What Opportunities Does a CNC Router Open Up?

A shop owner who is considering an entry-level CNC investment learns about how the machine's versatility might help his business diversify. May 15, 2014

I am considering the purchase of a CNC router. For those of you who bought your first CNC, what business or income opportunities opened up to you that were not available before you had the CNC?

Background: I often see guys saying that the CNC opened up all sorts of opportunities to them than pre-CNC days. This is a very general inquiry. I do not really need one or even have the sales, space or current production to justify one. I also am not really asking for pros or cons or outsourcing or other ways to achieve building kitchens (my main shopwork). I also have not talked to other non-CNC shops yet. I just like the technology and I would be willing to invest a certain amount (25-50k) to buy a good used 4x8, three axis nested CNC for my own work (plus take on outsourced work) and learn this part of the trade and see where it leads (this investment would not sink me if it failed).

Examples: Did sign work or curved and complex parts cutting work come in? Did you sell more kitchens because you could offer customized carved valances, hoods or end panels? Were there any plastics or aluminum work? To everyone, thank you very much in advance. (I realize 50k may be on the edge pricewise but a North-Central PA dealer I visited currently has a Bustello and a Beisse for 69k and 79k with full vacuum, tool-changers, and some software so I felt maybe I could get in that range for a slightly older but good machine.

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
From Contributor W:
The CNC has been good for me and I see a lot of people wanting to duplicate its benefits as it has done here, on the other hand it is a commitment not to be taken too lightly as it will require a "want to" learning curve that is full of surprises. Probably the biggest reason (besides hoping some don't get ripped off) is to bring this "curve" into a laymen’s terms so more can do this. As always I suggest you go to lots of shops, make friends and do lots of "due diligence".

From Contributor Y:
Full disclosure I'm a salesman. My customers ask me this all the time and my typical response is, “what do you like to do?” What gets you up in the morning ready to work 10-12 hours on? An investment like this in most cases usually is the second or third largest expenditure the buyer has ever made. It has the potential to sink someone who overreaches and doesn't have a clear picture of how it will be paid for. The reality is work opportunities for a CNC are probably the strongest they have ever been. But, can you find them? Will you work to their terms? How long will it take for you to get up to speed? The single biggest dollar amount you will likely spend on this type of thing is the cost of your time. They do not program themselves and the learning curve is longer then you expect.

My suggestion would be to keep it simple. Justify the investment based on what you know and can predict rather than what you think you can get into. CNC's make complicated work happen much faster. Duplication and basic changes can happen quickly and with a much lower cost to you than with a conventional process. Use this to your benefit, expand on what you do know and sell the ease and speed to others who struggle. The quickest ROI payback calculations I do for my customers are for narrow, specific needs. You likely have something that you’re good at selling and producing. Hopefully you have good costing info regarding that product. Ask for a ROI calculation on just that as a baseline for how successful you will be paying for the machine you want. As for the other opportunities, word travels fast and someone who is good has customers find them quickly.

From the original questioner:
For the specific things to think about - I have a Planit design only program now but am thinking of moving to Cabinet Vision or KCDW for the design, constuction, cutlist and optimization abilities. Then maybe in one-three years will consider a CNC; maybe even a 5x5 unit or a Shopbot to get started. This process started because I was moving toward buying a double line drill, edgebander and constuction drill, (all within my business savings budget) but then that is all it would do. A CNC would do all that and open up other opportunities.

From contributor P:
I purchased my CNC with fourth axis about six years ago. The main thrust of my business is ornamental carving, and I added the CNC to increase output. Since that time, I have done some signage, cutting case goods and templates for other small shops, door panels and carvings in MDF, rapid prototyping for R&D companies. During the three year downturn, without the CNC to bring in extra I could not do before, kept me in business. I agree that it’s a real commitment of time and energy in the beginning. I knew nothing when I purchased mine, and it had to begin paying for itself from the get-go. My ROI was about three years. The challenge currently is to expand CNC jobs even further.

