The concept of replacing manual processes with automated ones is a sign of our times. From speed-dialing phones to cars that parallel-park themselves, our world is now designed to eliminate human error and make life easier, more efficient and safer. So why not automate the woodshop, too?
Many woodshop owners drive a pickup truck and the cost of a new one can be almost as much as hiring somebody for a year. But the truck is seen as essential because it is used every day and the cost becomes bearable when it is spread over five or six years. The truck (or its mileage) is deductible and that also helps soften the blow.
Buying a CNC router for the same kind of money, with the same payoff schedule, seems somehow to be a much larger consideration — and consequently becomes a more difficult decision.
Is that just because there’s no radio?
There are lots of benefits to investing in a CNC router. The most obvious is that this one machine will dramatically improve the pace of production in almost any shop. It can work two or three shifts in a row, every day of the year, and never need a coffee break. Of course, how busy it stays will depend on how much of the shop’s existing workload can be completed by the machine. In highly customized shops that build one-off parts such as spiral stair handrails, the application is hard to imagine. But in standard cabinet shops, where there is a large volume of similar parts, almost everything can be cut and shaped on a CNC router.
Other benefits include the elimination of human error on manual workstations, such as when a router tips and destroys a profiled edge or the work isn’t secured and slips while being milled. A CNC is also remotely operated, so the woodworker is several feet away and this reduces the chances of him/her being injured by the cutters, the workpieces or moving machine parts.
Investing in automation also reduces the number of man-hours required and this can help pay for the machine. One operator can usually monitor and program two machines simultaneously. And because the routers don’t take time to chat at the water cooler or use their cell phones, the accumulated savings of even just a few minutes per shift can quickly add up.
Those machines have something else going for them, too: repeatability and consistency. At the end of the day, when all of the doors are exactly the same height, there is a lot less adjustment to do when the job is being assembled — and that’s a timesaver, too.
Most CNC software helps with optimization (using materials in a way that produces the least amount of waste). This saving must also be entered in the black column when adding up the pros and cons of making the investment. Stacking parts (cutting more than one at a time) is an option on many machines and that, too, saves money. Plus, most router profiles are now available in carbide insert cutters for CNC machining, which can save a little day-to-day expense.
One of the more interesting benefits of making the technological leap is that an automated router can be used creatively to add optional features such as logos and relief carving. And these, in turn, can increase the value of a job and its price. Offering these value-adding options not only helps the bottom line, but it also helps to enhance the shop’s reputation and professional image.
Given the current trend in our industry toward outsourcing, a shop can often sell time on its CNC router, making parts for other woodshops or even attracting new customers in related fields such as sign-making. Most machines will work just as well in plastics and foam and that offers some interesting possibilities for the downtime between cabinet jobs.
One other financial consideration to keep in mind is that these machines tend to hold a lot of their value and resale prices are often surprisingly high. There are even companies such as The CNC Router Store (www.cncrouterstore.com) that appraise, buy and sell nothing but CNC equipment.
Well, the most obvious disadvantage is that even a small new machine costs about as much as that pickup truck mentioned earlier. Buying used can cut the cost significantly, but it also limits one’s options to what’s available. Prices have definitely come down, but it seems unlikely that there will be much more reduction until there is a major new technological breakthrough. However, recent years have seen a lot of smaller machines (even ones for home shops) being offered. And if a woodshop is just exploring the possibilities, that could be a good place to start.
All new machines require some learning/training time and the CNC router involves some time on the machine and also some on the computer. There is a period of trial and error until the operator learns the nuances of the software and other shop processes need to be able to survive without the machine and its operator during that learning curve.
One aspect of this technology that can cost a lot of time and money is the old “garbage in, garbage out” adage. If a programmer gets a dimension wrong, a shop could easily have a couple of dozen drawers in a few minutes that are all an inch too narrow or perhaps a whole kitchen of doors with short stiles.
A CNC machine needs space. There’s the footprint of the machine itself, room to load and unload work, a place to store materials inventory and completed parts and room for people to get around everything. Sacrificing that much floor space deserves a little thought.
Maintenance can be quite costly. The people who repair and fine-tune the machines are not inexpensive. Manufacturers and aftermarket software sellers tend to provide excellent support, but many of them charge accordingly.
Then there’s the eggs-in-one-basket problem. If the machine goes down after it has become central to the shop’s production cycle, pretty much everything goes down, too. That can become quite costly in a hurry.
For small, one-man shop owners who are considering making the investment, there is an option that might appeal to the more mechanical-minded. Several woodworkers have built their own tabletop CNC platforms and there are even some kits available (see www.buildyourcnc.com). It’s not as complicated as building a new pickup truck and it’s a lot less expensive. But there still isn’t a radio.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.