Purchasing a Five-Axis CNC Machine

Advice on shopping for 5-axis CNC machinery and software. March 1, 2006

Iím ready to purchase a Balestrini 5 axis CNC (300k). This is my first step into CNC, so Iím a bit nervous. We make all types of solid wood furniture, and I am buying this mainly for chairs but also want to do limited panel work, etc. We are a small run production shop. Iím under the impression I can pretty much do anything with this machine, but is there something better out there? Does it make sense to buy used? If we buy new, we get all the training and support. I really want a machine that will cover all of my needs. I would like an expertís advice.

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
From contributor A:
I suggest you check out Thermwood's site for 5 axis CNC routers. You can get one for less than 300K there. They have an on line *build your own machine* setup. I do not have a 5 axis CNC but can do about anything on my 3 axis, not including undercuts. I just have to turn the part, and I have a worked out way to index them to get exact turning angles that are consistent. Smoke comes out of my ears sometimes when doing the programming for 3 axis, so I imagine 5 axis is similar. Of course it may be that since I am simulating 5 axis work with a 3 axis machine, the programming is tougher. Software and someone who can program for you are going to be big factors in making this a success for your business. A used machine is definitely an option but you should have the used machine inspected and refurbished by the manufacturer with a guarantee. There are parts that wear out or become sloppy and you should get it updated with the latest computer and internal software to run it. I have seen used Thermwood 5 axis machines for around 45-60K and if you spent another 30-40K to get it refurbished and updated, you'd be in there for about 100K.

From contributor B:
I'm not sure why you are looking at a 5 axis machine? Do you want to be able to keep the cutter parallel to the parts for better surface finish? I use a 5 axis Motionmaster at work in a model shop. I use 3 axis 90% of the time, 3 axis plus (angle the head and then machine in 3 axis) 8% of the time, and 5 axis 2% of the time. To really use 5 axis, you will have to come up with a fixture that suspends the part well above the table. It takes a lot of room around the head when it twists around. The feed speeds are way slower than in 3 axis because of all the math the machine has to run. I don't have the best 5 axis software, but production is probably cut by 2/3 in 5 axis.

I've watched pretty wild programs running at the shows, but I think the industry that really benefits from 5 axis are the guys who trim vacuum formed plastic parts. I've never seen profiled parts machined by CNC that don't require extensive sanding after machining. I bet you could get much higher production by re-fixturing the parts on 3 axis, then sanding any slight mismatch away on the final sanding. Another reason some get 5 axis is because the cutter is not long enough to reach. I don't think that would be a problem with chair parts. Before spending that kind of money I would want the salesperson to take me to a shop that is running similar parts. Get all the information you can while the salesperson is there, but then call the other company without the salesman around to get the real info. My salesman led me down quite a path when we got our machine. They grossly underestimate the learning curve for the software and the machine. Luckily, we negotiated for a great price on a machine that was already headed down the production line without a buyer, or I would have been disappointed spending the extra for the 5 axis over the 3 axis.

From contributor C:
I've been operating and programming 5 axis machines for about 10 years now. Heian makes a very strong and dependable 5 axis router. I believe is under 300k. Check the Stiles Machinery website. I used Surfcam, Catia V4 and now Catia V5 for programming. If you are planning on buying a 5 axis machine, invest in good software. I've seen many shops not utilizing the full 5 axis capabilities because of lack of software or experience. In our shop we have four 5 axis machines and two 3 axis. We use the 5 axis all the time. Motionmasters are good and inexpensive to run but not very strong. Heian NG-151 has a Fanuc 16i control. If you need a 5 axis, check this machine. By the way, programming in 5 axis is not hard at all.