The “maker movement” is upon us. Maybe you’re a tinkerer and like new tools, or perhaps you’re an inventor and want to see your ideas come to life, or possibly you’re a maker through and through, and are looking to do more than what your shop is able to handle. You’ve done your research and learned the basics of CNC (computer-numerical control) machining, from the history of the systems to the most common types of machines. You’ve run the numbers, and decided that CNC is the logical next step. You’re ready to take the leap and automate your workshop, right?
Before you rush out and drop some serious coin on a brand-spankin’ new 5-axis CNC milling center, consider the fact that there are now a few options when moving towards automation, whether for DIYers or professional machine shops. Read on for a discussion of the basic advantages and disadvantages of each option.
Building your own DIY center
- Fully customizable – You can design your center to fit your size limitations, and make it as minimalist or extravagant as you want.
- Affordable – With the cost of the equipment coming in at pretty much the cost of the components (and your assembly time, of course), a DIY solution can be a good way to get a CNC on a budget. This gives you the option to start with a basic setup and add on over time.
- DIY Project – The satisfaction of completing a project is pretty great. The satisfaction of your project helping you to make other projects? Priceless.
- Design… and procurement… and assembly… and troubleshooting… – With a DIY project, unless you have a team behind you helping with the various aspects of coming up with a design, sourcing the components, putting it together, testing it, and taking care of maintenance, the brunt of the work and time will be yours to tackle.
- Programming and Controls – Chances are good that if you’re making your own CNC center, you’ll probably be using G-Code, but even if that’s the case, if this is your first foray into machining automation, you’ll end up scouring endless forums trying to find out how to get the code to do just what you want. And once you’ve completed your program, plan on having to further tweak it to get your physical machine to cooperate.
- Time – Between all the research into the components and programming, as well as the delivery and assembly time, plan on having to set aside the jobs for your CNC center for at least a month or more.
Retrofitting an existing machining tool center
- Easier than DIY – Many CNC manufacturers and integrators offer retrofitting kits and services to allow you to convert existing machines into automated centers, saving you most of the design and assembly time.
- Familiarity – Ok, so you’ll most likely be learning a new controls and/or programming system, but if you’re retrofitting a machine you already own and are familiar with, you won’t have as much work to do to recalibrate or find out how the machine performs for your specific products.
- Added repeatability, precision, and volume – Most machine centers that are retrofitted for CNC automation experience a marked increase in repeatability, precision, and most obviously, part volume output.
- Limited functionality – Because you’ll be working off an existing machining center, you won’t have the ability to add as many bells and whistles as you might like.
- Ability to retrofit – Let’s face it, not every machine center can easily be converted into an automated CNC center. The cost to convert it may end up being high enough that it just doesn’t make sense to go through with it.
- Mechanical limitations – While automating a manual machining tool typically increases its precision and repeatability, it limited by the tolerances of the mechanical components and assembly. For jobs that require super fine precision, purchasing or making a CNC tooling center may be the only option.
Purchasing a fully automated center (new or used)
- Ease of selection, installation – With numerous CNC manufacturers and integrators, bringing a new CNC machining center into the fold is as easy as selecting the right line for your needs. Many companies offer to send a technician to install and help get the CNC up and running, in addition to maintenance servicing.
- Replacement parts – As with the services most CNC manufacturers offer, their replacement parts are readily available when something does go wrong.
- Upfront cost – The initial equipment capital required for a new CNC tooling center can be quite high, especially for an individual hobbyist or small shop. Even used CNC machines can be quite expensive, and oftentimes require additional maintenance due to prior use.
- Space requirements – For many with smaller shops, purchasing a pre-built CNC machining center may mean clearing out some lesser-used machines to make space in your shop. Remember to consider the size of the parts being made, and the flexibility required in the machining.
- Replacement parts – While they may be readily available, they may also be proprietary parts and thus only available through the manufacturer at significant cost. Maintaining control of your design and components offers options to choose more standard parts.
Hopefully going through each of these options’ pros and cons will help you to decide what route to pursue when stepping into CNC machining automation. Remember, there is no right or wrong path, there is only to determine which path is right for you. If you’re interested in mechanical components for CNC automation centers, take a look at Misumi’s factory automation product offerings, or feel free to contact the engineering support team with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This list is by no means exhaustive, and there may be even more options for working your way into machining automation. Likewise, there may be additional considerations for your specific scenario that aren’t listed here.