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CNC Routers: A Guide For Beginners

CNC routers are incredibly versatile machines, used by big industrial setups, small businesses, hobbyists, and DIY entry-level machinists. They come in both large, heavy-duty models to more compact, benchtop versions. High-end router machines come with advanced features like an automatic tool changer (ATC), and there are models with a 4th-axis rotary feature, kind of like a lathe router machine. There’s no shortage of options available.

In this guide we’ll go over the router basics: how they’re used, what they cost, and the features you should look for. Whether you’re looking to make simple signs or dive into complex 3D carving, there’s a CNC router out there that fits your needs and budget.

What does a CNC router do?

A CNC router is an automatic machine tool with a computer-controlled system. It’s used for milling, drilling, engraving, cutting, and, of course, routing. A CNC router primarily cuts wood but can be used for lighter materials, including foam, plastics, acrylic, glass, copper, brass, aluminum, PVC, and MDF. Similar to a milling machine, it can produce precise and complex shapes with various router bits moving along three axes—X (front to back), Y (left to right), and Z-axis (up and down).

As the cutting tool carves and shapes the workpiece, the router produces dust and small particles. Helped features like a dust collector play a crucial role in capturing this debris, ensuring both the cleanliness of the work area and the longevity of the machine. This feature not only preserves the machine’s accuracy but also enhances the overall safety and health conditions of the workspace, making it a vital part of the CNC routing process.

Diagram of a CNC router machine

Routers vs Other Machines

CNC routing is often used for woodworking and CNC mills for metalworking. Gantry-style CNC routers are usually less robust than their CNC mill counterparts because the mills are almost always made of heavy-duty cast iron or steel construction. In contrast, the routers might have an aluminum, plastic, or plywood framework.

Compared to CNC plasma cutters and laser cutters, routers are really versatile when it comes to handling different materials. While plasma and laser cutters are great for metals, routers can easily work with a variety of materials like wood, plastics, foams, and even some softer metals. This makes routers a go-to choice for projects that need detailed work and a nice finish, like crafting signs, woodworking, or artistic designs. Routers use actual cutting tools that give you more control over depth and let you carve in 3D, something plasma or laser cutters can’t do. But remember, while routers are great for their versatility and detail, they might not be as fast or as good at cutting through really tough materials as plasma or laser cutters.

Common Uses

Like CNC milling, CNC routing offers versatility and repeatability, meaning you can use it for numerous applications. They are most commonly used for woodworking due to their exceptional precision and ability to handle intricate designs and cuts, making them ideal for creating detailed wood projects. They can work on a range of wood types, from softwoods to hardwoods, and they can perform a variety of tasks like carving, engraving, and shaping.

CNC routers are used for furniture crafting, prototyping, parts creation, and other common tasks. Here are a few of them:

Cabinets and Components

cabinets created from a cnc router machineCNC routers are ideal for CNC woodworking projects making them the perfect choice for cabinet doors, drawer fronts, and boxes. Although the possible designs are infinite, each component must be uniform from piece to piece, and CNC machining ensures they are.

Furniture Making

The furniture industry has the potential for mass-producing wooden products, and because of that, the CNC router machine is the perfect fit for creating intricate designs quickly and accurately. More and more hobbyists make money with CNC furniture every year.

Rapid Prototyping

No more hand-carved prototypes or waiting for custom-milled parts from a vendor since CNC routers have arrived on the scene. Making design changes is as easy as editing a program, so you can quickly have a working prototype for testing and analysis.

Engraving

a piece of wood with an engraving of a compassEngraving is a common task for CNC routers. They provide the details and accuracy you require with engraved items. Many CNC routers even include a laser engraving kit to make the engraving process much faster.

Sign Making

custom wooden signsMaking signs is time-consuming, so businesses are turning to the CNC router machine for these custom products. Many companies are creating their logos in formats that can be converted to a CNC router’s format.

Musical Instruments

a wooden guitar mould that was crafted with a cnc routerMusical instruments are now being created on CNC routers with impressive results. The inlays, fretwork, and body and neck carvings are all produced with precision and speed.

Other applications include mold making, handicrafts, and medical, aerospace, military, and transportation parts.

The great thing about a CNC router machine is you can use it out-of-the-box for projects that you can sell.

