By Olivia Cahoon
For accurate repeatability of complex shape cutting and a computer-controlled device, print service providers (PSPs) select CNC routers. These devices are designed with increasing speeds while automating the entire finishing process. CNC routers take precise control of coordination, location, and speed. While some PSPs opt for a complete CNC router, others select devices with CNC routing functions.
Above: Cutting devices with CNC router functions include the Zünd G3 3XL models paired with the Zünd 3.6kW Router Module – RM-L, which features a depth of up to 50 millimeters.
CNC routers allow PSPs to make accurate cuts on thick materials like metal, plastic, plexiglass, and wood in a short period of time. The devices work constantly and are designed with specific parameters for each finishing job. CNC routers can cut, trim, and shape materials while offering complex precision cuts that are typically difficult or impossible to make by hand.
Joshua Santa Cruz, marketing specialist, MultiCam Inc., says CNC routers potentially reduce secondary finishing processes like hand polishing or sanding. With the correct software and nesting features, he believes end users can reduce material waste and decrease the chance for possible human error.
Using CAD software, CNC routers save and store designs for later use and simpler job repeatability. As designs are transferred to the CNC router, the machine calculates the necessary toolpath. CAD software makes adjustments that scale the designs precisely and accurately.
Werner Waden, president, Colex Finishing, thinks the main benefit of a CNC router is that the cutting information is embedded in the printing file so cut files can be read from the printed image with a digital camera. “This makes the cutting process fast and precise—enabling cutting of shapes, squares, and rectangles,” he adds.
According to Robert Marshall, VP market development, AXYZ International, the speed and efficiency of CNC routers enables fast and easy programming for operators to perform additional tasks while the machine is in use. “CNC routers offer unrivalled versatility for handling a range of materials—our machines offer 368,058 standard machine configurations to process pretty much any material,” he says.
Released in April 2015, AXYZ’s Trident Series features a maximum width of 85 inches. It delivers a triple-head system, which consists of a twin-knife head that includes an oscillating and tangential knife coupled with a quick release routing spindle. The Trident Series processes sheets up to six inches thick and includes performance enhancements like automatic tool change and camera registration.
Learning to properly use a device requires training. Operator training depends on what tools the CNC router has, intended applications, and materials used.
Roberto Rodriguez, president, Digital Graphic Systems Inc. (DGS), believes the learning curve is fairly short, especially if the operator is mainly doing contour cutting. If so, training takes no longer than one day. “We provide a full set of guidelines to cut different materials and thickness, so the operator does not have to reinvent the wheel,” he explains.
Marshall suggests PSPs receive training directly from the manufacturer and that buyers consider machine and application training. Application training is customized according to business needs. He believes all training issues can be alleviated by working with suppliers that understand individual application needs and offer training tailored to applications. “It is the best way to optimize performance of the workforce and the router,” he recommends.
Compared to manual and traditional routers, CNC routers only require one person to monitor the machine because it is a highly automated process. This is ideal for print providers with limited staff or beginner skilled workers. Training is also offered virtually using specially designed lessons for CNC router operators.
Capabilities beyond traditional routing and cutting may require a more extensive learning process. Rodriguez says three-dimensional (3D) cutting requires more training as well as practice. Based on experience, he says 90 percent of machines are used for contour cutting and engraving versus 3D applications.
Because CNC routers offer high automation with little human control, they also provide safety for operators. They include features for protection against accidents like safety guards that prevent access to the rotating tool during operation. If a problem occurs, the machine damages itself instead of others.
According to Santa Cruz, to fully understand and utilize the complete capabilities of a CNC router, it can take between 30 and 60 days. “With processes and industries continuously evolving, there is something new to learn every day,” he shares.
The Main Tool Heads
CNC routers typically include a router for hard materials like wood, acrylic, and aluminum. However, Rodriguez says some of the more advanced equipment offers an automatic tool changer option that becomes useful for complex jobs. Before implementing a CNC router, PSPs should consider the main tool heads they require to get the most out of their device.
MultiCam recommends every PSP start out with a spindle, drag knife, and oscillating knife. “Each of the three tooling options perform different types of cutting techniques and are generally material specific and would cover a majority of products,” says Santa Cruz. While knives perform better on cardstock, a spindle performs better when cutting one-inch thick acrylic. Santa Cruz suggests PSPs consider what will be cut most often and base main tool heads off these projects.
