cnc router machine cutting wood

11 Features the Top Rated CNC Wood Cutting Machines All Have

CNC machines and CAD/CAM software have taken hold in the manufacturing sector over the last few decades. For many people, metalworking CNC milling machines and lathes are the first to come to mind whenever the topic of CNC machining comes up. That’s not surprising since these machine tools run at breakneck speeds and feeds, putting on quite a show in the process.

However, CNC woodworking machines and CNC carving have also become popular among small businesses, DIY hobbyists, and beginners, creating a demand for machines such as the CNC router machine that cuts wood and acrylic, MDF, PVC, PCB, and even soft metals. And the CNC wood router is not alone as a wood CNC machine since CNC turners (lathes) can produce round workpieces, and laser engravers do double-duty as CNC engraving machines and wood carving machines.

Whether you are in the market for a high-quality 3-axis CNC router or an entry-level model for simple woodworking projects, you should know what to look for.

What materials can I use on a woodworking machine?

Woodworking CNC machines are versatile, but some equate them to the milling machine, which needs to be more accurate. Although CNC routers have several features in common with the mill, they cannot handle the range of materials as CNC milling machines.

The most popular materials for cutting and engraving on a CNC router include:

  • Wood, MDF, PVC, and plywood
  • Acrylic, Plexiglas, and other plastics
  • Aluminum, brass, and softer metals

The top-rated CNC routers can cut all types of hard and soft wood, acrylic or Plexiglas, and most softer metals. Remember, using a CNC router for cutting and engraving aluminum, brass, and various other metals depends on the motor power or spindle of the CNC router and the metal’s thickness. Keep in mind those potentially limiting factors as you shop.

1. Substantial Work Area

If your woodworking projects involve large workpieces, you should consider the work area, sometimes called the cutting area or “envelope.’ On a CNC router, the work area is the travel limits in the X, Y, and Z axes. Deciding how you plan to use your machine determines your required work area.

For example, a desktop CNC router with a 24” x 24” work area means you have that amount in which to work. However, even though the 24” in the X-axis (width) is limited because of the gantry supports, the Y-axis capacity is effectively limitless. Almost every machine allows for external support or a table extension for long workpieces.

Of course, if your goal is sign-making from 4 ft. x 8 ft. plywood pieces, you’ll need to look at models that can accommodate those workpieces. Standard larger table sizes include the 4’ x 8’ and 5’ x 10’.

2. Excellent Control Software

All CNC machines require software to control the process of transforming a drawing into motor movement. That process involves four steps: First, a designer creates a drawing or 3D model. Next, a toolpath must be prepared using computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). Then, you can simulate to confirm the cutting path. Finally, the control software informs the CNC machine what to do with G-code.

Having the right software is essential and requires research. Some companies have machine-specific design and toolpath software and include them with the machine. Although others do not include software, many will recommend a brand for designing projects and creating CNC toolpaths. Check before buying to know if the software will add an extra expense.

3. A Dedicated Spindle Rather than a Detached Manual Router

A CNC machine employs two methods to spin the router bits: an integrated spindle or an attached router. Here’s how they differ:

Spindle

  •  Typically less noise than a router.
  •   Torque is consistent throughout the speed range.
  •   Produces less runout for greater accuracy.
  •   Spindles usually have infinitely adjustable speed ranges of 0–24,000 rpm.

A machine with a spindle almost always turns on automatically when the toolpath begins and turns off when that toolpath ends. You don’t want to have to remember to turn it on manually. Also, the best water-cooled systems have pumps that automatically turn on and off with the spindle. Look for automatic spindles and pump starts on your CNC machine.

Router

  • Less expensive than a spindle
  • Although the torque can vary through the speed range, you can compensate by making shallower cuts, slowing productivity.
  • Some CNC machines use a compact router (1-1⁄4 hp or less). However, midsize routers include electronic feedback to maintain spindle speed and collets that accept 1/2” diameter shank bits, which are less prone to breakage.

If saving money is essential to you, a router-powered CNC machine will do, but if possible, choose a dedicated spindle for higher accuracy and longer life.

4. Ball Screw Drive System

You’ll choose from three drive systems: screw drive, belt drive, and rack drive. Here’s what they each offer:

  • Screw drives: These drives include lead screws and ball screws. Both types transfer the rotary motion of a motor to the linear motion required to move each axis. Screw systems work like threaded rods and nuts, with the nut being captured in a housing on the machine. As the screw turns, the captured nut moves the spindle or gantry. Lead screws create more friction and are less accurate than ball screws, while ball screws can carry a heavier load.
  • Belt drive: Cogs on the pulleys prevent belt slippage, but dust build-up in the cogs interferes with belt engagement. Belts work effectively and move the bit position faster than screw systems, but they also don’t handle heavy loads. Belts can also stretch, affecting their accuracy, but they can be tightened or replaced when that happens.
  • Rack drive: Ideal for more demanding projects, the rack drive is accurate, faster, more efficient, and lasts longer. It is also more expensive.

All of these systems work relatively well, but a ball screw system is best given a choice.

5. Servo Motor System

You will likely choose between a servo or stepper motor to drive the axes. Although servo motors are considerably more expensive, they also have more advantages: Servo motors operate on a closed-loop system, meaning they send a signal to the motor to move and then confirm that they have made the correct move. Servos run faster and generally have more consistent torque across the speed range of the CNC machine. They are also better for high-speed use and cut more precisely than steppers. For this and other reasons, servo motors are preferred for more extensive or commercial applications.