Important CNC Router Features

Whether you’re looking for tips on choosing a CNC router to add to your business or home workshop, there are specific things you’ll need to keep in mind as you research. Here are the most relevant considerations:

Drive System

Your drive system moves your CNC router’s axes. It’s comprised of the motor, ball screw, lead screw, or rack and pinions, working together to transfer controlled linear motion. CNC machines offer a choice of three types of drive systems:

  • Rack and Pinions work best on longer axes and are less costly. The meshing of the two gear-like components moves the machine tool.
  • Lead Screws are typically more accurate than the rack and pinion but don’t work as well as ball screws. They do work well for vertical applications (Z-axis).
  • Ball screws are the most expensive of the drive systems but will machine your parts with greater accuracy and efficiency.

Motor System

You will find two main motor systems in most CNC router machines: the stepper motor system or the servo motor system.

  • Stepper motor systems are sometimes referred to as open-loop control motors. Stepper motors rotate (step) from one position to another, are less expensive, and are better for low-to-medium-speed applications.
  • Servo motor systems are often called closed-loop systems, are more expensive than steppers, but work well in high-speed, high-torque applications.

CNC Router’s Weight

Heavier machines generally provide heavy-duty performance, less vibration, and accurate machining. However, think about a desktop CNC router if you plan to transport your CNC machine frequently. Keep in mind that lightweight benchtop models have a smaller working area that restricts the type of work you can do.

Electrical Requirements

Determine the electrical capabilities of your shop since some routers are designed to work only with specific voltages. Make sure you have three-phase power, or you’ll need to install it if you buy a more sophisticated model. If you want a desktop model, it most likely will come with single-phase power and work in your home shop.

Software Requirements

Consider the software requirements of the CNC router. You might want to choose a software package specific to your business, such as software for cabinet making or engraving.

Budget

Your budget is a critical factor when searching for a CNC router. Depending on whether you want the machine tool for a small business, a large shop, or to pursue a hobby, prices will vary substantially. Also, include the cost of accessories, such as collets and router bits, in your estimation.

Brand

There are dozens of companies to choose from when buying a CNC router machine. While the considerations above are most important, many amateur hobbyists or home machinists start their journey on Amazon.

Accessories

If you’re buying a new router, check to see what accessories it comes with and which ones you’ll need to buy. Accessories like automatic tools changers, end mills, dust collection units, vacuum systems, computers, and software upgrades may not be included with your CNC router machine and can add additional costs new buyers should be aware of.

Your Uses

Before you spend tens of thousands on a machine, consider your likeliest uses. If you’re a machinist, the smaller less heavy-duty CNC routers likely won’t hold up to the everyday demands of a shop. If you’re interested in starting a woodworking business, do you need to upgrade to a machine with more power than smaller desktop routers? For the skilled amateur, you might consider building your own router or buying a cheap used one to see how you like it.

Building a CNC Router

If you didn’t realize it, you could make your own CNC router with the help of kits, plans, and tutorials. The machines can be fabricated from materials ranging from particle board to metal. Because they have relatively loose tolerances compared to a milling machine or lathe, it’s possible to turn building one into a DIY project.

However, the question of whether you can build a CNC router or whether you should build it is one we get asked a lot at CNC Masters. Here are the factors you should consider:

The advantages of building a CNC router include:

  • You can choose a CNC router kit that meets your requirements without buying features you don’t need.
  • You will save money.
  • You should get a strong sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

The disadvantages of building a CNC are:

  • You will invest a lot of time and effort in selecting, purchasing, and assembling the CNC kits you will need.
  • Assembling the CNC router kits or CNC router components requires technical knowledge and skills.
  • The DIY CNC router might only be available in a small size with basic functions that do not meet your needs.

Is it cheaper to build or buy a CNC router?

Most CNC wood routers cost tens of thousands of dollars upfront. The most basic three-axis routers sell for between $5,000 and $10,000, while mid-range machines are likely to cost anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. When you get to the full-scale CNC routers, they start at $50,000 and go up from there.

It is far cheaper to build your own CNC router. You can find DIY kits at popular online stores. As mentioned above, building a CNC router will take significant time and knowledge of CNC routers, and it’s important to choose a router kit that will meet your needs.

When you buy a complete CNC router, there are several advantages. Firstly, you get a machine capable of heavy-duty, long-term, and high-intensity work, which is essential for robust and continuous operation. Additionally, purchasing from a CNC machine tool manufacturer means you have expert support to answer any queries you might have, along with a warranty that protects your investment. There’s also the added benefit that if the machine is made in the USA, you can expect reliable after-sales service to swiftly address any issues that arise.

