Moving to CNC: Worth the Investment?

A small-shop owner is considering whether to invest in a CNC router. In this thread, experienced pros help him evaluate his options. July 24, 2005

I've operated a small 1-3 man shop for thirty years and have done mostly commercial work with some high end residential work as well. I've always had work, sometimes not enough, but still I had work. It seems lately that while there is a lot of work in the area, I am getting less and less of it. I am afraid that I am overpricing my work because of the amount of labor I am putting into the bid. Im 57 years old and still work hard, but maybe it's time for a little help.

I am wondering, what is the real cost in dollars for me to go out and buy a Komo Vr 510 with all the attachments I need to make it produce? I am semi literate in AutoCAD, although self taught. Can I justify the cost of this machine? Can a one or two man shop justify this kind of purchase? If it means I have to work 80 hours a week and search for outside shops to bring me their CNC projects just to pay for it, then I am worried that I just don't have it in me any more. I live in a large metropolitan city and there is a lot of competition from shops that have this kind of machinery. I know I need to make a move of some kind, but I'm a little unsure of what to do.

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
From contributor J:
I'm a one man shop, and I have a CNC router. Its a Mulitcam, 5 x 10 with a drill head. It only had 100 hours on the machine and was ten months old when I bought it. The machine has worked well. The biggest challenge you will face is not the machine, but the software. I went with cabinet vision and linked to a different post processor. This was my biggest challenge.

If I were to do it over again, I would go to shops with software in my area and ask questions. The software company told me that it would work fine, but as you know, actually doing the work and theory behind it sometimes is miles apart. I could not afford an $80,000 or $130,000 machine. That is why I had to go the used rout. I also use a scmi edge borer with the CNC router. You really can knock out a lot of boxes (frameless) in a day.

From contributor W:
I have a Flexicam stealth with CV and it cost nearly $90,000 altogether. CV goes out to the machine flawlessly in 99.99% of the time. Used is good as long as it's recent enough to be compatible. Cheap new machines don't integrate well to full-featured software packages. We use the machine to cut plywood and special parts.

The main thing I would say is to really look at how our shop is running, because a decent CNC can cut enough plywood for 3-4 large kitchens in one day, so the machine can really show you where your other bottlenecks are (finishing, doors, ect). Outsourcing doors and drawers works very well with a CNC. If you can't outsource, I would bet you won't get your money's worth out of a CNC because you can't remotely keep up with it and the overall production increase isn't that big.

From contributor L:
The most expensive attachment is software, training, and the learning curve. You will spend a lot of time learning the machine and software before it makes you any money. But if you have the right kind of work, it will make you good money. Much of the cost of a new machine isn't iron, it's support, dealer commissions, training, space, electrical hook up, compressed air, dust collection, vacuum pump and connection etc. Little or none of which you can recapture if you decide to sell your new machine in two years.

From contributor J:
I agree with Contributor Ws closing statement. If you outsource the doors and drawers, etc, you are far better ahead. I tried making my doors and drawers in conjunction with the router, and you are far better off outsourcing.

From contributor B:
To the original questioner: I can understand your concern and what you are going through. We just took delivery of our new Komo Solution 510. We are a large shop and it was still a big move, roughly $150,000. It took us about three years to finally make up our minds, waiting for that perfect time. I think you are on the right track with Komo or any other CNC that you choose. I feel that to stay competitive in the market place it was an essential purchase.

The Router-Cim software comes with the machine and is owned by Komo. Komo has excellent training that comes with the machine (machine, Router-Cim, and even a two day basic Autocad class). Don't worry about having to work more hours to pay for the machine. I have seen first hand how much faster work is getting done, both by the machine and by work cells down stream, not to mention the unmatched quality of the parts.

This obviously equates to savings. The other thing I should mention is that we already had a Point-to-Point CNC (SCM Tech90 Super) that we purchased new in 1993. We weren't sure how much more we would gain in the purchase of the CNC router, but now the gain is obvious.

From contributor A:
We bought a Komo router about two years ago and spent a lot of time crunching numbers to see if it was going to be the right decision. Basically the router costs us about $3,500 per month for the first five years, or roughly the same as a $20 an hour employee, and after that the cost decreases significantly.