On the other hand, stepper motors operate on an open-loop system, meaning the software sends a signal to the motor to move, and it assumes the motor did what it was instructed. Steppers are more affordable and ideal for basic plane engraving, and they tend to be easier to use and quite reliable, making them acceptable for the average woodworking project.

6. Fourth Axis

The best CNC machines offer a 4th axis, called the A-axis, that goes well beyond the parts you can produce on a 3-axis model. The fourth axis is a rotary axis. The machines that have them have a simultaneous 4-axis operation, providing an opportunity to manufacture parts with round and rectangular shapes on the same workpiece without removing and re-positioning the part. Although the 4th axis is a fantastic feature, it adds to the price of the CNC machine, which hobbyists and those involved in simple sign-making might deem extravagant.

7. A Table Type for Your Applications

Typically, you will choose from three CNC router tables: the aluminum T-slot, the full vacuum, and the T-slot vacuum table. Which is the best for you? Here’s how to choose:

Aluminum T-slot table

With this type of table, you use clamps to fasten the workpiece, preventing it from moving during machining with router bits. The aluminum is easy to maintain, durable, anti-corrosive, and wear-resistant. It’s the ideal choice for irregular-shaped materials that do not lend themselves to vacuum holding.

Full CNC vacuum table

The CNC vacuum table provides a convenient method of work holding without clamps or other objects above the workpiece getting in the way. The table is connected with a vacuum pump through pipelines under the working table and multiple adsorption holes through the table. The CNC router operator merely places the board on the table, opens the vacuum valve, and the workpiece is firmly held by the negative pressure generated by a vacuum pump. The vacuum table eliminates the extra steps of clamping and unclamping the workpieces, making it an excellent choice in high-production environments.

T-slot and vacuum table combined

The T-slot and vacuum table combines both holding methods. Designed for irregular workpieces, the table can be divided into several sections for optimum vacuum adsorption, with the T-slots added for clamping atypical workpieces.

8. Dust Collection System

CNC routers are productive machines, and that’s a good thing, and they also produce plenty of dust, which isn’t a good thing.

Dust will be everywhere in a woodworking facility; even if it’s only your workshop or garage, it will accumulate inside your machinery, on workbenches, on the floor, and where you eat your lunch.

Some machines include dust collection systems with the machine, but if they don’t, count on buying one separately. They are simple systems made up of a dust collector, hose, and a dust shoe that attaches to the spindle or the router and encloses the cutting area around the router bit. It also seals the vacuum of the dust collector, so it’s more effective.

If your projects are small and so is your budget, you could use a shop vac. However, a dust collection system is less expensive and more effective in the long run.

9. Easy-to-Assemble CNC Router Kits

The most popular and highly-rated CNC small business router kits are also the easiest to assemble, or better yet, require no assembly at all.

10. Other Essential Features

Here are some other features to check for before buying. For instance, the Genmitsu CNC 3018-PRO Router Kit with GRBL Control comes with an offline controller that can be upgraded to a laser engraver. It includes a power supply, emergency stop, limit switches, and a CNC operating system. Go to Amazon for more details.

11. Affordable Cost

Although many factors affect the CNC router price, the primary elements include the working area, Z-axis travel, machine size and weight, spindle speed and power, traveling speed, and power supply. CNC router kits have many options, such as the spindle, motor, driver, guide rail, control system, table, lubrication system, and dust collection system.

How much does a CNC wood working machine cost?

Your first move is to ascertain whether you need an option before you buy it since many CNC router machines cost thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars. Here’s a rundown of price ranges and what determines their costs:

Desktop CNC Router ($1,000 to $5,000)

These machines have a small working area and footprint, keeping the price relatively low. Small businesses, such as sign makers and those engaged in small-volume production, and hobbyists with home workshops choose this machine for their CNC router projects. Even with their small size, these “mini-routers” have found a place in the craft and advertising industries.

Standard CNC Router ($5,000-$30,000)

These prices vary because of the features each CNC router machine includes. In this group of machines, you would find machines with three or four axes, a single spindle, a T-slot and vacuum combination table, a driver, a motor, and perhaps software. Remember that the more your machine can do, the higher the price will be. Rather than those with small businesses working from home, enterprises with medium production volume would select CNC machines in this price range.

Multi-Process CNC Router ($30,000-$100,000)

Although these machines are similar to the standard CNC router machine, they are heavier and made with reinforced steel frames. The CNC router kits tend to be more complex, and they could have up to five axes, multiple spindles, and automatic tool changers. Many models within this price range have imported drives, motors, controllers, and cooling systems, and they can take on the most complicated projects.

Industrial CNC Router (over $100,000)

These CNC routers might cost over $100,000, but they are the biggest and the best of the best, with two separate spindles and two moving tables, automatic tool changers, and high-power components. Although these machines are beyond the price range of many small to mid-size businesses, high-tech industries, such as automotive and aerospace, will purchase these top-of-the-line models.

Conclusion

Routers, lathes, mills, and more can all be used for woodworking. Whether you are in the market for a high-quality 3-axis CNC router or an entry-level lathe, the features above are important to look for.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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