On the flip side, buying a complete CNC router also comes with its disadvantages. One of the most significant is the cost, which is likely to be higher than if you were to buy a CNC router kit. Moreover, if your purchase is from a foreign CNC machine tool manufacturer, be prepared to incur additional freight and customs fees. And let’s not forget the time and effort required to find a reliable manufacturer, a crucial step to ensure you’re getting a quality product that meets your needs.

Should you buy a CNC router?

If you’re a skilled machinist, you know very well the necessity of owning a great CNC router machine. However, if you’re looking to take your DIY small shop projects to the next level and maybe even start your own machining or woodworking business, here are some of the best reasons we know to buy your own CNC router:

  • Precision: CNC routers are machines controlled by computers that can make detailed designs with great accuracy. This is hard to do with manual hand tools or non-CNC machines, so CNC routers are perfect for creating complicated shapes and patterns.
  • Productivity: CNC routers work both non-stop and automatically, so they’re faster and more efficient than hand tools. This helps businesses make more products faster, leading to higher profits.
  • Versatility: CNC routers can work with many materials, like wood, plastic, metal, and foam. You can make custom designs for different industries, like furniture, signs, cars, and airplanes. A CNC router can be programmed to make new designs or change existing ones with ease.

About Peter Jacobs

Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters, a leading supplier of CNC mills, milling machines, and CNC lathes. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn.

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29. Create a Peck Drilling Program in Circular or Rectangular Patterns
Using the Circular or Rectangular Drilling Wizards, you can program the machine to drill an un-limited series of holes along the X and Y planes. Program it to drill straight through to your total depth, use a high-speed pecking cycle, or deep hole pecking cycle. You can program the cut-in depth and return point for a controlled peck drill application to maximize chip clearance.

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20. Change up to 30 tools with compensation, and store your tool offsets for other programs
The MX supports…

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21. Use the optional ATC rack up to 8 tools for milling, drilling, and rigid tapping applications
The CNC Masters Automatic Tool Changer Rack and Tools (US Patent 9,827,640B2) can be added to any CNC Masters Milling Machine built with the rigid tapping encoder option. The tutorial will guide you through the set-up procedure using the ATC tools.

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22. Use the optional Rigid Tapping Wizard without the need for tapping head attachments
When you order your CNC Masters machine, have it built with the optional rigid tapping encoder. You can take any drill cycle program and replace the top line with a tapping code created by the wizard to tap your series of holes up to 1/2” in diameter.

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23. Use the optional Digital Probe to scan the profile and/or pockets of your fun/hobby type designs to write your tool path program and machine out a duplicate of your original design To “surface” scan an object, you can program the probe along the X or Y plane. The stylus will travel over the part starting on the left side front corner of the object and work its way to the end of the part on the right side. Depending on how the stylus moves, it will record linear and interpolated movements along the X, Y, and Z planes directly on the MX Editor.
To “pocket” scan an object containing a closed pocket such as circles or squares, the scan will start from the top front, work its way inside of the pocket, and scan the entire perimeter of the pocket.
Under the Setup of the MX software you will find the Probe Tab which will allow you to calibrate and program your probe. Your “Probe Step”, “Feed”, and “Data Filter” can also be changed on the fly while the probe is in the middle of scanning your object.

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24. Use work offsets G54-G59 for nesting applications
The work offsets offer you a way to program up to six different machining locations. It’s like having multiple 0.0 locations for different parts. This is very useful especially when using sub-routines/nesting applications.

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25. Create a Rectangular Pocket / Slot with our selection of Wizards to help you build a tool path program
The Cycle Wizards for the mill or lathe makes it easy to create a simple tool path without needing to use a CAD and CAM software.
On this Wizard, the Rectangular Pocket / Slots, can be used to form a deep rectangular pocket into your material or machine a slot duplicating as many passes needed to its total depth.

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26. Create a Circular Pocket Wizard
Input the total diameter, the step down, and total depth and the code will be generated.

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27. Do Thread Milling using a single point cutter Wizard

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28. Cut a gear out using the Cut Gear Wizard with the optional Fourth Axis

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19. Disable the axis motors to manually hand crank each axis into place
Easily de-energize the axis motors by clicking [Disable Motors] to crank each axis by hand, and then press [Reset Control] to re-energize the axis motors.

