Should a Small Cabinet Shop Switch to CNC Equipment?

Do too many people invest in CNC routers for emotional reasons, asks a small shop owner? In response, CNC users try to zero in on a rational basis for the choice. November 25, 2005

I've been thinking for several years about getting a CNC for my smaller shop and pretty much decided against it. Here's why: I'm building fairly basic framed kitchens. My cut-out guy, at $20 per hour, can cut all required box pieces in about 3-4 hours for our standard job, including all dados and line boring, including cutlist. So with benefits, let's say that's $200 in total labor costs. 2 or 3 jobs a week, $600. If I purchased a CNC, I think it would take longer, and by the time I was done, it would be a $100,000 investment.

I'm in the same boat as several other shops in the area that have purchased a CNC, and they don't seem to be growing or having fewer employees. I don't mean to rip on CNCs, but I think a lot of smaller frame shops purchase them because of status.

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
A good new cabinet shop CNC router does not need to cost you more than $60,000. The CNT Motion 1000 Series machine or the Multicam 3000 Series machine are good examples. A quality used late model CNC router can be purchased for between $30,000 - $40,000. That would leave you with a monthly lease payment between $900-$1500. That should save you a bit over your $2400 monthly labor costs.

From the original questioner:
But I would have to pay someone to run and program it, probably around $20 per hour, so I don't see the labor savings. Also, I would have the lease or purchasing investment expense.

Below is a copy of what I posted on another topic regarding equipment purchase. For our type of work, it didn't actually save time, but it allowed us to do things that we couldn't easily do before, and while it is machining, other processes can be completed by the same person.

In the last 18 months, we have put in about 200K worth of new equipment. Previously, we outsourced a fair amount of our production, and I was able to pay for some of our equipment from the sale of paid-for inventory that we were able to eliminate.

We just put in a new Biesse PTP machine. We had a couple of parts that required stops at two different machines to complete. When we did a time study comparing the old method and the new PTP, I was a little bummed that it wasn't much faster. Then, after the installation, we realized that it was a huge increase in productivity in that the old method had to be handled for the whole process, whereas with the PTP, a part can be placed on it and work started, then while that part is being run, other tasks can be handled at the same time.

The most important advice, though, is to buy what you need, not what the salesman is selling! I still get guys that come into my shop and tell me what a mistake it was to buy a PTP instead of a router. (For you sales guys, find out my business before you tell me what I need.) For my product and what we needed it to do, a nested base router was out of the question, but that is what everyone wants to sell me.

Don't buy something that "will do." Buy what you need and a little more, so that you have room to grow with it. I spent extra on a bander that does 3mil and corner rounding, that we never use, but it runs at twice the speed as other banders in its class, well worth the extra 10 grand to me.

I am a small shop of two installers, one spray guy, two builders, one CNC operator, one computer person part time, and myself (the owner). Our CNC is a Multi-cam 3000 series and software is Cabnetware, screen to machine.

We recently got a contract for a small medical facility with approximately 25 European style cabinets. The CNC operator started cutting the job on Monday. All the boxes were built complete by 10:00 am Wednesday.

I am not much of a euro guy. I prefer face frame, but the results are the same. Fast and without errors. I know without a doubt that CNC is the best way for my shop, because I researched the idea for several months and talked to users all over the country, all of which had different types of machines. So the choice is yours - keep the frame of mind you have now, or keep your eyes and ears open.

In 4.5 years, I will own my machine and the payments will be gone. Your employee will be older and not as fast, or perhaps MIA.

A CNC is not a always a good choice. If the financial justification is not there, don't do it. If you are not going to have more money in the bank at the end of the month, or more time to use doing things you enjoy, it is a poor choice.

Now, where did $600 come from? $20 X 40 is $800, plus 25% to cover benefits would be $1000 per week, and then two weeks of that would normally be vacation, with no cutting being done by your employee. And that is not counting any overtime - that is unrealistic at best.

You pay well for a small shop. Most CNC programmers or software operators are paid less than you are paying your employee that is cutting for you now.

Buying a CNC is not that difficult. Using it profitably takes research and a willingness to change the way you do things to reap the greatest benefits. The machine itself will not put a dime in your pocket - it's how it is used to produce that will.

If the other guys in your area are not benefiting from their CNCs, they either need more training to improve their processes and make better use of their equipment (shop layout and materials handling), or to automate the office/engineering end to create accurate usable data for the shop floor (engineering automation all the way through the manufacturing processes).

If someone else that has a CNC is competent in using it, and will cut your jobs for you, then you can benefit from their capital expense, employee training, and so on down the line, if you can provide accurate information and deal with the lead times. This could also help a great deal when the non-standard job comes along. The machine does what it is programmed to do within reason, and a program is a program, regardless of if it cut the same job last week or if it is cutting something one of a kind that will never be machined again.

If you are strictly a face frame kitchen maker, maybe CNC isn't the best for you. Cutting repeat rectangles and drilling shelf pins the same over and over can easily be done with trained monkeys. If you ever come across interior designers on acid who want unusual shapes and sizes, then if it can be drawn, it can be made. I've seen people use point to point machines to make full size tree silhouettes for a mini-putt course and match existing moldings using nothing but a lettering bit.

As far as employees go, retraining makes the old fellas feel young and the young fellas feel long term. If all you're making is rectangles, then you can set up your programs parametrically so that if you change the parameters (sizes), all boring stretches or shrinks accordingly, while still keeping some things like European hinge spacing relative to a fixed point.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor C:
Another option to go CNC without ownership is to find a CNC shop that is nearby. We have a Thermwood we are always cutting RTA (ready to assemble) cabinets for other shops and it works great for them. This might allow you reap some of the benefits without the overhead.