MultiCam’s Celero was released in October 2017 and includes a spindle and dual knife. It features a 9.8×13.1-foot cutting area and cut speeds up to 3,500 inches per minute. The Celero’s modular design offers easy transportation through double door entryways. It includes a two-inch cut capacity, automatic knife tool changing system, five linear knife and spindle tool changing stations, and an electrical oscillating knife.
Waden also suggests an oscillating knife is one of the main tools a PSP should start with. Oscillating tools are used for corrugated media and foamboard. Additionally, he recommends PSPs consider a router for thicker and denser media like wood, plastics, acrylic, and PVC.
According to Lance George, plastics division sales manager, Biesse America, almost all CNC routers are now configured with a camera registration system to recognize registration marks in addition to software that integrates a tool path based off the marks. “Any printed material that needs to be cut or routed must have this option as part of the router and cutter configuration,” he explains.
The Biesse Rover Plast J FT features a camera recognition system and a tool changer for spindle, oscillating knife, and tangential drag knife. The CNC router handles a maximum width of seven inches and is priced between $60K and $115K.
PSPs incorporate additional tools to CNC routers as needs arise. To determine when to add more, they should consider current and future projects and customers.
“If a PSP is producing the same product daily, there isn’t a need to add more tooling. But, if they are constantly switching processes and products, it would be ideal to add more tooling to accommodate those markets,” says Santa Cruz.
Dana Goodale, director, product management, Gerber Technology, suggests PSPs add more tools when the costs and logistics of outsourcing outweigh the costs and logistics of doing the work in house. “You have to add the tools, potentially add a new piece of hardware, get trained, and perhaps add people to handle the increased workload,” he explains.
Once a PSP has a CNC router, they take on new applications like cardboard boxes and point of purchase (POP) products by implementing additional tools. Waden says PSPs are able to handle all finishing requests such as decals with kiss-cutting knives, POP displays with a v-cut knife for 90 degree folds, creasing wheels, and perforating wheels.
Released in 2011, the Colex Sharpcut SX-1631 includes a fixed double-edge knife, creasing wheel, kiss-cutting knife, coroplast/corrugated knife, v-cut knife, universal single-edge knife, drawing tool, perforating wheel, one to five horsepower router, oscillating knife, textile knife, and a laser for cutting textiles. “The idea is versatility to take on any project that walks through the door. The more tools you have, the more jobs you can sell,” says Waden.
Automatic tool changers are another option. Rob Cod, sales director, Precix Advanced Cutting Technologies, suggests PSPs add an automatic tool changer when jobs require multiple types of router bits for each single sheet routed. “An automatic tool changer adds approximately $7K to $9K,” he adds.
Precix offers the Industrial Series, released in 2011. The Industrial Series model 13100 features a 6×10-foot cutting area and allows operators to work with materials from foam to thick aluminum. It includes a five horsepower Perske or HSD spindle motor, a heavy-duty industrial linear bearing set, and a vacuum take-off attachment for the spindle. According to Cod, the Industrial Series is available at an average selling price of $18,000.
Considerations for Cutting
Before purchasing a CNC router, PSPs should compare outsourcing costs to implementing a new device. Goodale suggests creating a routing roadmap that analyzes if the PSP has achieved a certain revenue and profit targets within a certain time. If the PSP meets its target, it’s time to purchase or add new routing equipment.
While implementing a CNC router, PSPs should ensure they start out with the correct tools and consider the floor space for the new device. Rodriguez suggests creating a special enclosed environment since the typical cutting process produces dust and debris and generates high levels of noise. “This is especially important when digital printers are operated close to the router—printheads will suffer,” he offers.
Additionally, Santa Cruz says PSPs should educate themselves on the capabilities of each type of CNC router and what works for their business model not only for the present but for the future. “End users should be proactive and invest in a system that can keep up with an ever-changing market and evolving industry,” he offers. It’s important that the router is capable of upgrades as CNC technology advances.
This includes the types of material PSPs cut. Based on this, Rodriguez recommends PSPs select a digital table cutter or a dedicated CNC router. “There are machines that can do both, but the routing functions and spindle power of the digital table cutters are very limited,” he says. He suggests implementing independent machines to work two production lines. “In terms of investment, it’s almost the same to have two machines rather than a hybrid one, but productivity levels are raised to the maximum.”