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30. The MX interface can easily be interchanged from Mill Mode to Lathe Mode
Use this interface for your CNC Masters Lathe. It contains all the same user-friendly features and functions that comes in Mill Mode. Simply go to the Setup page and change the interface.

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31. Use Tool Change Compensation or the optional Auto Tool Changer Turret if your application requires more than one tool in a single program
You can offset the length and angle of each tool and record it under Tools in your Setup. The program will automatically pause the lathe’s movement and spindle allowing you to change out your tool, or allowing the optional ATC Turret to quickly turn to its next tool and continue machining.
On the MX interface, you also have four Tool Position buttons. Select your desired T position, and the auto tool post will quickly turn and lock itself to that position.

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32. Use the Lathe Wizard Threading Cycle to help you program your lathe’s internal or external threads in inches or metric

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33. Use the Lathe Wizard Turning / Boring Cycle to help you program simple turning and boring cycles without having to go through a CAM or writing a long program with multiple passes

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34. Use the Lathe Wizard Peck Drilling Cycle to help you program your drill applications or for face grooving

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35. Facing / Grooving / Part Off Cycle Wizards – with Constant Surface Speed
These cycles can be used with Constant Surface Speed allowing the spindle speed to increase automatically as the diameter of the part decreases giving your application a consistent workpiece finish. With CSS built into the wizard, there is no need to break down the cycle into multiple paths and multiple spindle speed changes.

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36. This is our list of supported G and M codes which can be found under Tools > G Code/ M Code List in the MX
If you plan to use a third-party CAM software to generate your tool path program, use a generic FANUC post processor and edit it to match our list of codes. As an option, we also sell Visual mill/turn CAM software which comes with a guaranteed post processor for our machines to easily generate your tool path programs based on your CAD drawings.

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37. Our pledge to you…

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10. Run each tool path independently to study its movement
1. Run the machine on Trace mode. You can run each tool path independently, one line at a time to study the tool path movement on the machine to verify the position of the application and if any fixture/vise is in the way of the cutter’s path.

2. You can also verify your program by clicking on the Trace and Draw buttons together. This will allow you to view each tool path independently one line at a time in the Draw Window.

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2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!

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3. Features Tour and Tutorials Included
The Features Tour will give you a quick run-down on all the features the MX can do for you. The Tutorials are easy to follow even for the first time CNC machinist.
Feel free to download the MX on any of your computers. We recommend downloading the MX along with your CAD and CAM software there at the comfort of your office computer to generate your tool path programs. You don’t need to be hooked up to the machine either to test your program in simulation mode.

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4. Navigate and Edit Your Program through the MX interface with Ease
With a few clicks of the mouse or using touch screen technology, you can easily navigate through the MX interface importing saved programs into the Editor from the File drop down menu. Using standard windows features to edit your program you can then lock the Editor Screen to avoid accidental editing, and if you need to insert a line in the middle of a program, just click on [ReNum] to re-number your tool path list.
You can create a program or import CAM generated G-code tool paths into the Editor
The X Y and Z W arrow jog buttons are displayed from the point of view of the cutter to avoid confusion when the table and saddle are moving. You can also adjust your spindle speed and coolant control while jogging each axis.

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5. Feed Hold – Pause in the Middle of your Program
Feed Hold lets you pause in the middle of a program. From there you can step through your program one line at time while opting to shut the spindle off and then resume your program.
You can also write PAUSE in the middle of your program and jog each axis independently while your program is in pause mode.

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6. Hot Keys
Hot Keys is an alternative method to easily control your machine using your hard or touch screen keyboard. One can press P to pause a program, press S to turn Spindle On, G to run a program, Space Bar to Stop, J to record your individual movements one line at a time to create a program in teach mode.

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7. Pick Menu – for conversational mode programming
Write FANUC style G-codes directly into the Editor or select commands off the [Pick] menu and write your tool path program in conversational mode such as what is written in the Editor box. You can even mix between conversation commands and G-codes in the same program.

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8. Pick Menu List of Options
Use commands such as MOVE, SPINDLE ON/OFF, COOLANT ON/OFF, PAUSE, DELAY, GO HOME…. to write your tool path programs in conversational mode.

