If you investigated CNC technology some years ago and dismissed it as unworkable for your operation, you might want to give it another look. Once considered cost effective only for large production runs, recent advances in personal computing and software technology have made a CNC router the ultimate tool for highly custom, one-off solid surface projects as well.
Gone, too, is the months-long learning curve for implementing new technology and the attendant need for a well-trained and highly-specialized operator. CNC routers are becoming more user friendly, which means practically anyone with up-to-date computer skills can learn to operate a CNC, at best, within a few days.
Okay. Not "practically anyone," but today's Computer Numerically Controlled environment is light years away from what was available just a decade ago.
"Two things came along to change the industry," says Gary Harvey of AXYZ Automation, Inc./Fabricator's Choice. "The personal computer, of course, and mainstream design software from the simplest forms like CorelDraw to the most sophisticated of engineering and geometric software."
The Secret Is The System
Just how well a CNC router might fit into your fabrication operation depends on your shop layout and your philosophy for building tops. "It's different than just grabbing a template, cutting up a sheet and starting to glue," says Tom Harms, also of AXYZ Automation/Fabricators Choice. "One of the things a CNC does, is it forces you to have a fabrication system."
The "system" begins the moment you process your first top for fabrication. That is because a CNC router lives in a digital world and only understands instructions translated into its native tongue, a language with the exotic name of "G-code." That means you must first convert your visual perception of a countertop into special geometric logarithms that are the meat and potatoes of the CNC world.
Translating from analog to digital requires you to consider every aspect of the countertop's fabrication -- even, for example, the height of the fillet on a Roman Ogee edge. As you examine the details of fabrication, you quickly learn that valuable time and effort might be conserved if certain aspects of the process were standardized. You must also make decisions regarding how many fabricating steps you wish the CNC to perform.
If throughput in your shop follows a lineal pattern, for example, where material comes in the front, and moves to the back as it undergoes fabrication, then a CNC might best be used only for cutting material to shape. If, however, material proceeds through your shop in a circular fashion, tops could be reloaded onto the CNC for edge profiling, cutting inlays and drainboards, or even finish sanding.
"It all depends on how much time you want to spend on the machine," explains Keith Card, senior applications specialist for Komo Machine. "The longer the part stays on the machine, the fewer jobs you can process, yet the less hand work is required. It's a trade-off, really."