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8 Things You Should Know When Choosing a CNC Plasma Table

You already have a few pieces of CNC equipment in your shop, and now you have decided to venture beyond the milling machine, lathes, and routers and purchase a CNC plasma cutting system. It’s a relatively significant decision since a CNC plasma cutter requires a substantial up-front investment.

You might be convinced that a plasma cutter will pay off over time by saving you money on outsourcing your profile cutting work and with the speed and low operating costs of the CNC plasma table. However, it can be intimidating for any first-time buyer to consider the many factors in selecting a suitable plasma cutter for your business or home workshop needs. Remember, purchasing a plasma cutter is a lot like buying a welder: you choose one according to the work you do.

This guide will introduce you to the CNC plasma cutting table and some of the primary factors you should consider before purchasing one. But first, here is some background on the CNC plasma cutter.

What is a CNC Plasma Cutter?

A CNC plasma cutter is a computer numerical controlled (CNC) metal cutting machine using a plasma torch to cut through electrically conductive materials and create various profiles and shapes. The computer-controlled plasma system directs a high-speed jet of hot plasma at the material being profiled.

CNC plasma cutters can cut through a range of materials, including stainless steel, aluminum, mild steel, copper, and sheet metal. You’ll find heavy-duty and light industrial CNC plasma cutters in fabrication shops, restoration shops, welding shops, machine shops, and industrial construction sites, to name a few.

CNC plasma cutting machines can move their high-definition plasma torch along the x-axis, y-axis, and z-axis. The plasma cutter forces a gas or compressed air through a nozzle, and an electric arc is then introduced to the gas, creating the plasma responsible for cutting through the metal.

You can buy CNC plasma cutters in different sizes, prices, and functions. They are accurate and can cut through steel plates at speeds of up to 500 inches per minute. Plasma cutters require a plasma gas and an assist gas to operate, and the type of gas will depend on the material being cut. Those gases include oxygen, nitrogen, methane, argon, and hydrogen.

What Should You Look For in a CNC Plasma Cutter?

There are several excellent brands of CNC plasma cutters from which to choose: the Hypertherm Powermax45 XP and SYNC models and Torchmate are well-respected models. Every CNC plasma cutting machine, from the entry-level machine to the heavy-duty industrial CNC plasma cutter, should have the following components:

1. A CNC Control That is Easy to Use

The CNC control system is the brain of the CNC plasma cutter. Programming transforms drawings into electrical signals that manipulate the cutting speed, feed rate, and motion control. It also signals the plasma power supply, torch height control (THC), and the other components what to do and when to do it.

Most entry-level machines are operated from a personal computer instead of a sophisticated control unit. A computer might not be sufficient in a high production environment but typically works well in a small shop. This method helps decrease the costs for hobbyists, the one-person shop, and smaller fab shops without high production demands.

The most important consideration for any CNC control is the ease of use, so be sure to choose a unit that’s easy to learn and operate, or you may end up with regrets.

2. Check Out the Mechanical Components

Every CNC plasma cutting table has moving parts, such as the gantry (X and Y-axis) and torch carriage (Z-axis, up and down) controlling the torch. These components will vary from machine to machine, so you must consider how much use and abuse the plasma cutter will get.

A heavy-duty machine will withstand the stress of constant use and provide a wider cut thickness, better cut quality, and faster cutting speeds, but it might not come at an affordable price for your operation. The mechanical components of a light-duty plasma cutter, sometimes called a DIY CNC plasma cutter, will be lighter, smaller, and have a lower price tag. However, these mechanical components might not hold up under round-the-clock production.

You can save on driver motors, gearing, and electronics on plasma cutters that are not purchased for heavy use. Many entry-level plasma cutters come with stepper motors instead of servo drives, offering substantial savings and reliability when wider cut thickness and a higher range of speeds are not necessary.

3. CAD/CAM Software to Direct the Process

The software for your CNC plasma cutting table is another critical component. CAD (computer-assisted drawing) allows you to draw the part you need digitally and input it into the CAM (computer-assisted machining) software.

The CAM software applies correct tolerances, kerf width, lead-ins, and lead-outs using post-processing. The CAM file is entered into the CNC control, which converts it into signals that control the cutting process.

Some entry-level plasma cutters include combined CAD/CAM software, making the transfer from drawing to cutting part quick and simple. It allows smaller shops to draw and cut parts on the shop floor while they are at the machine.

4. A Fume Control System is Essential

All plasma cutters produce hazardous fumes and smoke, so you should seriously consider a method for extracting them. There are two primary ways to do this, and the water table is the more common since it’s found predominantly on entry-level CNC plasma cutters. The design is more straightforward, and the ongoing costs are reasonable. However, when you retire the machine, the water must be disposed of in accordance with regulations.

The downdraft fume extraction tables with large-capacity filter units are more efficient for production machines. A fan or blower pulls the smoke below the cutting bed slats in the downdraft system. The fume extraction filter removes fume and dust via ductwork built into the cutting table. This method is a safer, more ecological, albeit more expensive, method of extracting dust and fumes.

5. Think About the Consumables for Your Brand New Plasma Cutter

After the initial purchase, the most critical recurring cost will be the cutting tips and electrodes, also known as consumables. Before buying the CNC plasma cutter, determine how quickly your machine will use these items. Damaged tips and the worn-out electrode can affect your machine’s cutting speed or alter the quality of your cuts. Manufacturers usually recommend changing these two consumables together for optimum cutting performance, which can be costly.

6. Consider the Table Size

Most companies meet their requirements with sizes ranging from 2ft x 2ft up to 5ft x 10ft. And with prices under $1,000, hobbyists and small fabrication shops can jump into the game. Of course, if you require an industrial CNC plasma cutter, you can get one of the larger tables with a price tag of $50,000 and up.

7. Confirm the Torch Height Control

Height control controls three modes: pierce height, cut height and the arc voltage setting. The correct pierce height helps extend the life of the cutting torch tip, while the right cut height avoids plate collisions when the tip is too low. It also prevents increased kerf and angular edges that occur when it’s too high. The arc voltage setting controls the ongoing torch to workpiece distance,

8. Choosing Your Plasma Cutter’s Output Power

The output power of a CNC plasma cutter determines what it can cut. For example, getting 12 amps of output power from a 120V machine means you can cut most 1/8” thick metal, while 60 amps from a 230V machine can cut most metals that are 7/8” thick. Some inverter-based plasma cutters provide high cutting output power but weigh far less than regular cutting machines offering that same cutting capacity.

Want More Versatility? Look at Our Lineup of CNC Desktop Milling Machines

At CNC Masters, we have CNC mills for every budget and need. From tabletop CNC milling machines to the classic Bridgeport-type vertical mill, our machine tools are known for their high quality and competitive prices.

All our machines are manufactured in Irwindale, California, USA. We back each of our CNC machines by our expert support team, ready to provide you with guidance from initially setting up to troubleshooting problems in the future.

The CNC Masters One-Year Warranty backs our machines, and we also offer unlimited “Life-Long” Tech Support, step-by-step troubleshooting, and a walk-through process by email or phone. Our technicians are available Monday thru Friday during regular business hours (Pacific time) for as long as your company owns the machine. Unlike costly servo systems, our machines are easy to repair, replace, and maintain. And we will help you every step of the way!

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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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