The CNC purchase is mere prologue

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Introducing a CNC router to a woodworking business is more than just buying the machine and putting it in the shop. Like all management or market-driven changes to an existing business that introduces a new technology, there needs to be planning beyond the financial arrangements.

A CNC router is several technologies under one banner and identifying each of these technologies is the path to a successful transition. To accomplish this, shop management should be focused on issues of space, place, people and processes.

Space

A CNC router for cutting sheet goods will require some real estate. To fit a machine with a 4’ x 8’ table, you’ll need at least a 7’ x 11’ area to accommodate the machine’s footprint and sufficient safety and operator pathways. Plan for clear access at one end or side of the machine to load panels and another avenue for removing parts and scrap.

CNC routers with a vacuum work holding system require a vacuum pump, usually placed in an interior enclosure or outbuilding. A new or larger compressor might also be needed for an automatic tool changer.

Proper dust collection will eat up more space. Expect to add ducting, upgrade or replace a collector and to collect piles of sawdust. You’ll need a place to store bags of sawdust (and a plan to dispose), replacement filters and scraps.

Place

By place, I’m referring to the property and buildings where the CNC router will be located.

First, verify that by adding CNC equipment the property doesn’t fall into a different land-use category.

Study the condition of the building. Be sure the floor can take the static and dynamic loads of a CNC router. A steel-framed router with a steel gantry, large spindle motor and tool carousel weighs plenty just sitting in the shop. Considerable motion adds some sway. Consult with a structural engineer to be sure.

Verify clean electrical power of the appropriate type, voltage and phase for the router and ancillary equipment. Traditional woodworking machines can typically tolerate a wide variation of electrical power. But it’s vital for servo or stepper motors, controllers and the machine’s other computer hardware to have clean stable power. Additional equipment might be necessary to correct a power issue, plus the services of electrical professionals.

Anticipate moving costs and production downtime. Whether you’re rearranging or decorating a new space, adding a CNC router can be a monumental task. Walls, floors and ceilings have been removed to squeeze one in. Have industrial moving equipment ready to go.

Once everything is in place, there will be a break-in period, full of troubleshooting and fine adjustments as the new processes and equipment are dialed in.

In my experience, computers hate dust and programmers dislike noise, so a solid barrier is essential. Your place will become part shop, part climate-controlled offices with the addition of CNC.

People and processes

I’ve heard about a couple guys who thought they could buy a CNC router, run it themselves and hire cheap unskilled labor to assemble parts into cabinets and make a small fortune. It’s not that simple.

While other technologies introduced in the past, say a Festool Domino or wide-belt sander, were no doubt gradually introduced into the workflow process, the introduction of a completely new technology such as a CNC router will require operations to be thought out all at once and should be done in the planning stages rather than after the CNC router is installed.

There are two skills that have to be added to your worker mix to make a CNC router in the shop even possible. First is finding someone capable of mastering computer-aided drawing (CAD) programs. Often this person will become the lead designer and rather indispensable, so an understudy should also be groomed.

You’ll also need a CNC operator and there are two schools of thought: train an existing employee or hire someone with experience. Both have an upside. It’s becoming somewhat easier to find young, skilled CNC operators, the result of the industry’s educational outreach to high school and college woodworking programs.

In my opinion, the owner of a small CNC shop should become an expert on programming and operation — for backup purposes, obviously, but also as the go-to guy for problem solving.

But perhaps the shop owner has too much else with which to deal. Adding CNC will increase the costs of running the business with machinery and necessary software and tooling purchases, reconfiguration of the shop and offices, training expenses and hiring new employees.

Most successful CNC shops bill by the hour for machine use. This covers required maintenance by outside contractors, replacement parts, software licenses and upgrades, utilities and more.

As you should know by now, buying a CNC router is only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue.

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