Shopping for Entry-Level CNC Equipment

Advice on finding good CNC machinery for a small shop at an entry-level price point. January 14, 2009

Iím a small one man cabinet shop that knows nothing about - but wants to get started in - CNC. Since all I have is 220 volt and have heard bad things about phase converters, Iíve been looking at Techno's 220 volt machines and vacuum pumps. Iím looking at their LC 4896 with a twin 10hp rotary vane vacuum pump, 346 cfm and 25Ē Hg. Am I on the right track?

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
From contributor S:
What price range are you trying to stay in? What are the materials you are trying to cut? Shop Bot is one that comes to mind. Entry level machines, fairly inexpensive, 110V - 220V. You would, however, sacrifice things like tool changers and higher end drives. Most in that price range are stepper motors. Once you get one, you will wonder how you ever survived without one!

From the original questioner:
I would like to stay under 50k for the complete setup. Maybe max of 60k. I looked at the Shopbot but really liked the idea of a tool changer. I'm mostly hoping to have one to cut, dado, drill for shelf clips, possibly pre-drill for drawer slides in plywood cabinet parts.

From contributor J:
CNC makes money and is a heck of a lot of fun to learn and operate! I went CNC in the fall of last year after buying a Sears carving machine for my barn. I looked at a lot of CNC machines and went to three factories to meet the guys who build them. There are several at the mid size shop level who can deliver what you have asked for here.

I chose a used 4x8 Camaster to "soften" the learning curve. Within one month I ordered a 5x10 with an automatic tool changer from them, and have helped set up several machines for other buyers in my area. CNC machine builders are as limited in their work day as we are, and it is unrealistic to think one is just going to integrate us to CNC on the operating end at the mid size shop/machine/price range. I went with these guys for the other machine owners support. There is a machine 20 miles from me, and I had open access to his shop and he gave his experience with a welcoming attitude. I speak daily with one of eleven guys in my area who have my machine. Yesterday a fellow in NC needed to cut some parts for a customer while waiting on his machine to be fabricated (his second). He will come to my shop, cut his parts, and I will get access to another owner who helps me with learning software! I think it is unrealistic to expect a CNC machine builder to teach me CNC operations. Yes, they can get you going, but at the end of the day, you have to learn to run the thing.

What I was told about CNC:
Do not have a job waiting on a first CNC.
Have a working understanding of Microsoft Windows and computers.
Have high speed internet.

I am happy with my machine, the price, the integration of CNC in my shop, and all the other Camaster owners I communicate with.

From contributor E:
If you are adverse to a phase converter, those 10 HP pumps you listed are 220 volt 3 phase. The solid state phase converters available today work great. Look at a 3 phase machine with a tool changer for your intended application, otherwise you are in the hobby class of equipment.

From contributor G:
For basic, one man shop use, you are most certainly on the right track with the Techno. It would work fine. Not as fast and not as inexpensive as some other options, but you would not go wrong with a Techno - they are good machines. I have one that is still my go-to machine for accurate small parts and I have had it for 11 years... and bought it used!

To get the type of components a Techno has in a bigger, faster machine, you are looking at 100-150K. The top end cutting speed will not be as fast as most other machines, and while I don't think that will be a bottleneck in a one man shop, the high feed rates and cutting speed tips you might read here are not necessarily going to apply on a Techno.

From contributor S:
Take a look at Shop Sabre. They seem pretty decent for the price and have the ability for a tool changer and vacuum systems. It looks to me like you could upgrade your spindle to an ISO-30 which would allow you to go with larger diameter tools if you would need to. The machine can do 3D and true arcs. You do have the option for software to do drilling cycles (like pecking a hole) also.

I have been involved in the purchase of about 3 CNCs in the last 7 years. Make sure you ask a few important questions:

1. Will the machine do true arcs? Meaning will the arc be smooth, or bumpy? Some machines interpret arcs as small line segments. That sucks! More sanding.

2. Support. Will they help you with your problems? Don't expect to get it and whip jobs out in 10 minutes right out of the box. It could take a few months to really feel comfortable and get cruising.

3. Are parts readily available? I would guess most equipment in this price range you could get parts at Grainger, McMaster Carr, etc.

4. Can you use other CAD/CAM software? Most likely yes, but check. I would definitely recommend going with a CAD/CAM package like AlphaCAM, MasterCAM or the like. You have powerful tools like pocketing, nesting, milling (roughing and finishing passes), drilling, etc. Not only that, with a post processor your G-code for the machine is written with a push of a button.

5. Get some references. If they are a good company they will supply some people you can talk to, and if they're local, you may get to see the machine in action.

From contributor M:
Make time to visit IWF in Atlanta. Plan who you want to see and what questions you want answered, know what you expect the CNC to do for you. They can wow you with all kinds of fancy gadgets and processes that you'll never use. The money you invest in the trip will come back to you many times over very quickly if you end up with the right machine for your operation.

From contributor T:
The market is flooded with high quality used machines. Don't buy one of those tinker toys. Check out online auction sites or locate a local liquidator. 60K could get you a 200-300k machine.

From contributor J:
I watch many of the auction companies and receive the national flyers for industry bankruptcies and subsequent auctions. What is interesting is that the big iron is cheap and many times these days is worth more at a scrap metal yard than the street value, while the "tinker toys" are selling quick on the market and are few and far between used. Things are changing in the CNC market and technology has really made some headway into affordability and capability.

From contributor Q:
If you have a small shop or are working in your garage or move your machine frequently, the lower end machines are great. The software and cost points have made these machines very marketable. Hands down the quality of the parts coming off heavy iron is better, far better. It's just you can't put heavy iron (or heavy iron power) in your garage. I have both types of machines, so we can compare side by side. If speed or quality isn't a main issue, then the "tinker toy" is the way to delve into the market.

My first CNC was the Digital Tool back in 1993. It served well for about a year. It wasn't a "show off" machine but it took away the repetitive work we did. I upgraded to a top of the line Digital Tool and again it served well for another year or two before going into the heavy iron. I still have that Digital Tool (pretty much taking up floor space) and 3 other heavy iron machines.

If you're really ready to get into the CNC business, buy as much as you can afford and make sure your software and support people are easy to get a hold of. They will be a bigger asset than your actual machine in your first year.

From contributor J:
I saw an older Digital Tool machine in a retrofit shop recently and while it showed its age and scratches, I thought about buying it, as I am hunting for one to put in the barn (practice). The linear rails and necessary hardware were in great shape and with a new control box and software, that machine still had a lot of life in it.