DGS offers the Tornado II, released in January 2016. The CNC router handles a maximum width of 60×120 inches and is priced between $34,995 and $39,995. It includes a 6.1 horsepower spindle and TYPE 3 design software for two-dimensional and 3D applications. The Tornado II is used for cut out letters, carved and engraved signs, channel letters, POP displays, wood furniture, and molds for vacuum-formed signs.
Additional considerations for PSPs implementing a CNC router include keeping costs down by purchasing inexpensive machines and avoiding necessary accessories. Marshall warns that purchasing an inexpensive machine can actually be costlier in the long term. “The downside to this decision may be lower performance, less reliability, and the limited availability of parts,” he explains.
CNC routers are available in a broad pricing range that depends on the size of the machine—ranging from smaller amateur systems to larger manufacturing-sized devices. Typically, the router’s configuration determines the costs, which includes table size, spindle power, and tools. CNC routers can cost anywhere between $10K and $300K.
CNC machines typically cost more than conventional machining techniques. Starting at roughly $20K, simpler CNC routers are ideal for PSPs that expect to use the device occasionally. Santa Cruz says if the machine is used for over 40 hours during the week, PSPs may want to consider investing in a product that’s capable and built to last.
“A fully equipped 4×8-foot CNC router with at least six horsepower spindle and vacuum pump should be around $35K to $40K,” says Rodriguez. High-speed CNC spindles are best for aluminum, wood, laminates, and composite material.
Steve Aranoff, VP, business development and marketing, MCT Digital, believes CNC routers for 4×8-foot boards can start as low as $20K. However, higher performance and additional productivity capabilities reach over $100K. Routers and cutters with similar CNC functions generally start under $100K with costlier options dependent on cutting bed size and number of tools.
“Given that a $100K system costs under $1,900 a month on a five year lease, and that this represents under 20 hours of use per month for a typical PSP, choosing a low-cost starter system hardly makes sense, especially if you are growing, as the learning curve to change in a year or two may not be at all worth it,” explains Aranoff.
MCT Digital offers the VersaTech2 for just under $125K. The company released first anniversary additions to it in November 2017. It includes functions like a high-speed router, drag knife, kiss-cut knife, and oscillating knife at a maximum work area of 126×126 inches.
Recently, Waden sees mainstream PSPs concerned about versatility because they don’t know what job requests to expect and they want to know they can accept any job. As a result, he says more mainstream PSPs now have a versatile cutting device so that large print providers are not the only ones that can perform big jobs. “Mom and pop stores everywhere can offer a variety of jobs on time and exceed their return on investment,” he offers.
This includes value-added products rather than flat, plain prints. Rodriguez believes a digital table cutter or CNC router helps open a variety of innovative opportunities like the production of structural elements such as trade show booths, POP displays, store decorations, and engraved signs. “These applications are not all sold by the square foot, bringing higher levels of profitability to the business,” he adds.
In fact, Goodale thinks routing and finishing tables are becoming more alike to perform a variety of functions. “Finishing tables are adding larger, more capable routing capabilities, and routers are adding more finishing capabilities,” he explains.
Gerber’s Sabre 408 router is designed for dimensional sign making, woodworking, and parts fabrication applications. It features a maximum cut area of 53.5×101 inches and a maximum material thickness of 4.4 inches. A patented material hold and chip removal system maintains material flatness and collects debris to ensure a clean work surface.
Beatrice Drury, director of marketing and communications, Zünd America, agrees and says that multifunctionality is definitely a trend. “Many CNC routers are offering more cutting tools and many multifunctional cutting systems are providing increasingly diverse and robust router options,” she explains. As a result, device crossovers into different markets and applications create more choices and with them, some confusion.
To stay on course, Drury suggests PSPs keep in mind that no matter what type of equipment they consider, it should first meet their current needs for efficiency, reliability, low maintenance, and a highly productive workflow.
One solution that isn’t considered a CNC router but has similar capabilities is the Zünd 3.6kW Router Module – RM-L, released in January 2017, which is compatible with the Zünd G3 3XL models. The router features a depth up to 50 millimeters and integrated minimal quantity lubrication for processing aluminum and aluminum composite material.
CNC routers are designed to deliver precise cutting measurements while storing designs for later use. Highly automated, these machines reduce errors and the need for human interaction to create a safer, more productive workspace. Before selecting a CNC router, it’s important that print providers are aware of which tools are necessary for their print shop and if adding additional tools is a possibility
Jan2018, Digital Output