So, you’ve decided to take the next step along your machining career? Or maybe you’re ready to up your hobbyist game and tackle some next-level projects. To help you make the best choice, we’ve compiled a guide to help you find the perfect machine for your needs.
A CNC router is a computer-controlled version of a handheld router. This automatic device specializes in cutting, drilling, boring, and milling a variety of materials.
What makes the CNC router machine genuinely distinct is the fact that it works on lighter materials. CNC routers are typically aimed at machining softer, low-density workpieces like those made of copper and aluminum. And while the lower torque and rotational speed of router bits may look like a limitation, CNC router machines are exceptionally fast.
What it lacks in terms of mass (compared to milling machines), the CNC router makes up for its performance. It can produce exact, accurate, and complex shapes and contours with a high degree of repeatability.
If you are set on buying your first CNC router, here is a comprehensive guide to help you navigate the purchase. We assume that you have already carried out a detailed assessment of whether or not you need a CNC router.
Primary Parts of a CNC Router
The core components of a CNC router include:
- Spindle: The spindle is the life and blood of a CNC machine. It singularly represents the versatility of the router. CNC spindles vary based on their handling, machining action, cooling method, etc.
- Motor: The motor is the heart of your machine — the organ responsible for its functioning. CNC motors can either be stepper motors or servo motors. The motor defines the performance of your CNC machine.
- Table: The CNC router table helps you with your workholding. These are made of different materials, ranging from aluminum-based T-slots to MDF spoilboards. The former needs regular replacement when required.
- Control System: Control systems are the brain of CNC machines. They interpret CAD/CAM software and execute g-code programming, which facilitates mechanical action. These could be in the form of g-code senders like PlanetCNC or open-source firmware like GRBL.
- Motion Control Drives: CNC routers typically move across at least three axes – the x-axis, the y-axis, and the z-axis with the help of a gantry. Their movement defines the tool path they need and the associated motions (linear, rotary, etc.) that aid machining.
As stated, CNC router machines are highly versatile and can work on:
- Medium-density fibreboard (MDF)
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- Certain metals (like copper, brass, aluminum)
- Aluminum Composite (ACM)
A CNC router can machine the above materials through woodworking, carving (2D/3D), fabricating, milling, molding, engravings, threading, grooving, and more.
Why Do You Need a CNC Router?
Now that you have a clear understanding of what a CNC router is, it is time to answer why workshops need it in the first place. When compared to manual machining, CNC router machines offer the following advantages:
- CNC routers can cut down purchase costs by 30%, which enhances your workshop’s cost performance. Speed up big and DIY projects
- It can process a variety of materials, right from plastics and foam to marble and copper.
- As they are computer-controlled, CNC routers introduce automation, which reduces operational, labor, and processing costs – thereby giving your bottom line a boost.
- It reduces wastage, which could contribute to higher operational costs.
- If you work with large workpieces, you can buy CNC routers with compatible cutting fields and make the task easier.
- CNC routers offer excellent repeatability, which can be a significant concern while producing high-precision jobs.
- Due to its high speed, greater accuracy, and reduced wastage, a CNC router can increase production capacity by many folds.
- CNC router machines find use across various verticals of different industries, from advertising to woodworking.
- Operations involving CNC routers are much easier as they are automated.
- It minimizes the need for physical handling and machining of the workpieces, which improves safety conditions for your workers.
Critical Considerations While Purchasing a CNC Router
With the advantages listed above, you may be eager to get your hands on the latest CNC router. But before you step out for router hunting, here are a few factors to bear in mind:
Quite often, budget is the primary concern while purchasing any equipment. So naturally, a hobbyist or a DIYer cannot spend as much as a manufacturing unit. The expense becomes a more significant issue considering CNC routers can cost anywhere between USD $2,500 to $200,000+. This price range is subject to the configuration, brand, and exact specifications. The best way to analyze whether the investment in a CNC router is justified is by performing cost analysis, calculating ROI, and quantifying the value derived by the machine. This holistic assessment can narrow down your budget range with the corresponding realistic expectations.