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9. Draw the Tool Path to verify it before pressing Go
Hit Draw to view your tool path program drawing, check out its run time, or even simulate the tool path in 3D mode. This can be helpful to quickly verify your program before running it. You can also slow down or speed up the drawing or simulation process.
You can also hit Go within the Draw Window itself to verify the cutter’s position on the machine. The current tool path will be highlighted and simultaneously draw out the next path so you can verify what the cutter will be doing next on the program.

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MX Software – Easy to Use, Easy to Learn – Included with your machine purchase
The MX software is designed to work seamlessly with your CNC Masters machine. It is made to work with Windows PC – desktop, laptop, or an all in one – on standard USB. Use it on Windows 8 or 10 64-bit operating systems.
No internal conversion printer/serial port to USB software or additional conversion hardware is used with the MX.

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11. Counters display in Inches or Millimeters – Continuous Feed
1. When running a program, the counters will display a “real-time” readout while the machine is in CNC operation without counting ahead of the movement.
2. The current tool path is highlighted while the machine is in operation without causing slight interruptions/pauses as the software feeds the tool path to the machine. The MX internally interprets a program ten lines ahead to allow for “continuous machining” avoiding slight interruptions as the machine waits for its next tool path command.
3. “Run Time” tells you how long it takes to run your tool path program.

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12. Use the “Go From Line” command to start in the middle of your program
If you ever need to begin your program from somewhere in the middle of it, use [Go From Line] which you can find under Tools. The Help guide will walk you through how to position the cutter without losing its position on the machine.

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13. Exact Motion Distance without over-stepping on an axis while jogging
Use “Relative ON” to enter a specific coordinate to jog any of your axes to an exact location without having to write a program. It’s like using “power feed” but easier. You can jog an exact distance on any of the axes without needing to keep the key pressed down and mistakenly over-step the movement releasing your finger too slowly off the jog button.
Let’s say you need to drill a hole exactly 0.525” using the Z. So you enter 0.525 in the Z box. Next, adjust the JOG FEED RATE slider for the desired feed rate. Then “click once” on the +Z or -Z button to activate the travel. In this case you click once the -Z button first to drill the hole exactly 0.525”. Then click once on the +Z button to drive the axis back up 0.525”.

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14. Teach Mode – Jog Input
You can create a tool path program by storing each point-to-point movement by simply jogging an axis one at a time. Click on either of the Jog Input buttons to store each movement on the Editor Screen. You can then add Spindle ON, feed commands, and press GO to run the new program as needed. This is a great feature to help you learn to create a program by the movements you make on the machine without necessarily writing out an entire program first.

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15. Override on the fly to adjust the Jog Feed to Rapid or the Spindle Speed during the middle of a program
1. Jog Feed and Rapid with Override: You can adjust feeds using the slider from slow minimum 0.1″ per minute to a rapid of 100″ per minute of travel. You can even micro-step your jog as low as 0.01”/min. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.
2. Spindle Speed with Override: You can adjust speeds using the slider from a slow minimum RPM to the max RPM according to the machine setup. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.

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16. Adjust Counters using Pre-Set if you cannot begin the program from 0.00
In a situation where you cannot begin your cutter at it’s 0.00 location, you can “Pre-Set” directly into the counters by typing in your beginning coordinate. You can press Go from here to run your program. You can also “zero all” or “zero” your counters independently. With one click of the [Return to 0.0] button, all axes will travel back to its respective 0.0 on the machine.

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17. Set and Save your 0.00 position for future runs
Set and save your 0.00 position on the machine. These coordinates will be recorded as the first line of the program in the Editor Screen. Should you desire to return to this program at a later date, you only have to click on the Set Zero Return button. This will command the machine to automatically jog each axis to its saved “set” 0.00 position according to the recorded coordinates at the first line of the program.

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18. Create a “Home” position to clear your application and run multiple times
Let’s say you need to machine one application times 100 pieces. This usually requires a jig to retain that physical 0.00 position. But in this case, you want the program to end with a clearance of the axes to easily switch out the next piece of stock and start again. With Save Home, you have the ability to save this offset (home) position while still retaining your Set Zero position where the machine will mill your part out. Pressing [Save Home] will record this new position under the Set Zero line in your program.
Pressing [Go Home] will jog your axes back to your “saved home” position where you originally pressed the Save Home command. You can also input GO_HOME from the Pick Menu as its own tool path in your program. At the completion of your program the axes will end at your Home position. Replace your part, then press [Return to 0.0] button to allow the axes to return to its zero position, and press Go to start your next run.

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