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Good help isn't always hard to find

“What, if anything, have you paid to have a CNC machine installed, or was installation included in the purchase price?”

That question was asked in a recent post on the Cabinet Makers Association’s discussion board, CMA Collaborate. The post also asked members if they paid for training, and if so, how much? And most insightfully, the poster asked if they needed training.

I’ve just been through the process of buying and installing a brand-new CNC and to be frank, there were a lot more questions than those.

My first surprise was discovering that there’s more to installing a new air compressor than I had imagined. I’ve had several compressors over the years, and their installation pretty much involved hooking up power and hoses. This new compressor has an integrated dryer, and the salesperson shared that “an onsite startup of your air compressor is included with your purchase. The startup consists of checking the power supply, inspecting the installation and equipment, setting the unit’s pressure band, testing… and training.”

When the technician arrived, I learned that he would be tuning the dryer to operate at the higher elevation here in Colorado. That was not a trivial process because he had to partially disassemble the unit to make the adjustment. Thankfully, he had instrumentation to verify that it was adjusted properly. In hindsight, I realize it was invaluable to have an experienced expert on hand to ensure the installation was completed as required. Had the compressor started up with some unusual noise, I might not have known that anything was wrong.

This is one of those cases where you don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s helpful to have an expert involved.

First steps

An industrial CNC router is many times more complex than a compressor. There are a multitude of things that might not be just right, including some oversight in manufacturing or perhaps the stress of transportation. Having an experienced technician involved in the initial startup is good insurance. For example, the technician will know how flat is flat enough. Most CNC routers have four or more legs. When the CNC router is installed on a typical concrete shop floor, how should those legs be adjusted to conform to the floor and establish an exceedingly flat surface for the bed of the router? How would I know if it is flat enough? What if there is some small twist in the floor beneath the machine? Do I have the tools to measure that flatness or detect that twist? I certainly expect the bed of the router to be flatter than the concrete floor. This is the sort of task I expect the factory technician to handle as part of the installation.

Alongside the physical installation is the task of learning about the physics of the new machine. How much and what kind of training a new owner requires will depend a lot on whether this is the first CNC router in the shop. If it’s not, is it a new and unfamiliar model, or a clone of one that is already in production?

Training begins with the locations of the various controls, and how are they used.

Some of the basics

So, what about shops that are installing their first CNC router?

There are several topics to cover, such as how to set up stock for cutting, and how to select the right tooling. These may or may not be included in training from a manufacturer, and if not, they’ll be on-the-job training. Learning from others in your industry via shop visits, online forums or classes, or picking the brains of tooling suppliers can be invaluable.

One of the CNC routers at the college has automatic tool changing, and that uses compressed air. The air supply at the school contains moisture, so dryers are installed in the line to remove that. The factory installers impressed upon us that the first step every day that the machine will be used is to drain that filter. It always spits out a few tablespoons of water.

Maintenance of the machine is critical for keeping it operating reliably. Preventive maintenance will likely involve lubrication, cleaning and replacing filters, tightening electrical connections, and so forth. Training on how to manage the preventive maintenance is likely to have long-term benefits.

The largest training topic is going to be the software. For most woodshops, the bulk of the software involved in running a CNC router operation doesn’t come from the CNC router manufacturer. There’s CAD software that is used to design parts and products, CAM programs that prepare a CAD design for the machine’s controller software, and controller software that tells the motors on the router what do to. The CNC router manufacturer generally provides the controller software, but not the CAD (drawing) or CAM (machining) package. You may or may not need to know much about a post-processor, which is software that translates CAD or CAM data to commands that a specific CNC can understand. Post-processors are very specific to CNC router models and to the CAD/CAM software. Woodworkers don’t need to program post-processors, but it’s important that the necessary post-processor is installed, and that it is proven as part of the installation. In some cases, the required post-processors are readily available at no charge, and in other cases they must be purchased.

My place or yours?

CAD/CAM software vendors usually offer training, and this may come in several forms. The vendor may offer in-person training at their facility, or they may offer that same training at your facility. They may also have training manuals and/or videos available online.

I’ve attended several classes at Stiles University (stilesmachinery.com) to learn how to use CNC routers that Stiles placed at the MiLL, a training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo. I was also able to attend training at Legacy Woodworking for a CNC router purchased by our community college. The in-person training was excellent and helpful, and it provided the opportunity to ask questions in real time. The machine manufacturer can usually supply the contact info for other shops close by that have purchased a similar CNC, and who are willing to have a conversation. Learning to use software is a significant task. And then there’s learning how to use it to integrate efficiently with processes in your woodshop, and for the types of products you fabricate. This is one area where old-fashioned networking and industry associations can help.

As an educator I have benefitted from the generosity of woodworking industry associations that offer teacher memberships at a reduced fee. That has opened doors for me.

The Architectural Woodworking Institute and CMA are two industry associations that I joined several years ago. My participation has been relatively low key, and it has not demanded much of my time. I subscribe to the online discussion groups, and I find that to be quite valuable. I receive an email most days with a summary of the day’s discussion topics, and I can choose to read further or not. Most of the time I’m a passive participant just reading and following the discussion. Over time, auditing in this manner gives me a sense of what the key topics are for the industry.

Ted Bruning is a furniture maker and college instructor in Colorado Springs, Colo. 

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue.

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