Whether to Invest in a CNC Router

Here's a long, thoughtful, and detailed thread comparing the advantages of a CNC router to other efficient setups, and considering whether buying a CNC is a good move for a small shop facing cut-rate competition. September 30, 2010

I have been researching the idea of getting a nested based CNC machine to aid in the construction of cabinets for our shop. We do 100% frameless, almost completely mid level residential. Currently we cut sheet goods on an aging vertical panel saw, then line bore on a 23 spindle machine. We edgeband and assemble using screws and butt joint assembly. The market in our area is slow like everywhere else, but lately things are starting to pick up, however due to a lot of layoffs, garage shops have sprung up all over the place. Due to our labor costs, overhead etc, we can't compete price-wise with the garage shops. Of course we try to sell our better quality, service, stability and the fact that we are licensed and insured, but to tell you the truth, most people in our area are only concerned about price.

My question is this, will incorporating a CNC in the production process save us enough time, to reduce the cost of our cabinets? I have been told by some that the actual time to cut out material is about the same, but that assembly time is reduced a great deal, is that true? Or is it salesman speak. I have the capital for the purchase price, and currently use Cabinet Vision, so the learning curve shouldn't be that bad. What are your thoughts?

Will the purchase of a CNC machine allow me to construct cabinets at a lower cost, thus allowing me to bid jobs a little lower, to compete against the garage guys? Thanks for any input.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor H:
Your operation virtually mirrors mine. We build frameless cut on a 88 Striebig, line bore on a 85 Ritter R46, edgeband on HH 1435SE then dado on early Hersaf panel router. All in all my equipment is pretty tight and I have a fairly straightforward and repeatable process in place.

I suggest to not try to compete with the garage shops-fine tune and streamline your operation and stay course. Forget the CNC and hold your cash. Right now cash-operating funds are king. The garage guys have no equipment, are operating undercapitalized, have no depth of resources, and no real reputation to bank. Forget the race to the bottom, especially carrying a huge millstone like a CNC. The only setup time faster than minimal setup time is no setup time. Following that thought I have machinery dedicated to perform each individual operation through my process - flip the switch on and run. I think a giant step forward for your operation would be a 46 spindle double row line boring machine for sure, and secondly a quality construction boring machine would really boost your productivity enough to easily outpace sales.

Most of my customers (custom builders) are amazed at the speed material moves through the shop, some are perplexed, some somewhat resentful. You can't save any money by doing it with the garage guys or even their own staff of general carpenters - just too slow. Push come to shove I can spread an operator at each machine(s) to speed process for an increase in volume.

I have seriously considered CNC last year, but glad I didn't. Concentrate on minimizing setups and being diligent on cutting expenses to improve bottom line. In my opinion, unless youíre doing complicated one offs the CNC doesn't fit for me. We are after all talking about cutting and assembling rectangles from sheet stock. Do that with CNC and you still have to assemble, build and install drawers, build and install doors, hinges, install the same as non CNC cut cases.

If the economy picks up substantially and after the local garage shops hit the wall on cash flow, I might consider adding a PTP to combine boring operations for confirmat construction and line boring and lose the dado and linebore stations. Lots of very high quality, highly productive non CNC equipment to be had for cheap right now with a minimal learning curve and minimal related support needed-dust collection upgrades, air requirements, electrical upgrades, software, training, etc.

From contributor K:
I am not a garage guy but do have a ShopBot and use E-Cabinets for software. A CNC should be able to produce more cabinet parts than you can assemble in a day. Two of us can have a good size stack of cabinets completed in a day. One man running the CNC and edgebanding and one man assembling. I can't imagine moving all that material around to different work stations. Sounds like at the end of your day you have 4-5 man days spent and no cabinet completed. I really believe that in a few years if you don't have a CNC you will not be competitive.

From contributor P:
One of the hidden costs of CNC is training. Have you factored that into your budget? Also, have you considered outsourcing cabinet parts? Leasing? I think that reserving your capital is a wise move. Another thing to consider: spending the money on better marketing - or discounts to targeted repeat customers. I think you have many other possible ways to achieve your goal (make money) than just invest in big iron. The one thing that CNC does like no other machine is precision - you will get more accurate parts, if you can do the programming correctly. In these times I would be looking at used, not new.