The Type of CNC Router You Need
Not every CNC router that you come across is suitable for the task at hand. A CNC wood router, for example, is much different than a 3D printer. Therefore, the device must be calibrated to match the unique application and capability. Fortunately, CNC routers are available in varying shapes and sizes, which offer the operator a world of choices! Some of these include:
- Benchtop CNC
- Mini CNC Router
- Light duty Router
- Desktop CNC Router
- Material-based CNC
- 3-axis, 4-axis, 5-axis CNC router
They can also vary depending on whether they are the basic model or feature-rich industrial models.
Size and Capacity
The capacity of a CNC router is a product of the project size and requirement.
If you are an entry-level operator, your projects would be much different from a veteran woodworker. Typically, a CNC machine with a working area of 4×8 serves various purposes for beginners, college students, and small-scale operations. Similarly, a Mini CNC router would be more suitable for small businesses, while larger enterprises choose top-level industrial CNC models.
While calculating the acceptable size, you will also have to map it against the space available in your workshop. You’ll also need to consider how to get the machine to your location. Transporting CNC machines is no small feat, and if your router is large, it may require a heavy haul company to transport it properly.
Since we are on the subject of space, it is also worth mentioning that positioning your CNC router also makes a world of difference. For instance, it could give or block access to some parts. Similarly, you will also have to factor in the location of electrical supply points and the electricity requirements necessary to power the machine. Finally, you will also have to review the positioning of your inventory and how the finished goods are transported off the device so that you can minimize movement.
The duty cycle dictates the number of hours you can operate the CNC router.
For instance, for 10 minutes, a 100% duty cycle would imply that the machine can run for ten whole minutes. On the other hand, a 20% duty cycle would indicate that it can work only for 2 minutes out of 10.
So depending on your project requirements, delivery timelines, and how long you plan on using the machine, you can find something with lower or higher duty cycles.
Under normal conditions, a CNC router is a powerful workhorse. While wear and tear are an unavoidable side effect of using it, machine durability is often a cause of concern. For starters, it is a sign of high quality. You do not want to use blunt machine tools or work with a ca collet chuck that lets the workpiece slip. Durability is also a product of the maintenance activities that need to be carried out for the machine’s high performance.
Customer service is often overlooked while choosing a CNC router. However, you need someone who can deliver reliable after-sales service, AMC contracts, and 24×7 assistance to ease your experience.
Top Vertical Knee Mills
CNC Supra Vertical Knee Mill
If you are looking for a heavy-duty, industrial-grade CNC router machine that will meet most of your expectations and last you a good, long while, then the CNC Supra Vertical Knee Mill is a great place to start. Here’s a quick overview of its features:
- Available in 9×49 and 10×54.
- Power requirement: 240V single-phase AC.
- 3HP Spindle Motor with variable speed control.
- 52PC Clamping Set.
- Three-axis CNC Bridgeport-type knee mill X, Y, Z ball screws with pre-loaded ball nuts.
- Compatibility with accessories like air-based laser engravers, edge finder, touch plate, etc. A vertical knee mill is especially popular for laser engraving and small jobs
Carbide 3D Shapeoko 4
If you’re not familiar with the popular 3D, you may not be aware that Carbide 3D’s Shapeoko was replaced in 2021 by the Shapeoko 4.
The Shapeoko 4, an entirely new machine, is very different from the Shapeoko Pro. Carbide 3D claims it was heavily inspired by the Shapeoko Pro, the company’s top CNC machine.
It measures 444x444x101 mm for the popular Standard but they offer it in 2 larger sizes, the XL and the XXL. The XL has 838x444x101 mm, while the XXL has 838x444x101 mm. The XXL is the largest, and the largest XXL gives the most space (838x838x101 mm). The sizes of the machines are varied too. The largest machine, the XXL, measures 1270x1042x483 mm in size and weighs 75 kg.
A CNC router can be a great addition to your workshop. However, before you shell out the big bucks, it is worth asking the following questions:
- Where and how do you intend to use the CNC router
- What are the specifications and configurations that you require
- How can you check the maximum boxes while selecting the CNC machine
These guidelines can lend you direction in finding the best CNC router for your workshop. All it takes is a lite research to create your dream machine.