From Contributor J:
I have one that I bought for doing some headers for a display that we were doing. Now I do signs cabinets and cut for a display house when they need special items cut.

From contributor L:
There is additional work for a router once you've mastered the software and become known for doing certain things. It won't come quickly or cheap! Learning the software is at least as expensive as the machine. Cost in your time, lost opportunity etc. If you want to do things other than kitchens you will need additional software.

We bought our first router, new, about 15 years ago and at the time had lots of repetitive work. It paid for itself quite quickly. We traded up to a larger nested machine to run primarily our own work. We specialize in curved casework. We will soon have the third machine installed. We already have the work for the three machines so our risk is small. We have three CAD men in the office because our work is now primarily true custom. If you have work that involves a lot of duplicates or simple boxes the CAD/CAM time should go down. Remember to add the cost of the post processor, tooling, electrical use, etc. to your ROI calculations. The ratio of one CAD man to one machine may seem extreme but it's the price of highly variable jobs. The machines can be really versatile. Don't buy a lot more machine than you need to get started. They can become obsolete for your use rather quickly.

From contributor B:
Having a CNC will not magically give you work. It still depends on getting out there and closing sales. Having said that we own a Weeke BHP- 200 with cabinet visions screen to machine. Last fall we completed our first million dollar plus job which we could have never done without it. It will give you the confidence to go out and say” yes, we can do that.” Start slow and learn the machine.

From contributor R:
I had the same thought as Contributor B based on the way you worded your question. You are buying a robot. It will only bring in creative work, if you or the CAD guy is creative. Then you have to market that. It will also depend on your locale. Tourist trade for lodges or fancy hotels, lots of big signage, etc.Your new robot won't do or make anything you don't tell it.

From the original questioner:
Thank you. As Contributor B mentioned I seem to work up to the level of my tooling. I guess if I pursue this I was hoping my creativity, confidence and interest would increase also. On a side note I saw a 2007 Holz-Her Cosmec fox for sale with a vacuum for 29k.This is the price range I feel I would max out at being I need all the other stuff yet. I would really like a used American or European machine. I know about FMT and Thermwood also intrigues me.

From contributor D:
To the original questioner: You mentioned FMT so I just thought I'd chime in, being an FMT owner, and currently the only owner of the 5x10 FMT. I stressed and researched and stressed and researched some more, for more than a year (and this was after about six or seven years outsourcing to big dollar CNC routers). I am thrilled with my FMT and am happy to share my experiences on it if you want. No doubt there are a lot of considerations when buying a CNC. You mention a used machine. I thought long and hard about that and could never muster the courage to do that. A CNC is an awfully sophisticated machine compared to many of the others in our shops, and I decided it was just too risky and potentially costly to not have the service and loyalty from the manufacturer that you get (hopefully) when you buy it new. For me at least, being a one man shop doing high-end residential mostly, having the machine go down and looking at service calls at hundreds an hour, etc. was just too frightening. So I bought new.

From contributor I:
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a CNC router salesman as well. For my two cents, I would point out Contributor Y's response and advise you read it again. Kudos to him for the best response I have read on this forum to your type of question. If all CNC router salesmen were to follow his example of no hype, clear focus on what the prospective customer wants to do with their CNC router purchase, there would be far fewer company failures and many more successful small manufacturing companies making wise investments in their future. Good luck in your search for the right solution for your company.

From contributor K:
Some great responses in this thread for sure. There are so many things people produce with their CNC Routers, from Surf Boards to Award Plaques to store fixtures. The sky is the limit really. That said my best advice is not to count on outside work when considering the purchase of a CNC router. Look at the work you currently have in your business specifically.

To the original questioner: You mentioned that you are a cabinet maker. Base any purchase decision you make on your cabinetry business specifically. Look at how many sheets you process in a given month and how much your current expense is to process those sheets. Purchase a machine that is priced appropriately for the known workload. If outside business comes in that as a bonus.