiently control how our one-of-a-kind creations assemble together. If proper design and planning are done on the drawing board, and parts are correctly CNC-cut with all possible machining, drilling and shaping, your shop will be able to produce more.

Things such as mounting drawer slides and hinge plates with ultra-

precision hole placement has decreased final assembly time significantly. We can now make arched moldings in a cost-effective manner. It is so nice to have this fine technology at our disposal when designing. It is a lot easier to jump outside the box and beat your competitor with a nicer product. I am definitely an advocate of CNC. Just have a good plan and it should work for you.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue.

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