CNC Productivity and the Purchasing Decision

A discussion of machine output versus shop needs, the outsourcing option, and the planning and preparation recommended before purchasing a CNC router. August 29, 2006

We are a 5 man cabinet shop building kitchens and want to buy a CNC with nesting. I was wondering about the types, sizes, price, and what software other similar shops are using. We will be cutting 30-40 sheets a week of 5/8" melamine.

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
From contributor A:
If you are only cutting 30-50 sheets a week you may just want to look at outsourcing your parts. Our machine can cut that many parts in one day. You would have to find other work to fill up machine time to help cover the cost of the machine. We run parts for other shops to fill up time at $25/sheet for this reason and still have machine time left. Good entry level machines start out around $70,000.00 and go up from there depending on options.

From contributor B:
I agree 110% about the outsourcing unless you are doing some very unique milling of some kind. Most base CNCs will output around 20 to 30 sheets a day on a normal mill operation. What exactly do you want to do w/ the CNC? If you are thinking about outsourcing, that maybe a good solution. Give us more details on what you are thinking and we can better answer your question.

From contributor C:
Where are you in your business life span? Do you plan on growing to where you will be cutting 30 to 40 sheets a day? Can you use the CNC for other things during the week besides cutting panels? We use our machine every day, and sometimes go weeks without cutting any sheet stock. You have to project out several years to evaluate a CNC purchase. The learning curve and investment will take a long time to recuperate at 30 sheets a week, but that does not make it a bad investment if it is productive for 15 years.

As for outsourcing, it seems to be most appropriate for either new businesses that do not have the infrastructure or experience to produce the product, or for veteran businesses that have a large cash reserve and have some leverage for pricing and lead times. If you are in between, I think you are better off to maintain control of your cash and schedule. Individual circumstances may vary. As for price, spend as much as you possibly can. You will grow into it. Start with the design software.

From contributor C:
I wanted to reinforce that the decisions have to revolve around the business plan. Where were you last year, where are you now, where will you be next year, in 2 years, in 5 years? What are your products and what is the profitability for each? Who are your customers and are they stable or growing? Who is your competition and are they stable or growing? What is your labor base and is it stable or growing? What does your wife think (the bank doesn't care, but you should)?

From contributor D:
Let me give you another perspective on purchasing a CNC. This is just my story and my opinion and I am sure it does not apply to everyone. We purchased an entry level machine. I am using a CAD/CAM program called Bobcad. I am very happy and satisfied and making money. My thinking is that the CNC technology is really a different trade. I wanted to get my feet wet without risking my entire business doing so. I wanted to be able to purchase a machine and if it did not do what I expected or if the learning curve was really long and difficult it could set idle a few days a week.

I anticipated spending some time learning the software. So I purchased Bobcad 8 months before I purchased a machine. I learned how to draw and I took one of their training classes. I did this while still running my business, after hours and on weekends. I think the threshold for profitability is not the purchase price of the machine but the new skills you will need to learn. When I finally purchased a machine I had it up and running with in 48 hours of its arrival - running, making parts and making money.

My router does not have all of the bells and whistles - no vacuum hold down, and no automatic tool changer. But it is still making me money. We can still cut and machine things we could not do before. And we can cut parts faster then previously. We spent approximately $26,000.00 for it. I think we will recoup our cost in 8-10 months, without even running it every day. Itís a great machine and very cool technology. If that is true then it should make me enough money to buy another one or a bigger one. One other thing about this CNC technology is that what you purchase is more about your market and your business then it is about capacity and features. Are you exclusively making cabinets? Are those cabinets standardized or unique? Are you making other items? Do you have projects that could use CNC to accomplish in house? How much computer experience do you have? How much computer drafting experience? Can you make a time commitment to learn a new trade? I am still learning, how to machine a part, i.e tool paths, fixturing issues, cutter and feed speeds. Nevertheless we are making radius and curved trim, curved beam wrap, handrails for circular stairs and tons of cabinet parts.

From the original questioner:
Maybe I didn't explain my situation well enough. I am taking over my fatherís 30 year old cabinet shop. We don't just do cabinets - we also do millwork. Over the years we have been getting more and more work. My way of thinking is we have an employee cutting, one preparing parts, one assembling, one finishing and so on. If I was to get a CNC I think I could do more work with fewer employees. Am I on the right track?

From contributor C:
I would give that a qualified yes. CNC requires a different skill set than traditional woodworking. It's not a natural transition from journeyman carpenter to CNC production. In fact, you may get a lot of resistance from the old schoolers. But if you sell out to the whole system of CAD design linked to manufacturing then you can get big results for your efforts.

From contributor E:
I found myself in the same place as you are last year. First, get a good drawing package (KCDw, Cabinet vision) and learn it well. That is half the battle. Buy a Techno 4896 LC series router. Router and software, tool changer and vacuum is about 52k. This was the best investment I ever made. I only cut about 100 sheets per week. My material savings alone pays for 75% of my monthly payment.

From contributor F:
I have the same machine as contributor E and I agree with him 100%. Once you get a CNC it will be the most important tool in your shop, second to the dust collector.

From contributor G:
I agree with contributor E and contributor F 100 %. For NBM good software like KCDw is the best out there. Out put to your CAD-CAM, print labels and sheet layouts, and post to the machine. Then run the sheets, stick on the labels, edge band and on to assembly. I have a Flexicam flat bed 61in. X 102in. with 10 position tool rack at the back, HSD spindle 11hp, and 10hp Busch vacuum 250 cfm, 5in. dust pick up line 1 Ĺ hp dust collector. I cut Plywood, MDF, Melamine, PL sheets, and solid lumber.

From contributor E:
One other thing - get a dedicated dust collector for your CNC Ė at least 1550 cfm.

From contributor H:
I cut out my first cabinet job last Saturday - 40 sheets at 2.5 hrs. Parts included rebating and line boring. From what I am hearing that is pretty good time for a rookie.