So the question is do you have enough work right now to justify an employee making that kind of money (providing he or she was truly worth that) or not. If not, then you would have to look for additional work or make other sacrifices to afford the router. There is no $20 an hour employee who is going to do what a CNC router will accomplish in the same time. It took us two to three days with two employees to do what an operator and the router could do in one day.

There are a lot of different routers out there and a lot of things to consider when shopping, but don't forget it is going to need air, dust, electrical, and floor space. These are things people tend to forget when looking at the numbers.

From contributor R:
My advice is to stay away from the CNC. In the first response, the machine was ten months old and only had 100 hours. They just aren't that easy to work with in the beginning. Then once you get a guy trained on it, he might head out for a better job since he now has CNC training. There are lots of other situations that make operations difficult; if router bits get just slightly dull, the cut is fuzzy compared to a slightly dull saw blade that still gets a fair cut but just feeds harder.

Machining MDF and particle board eats router bits like candy. If you do a lot of circular or curved work, you still might consider it, but if all you do is straight work, stick with your existing methods. I operated a two man shop for eight years. I bought a low dollar CNC to do our curved work. It bothered me to see dust collecting on top of a $15,000 machine, and it would really make me mad to see it settle on a $75,000 plus machine.

I also run a 5 Axis router now that I went back into an industry job. These CNC machines are not the miracle that most guys make them out to be. Computer driven panel saws, computer driven fences is great for the small shops, but not the high end machine centers.

From contributor M:
I am a 1 1/2 man shop and bought a '97 Weeke BP80 point to point. I got it from an auction for about $17,000. It appears to be in good shape, but I haven't gotten it running yet. I just couldn't afford much more. The points to points dont seem to hold their value as much compared to nested based machines. I'm doing the same parts over and over with line boring, so this is a good solution for me.

I looked at Shopbot and some of the smaller machines but I just didn't feel comfortable with the lack of mass (metal and cast iron). They are probably great machines though. One other thing to consider is make sure you have adequate AC. My new shop is in the country and I have a 220v 200 amp 3 phase service. The larger machines with big pumps draw a lot of juice. You probably need 440V to be most efficient
There are used deals out there, you just have to look. The cheap deals will have a higher level of risk to them. Going through a broker should take more risk out but cost more money. It is not as seamless a solution as buying from the manufacturer. I can afford the machine being down for awhile. I can't afford a $2,000 plus lease payment each month.

From contributor E:
A CNC can be the best and worst, depending on one thing - operator/programmer. If you have CAD background or have that person working for you, it will be the best investment you ever made. If this is not your shop, you can either hire that person or expect to support the overhead for six months to one year.

We use Komo and couldn't be more pleased. A big advantage is that you have no third party software to get confused with, and I went to the five day class. I have been designing using CAD for 15 years, so it seemed very simple to me. What was impressive was to see people with no CAD, and very little other computer skill goes from nothing to functional programming in one week.

From contributor F:
Contributor E nailed it on the head. It is critical to have a hard-working, experienced programmer, and knowledgeable maintenance people to back it up. It is easy to get swept up in potential production numbers and watching one run in a controlled environment, but once you get it in the shop - that baby is yours.

Running a CNC router is no small feat, but once it is learned it is an invaluable tool. Given that issue, I would strongly recommend having others cross-trained on the machine. Because, as we all know, there is going to be turnover no matter where you work.

I don't know how training works with anyone but Accu-Router, but if you can get multiple persons in a training school (we have even been known to have plant managers attend ours,) your problems, should one person leave, would be far less troubling.

One more item - everyone runs their business differently; but most of our upholstered frame builders tend to wait until they have a machine almost filled up with contracts before they buy a new CNC. Certainly, that is not the only way to do it, but it is one way that seems to work.
This may all seem stupidly obvious to most, but you would be shocked at some of the potential prospects we deal with on our side, who really have no idea what they are getting into. And they are ready to write a check to the person who makes the best presentation.

I do believe that having the right people in place and a stringent cost justification plan are two tools I would utilize before purchasing any CNC, because regardless of the machine you choose - they are all a very big investment.

From contributor T:
To the original questioner: Techno CNC Routers has a full 4'x8' Cabinet Making Package. This includes ball screw drives, servo electronics, automatic tool changer, vacuum table, tool set, computer, full assembly, freight and training.