From contributor I:
Questions to consider: is your electrical service adequate? Is your dust collection adequate? Compressed air has to be clean and dry, and have consistent volume to run what needs to run in addition to the CNC. Is that your case? I would venture that arranging your shop floor plan to take advantage of what you do would help more than you realize. I would spend some time doing that before I seriously consider a CNC since the market is currently driven by low cost.

From contributor R:
Letís consider for a minute that you have a pretty efficient operation as is. You are probably more efficient than any garage shop around. Then why are they less expensive? Garage shops don't have to buy expensive insurance, pay high commercial utility rates, pay commercial rates for rent, pay hazardous disposal fees, and the list goes on and on. This is not even considering that they don't get pick pocketed by local state and federal gangsters every month. Garage shops, which are almost always illegal, should be very diligently reported to the appropriate gangsters. They are operating with an unfair advantage that will put you out of business. We have laws and rules for a reason.

From contributor S:
We bought a used Point to Point three years ago, not a nested base machine. I paid $10k, then paid many times that on software and training. It is rather intense getting up to speed, set up, elect, dust collection. Then all the software costs, training, and learning curve. The assembly is fast and easy (we use Confirmat). Then you get holes for hinge mounting plates and drawer glide holes. Just hold up the glide to the holes and fire in the screws. I disagree with the comment that CNC is for special stuff. I see it as making day to day cabinetmaking fast and accurate. Just remember that there is a lot money and time, unexpected money and time to get up to speed.

From contributor B:
We just answered this question ourselves. I am currently awaiting delivery of a new nesting machine. Our construction sounds similar to yourís except we were cutting on a slider. We do mostly custom commercial millwork and about 30% of our business is kitchens. I also use CV and keep in mind to post it to the router is approximately 20k (I am in Canada).

We have the space, hydro, dust collection, and air already. For us it started by having to hire people and outsource parts neither of which was working out well. The router will bring it in house and be faster. The cut time may be the same but what you also are getting is machined parts ready for assembly. Another problem we were having was too much communication and part handling. Any part that was different needed a full set of drawings (which takes time). Material handling to four machines was too long and parts were getting damaged. Our hope is the machine will understand different parts from CV right away and only an assembly drawing will be required. It will be expensive up front but once paid for it will get cheaper. Labor is only going up, along with the associated costs of labor. We think in the long run this is the way to go.

From contributor L:
We run nested on a fairly heavy router. Mostly doweled cases, case clamped. The router is capable of cutting and face detailing the parts in the same time a panel saw can cut them. No measuring is required at the bench because every hole for all hardware is already very precisely located. Handling is minimized, roller conveyors are used to move parts, and labels provide all required information for banding and boring/doweling. We have CNC boring/doweling machine that sets up from the barcodes on the labels. Bar codes are automatically generated by the software. You will probably need to reconsider your shop layout to reduce handling and maximize flow. We band before edge bore. As parts come off the machines they are stacked by next operation on the conveyors.

Arrange your conveyors with transfer cars to move stacks from one line to another for flexibility. We have a rack cart between the bore and insert machine and the assembly bench (no buffer) since the boring can be turned on and off with no startup delay (unlike a bander.) The buffer for the bander is the area available on the conveyors. I'm 12 years into CNC, second router and if I were to buy another it would have auto load/unload/clean to maximize the # of sheets/ shift and to minimize the labor required.

Also I've heard non-CNC users say you can just have a cheap guy to push the green button on the automated machines Ė not true! You need a smart, ambitious guy or you will pay in many more ways. Your CAD operators and system designers are key to making a good buck. It is not necessary with CNC to have commonality of parts like it is in manual operations but having a consistent systems approach is. Good luck, figure on a few glitches getting going but the end result is worth it.

From contributor G:
I have a "garage shop" setup with a 9 foot slider, a 5 HP shaper, edgebander, line boring (30 spindle), construction boring (23 hole), hinge boring, pocket holing, a wide belt sander and more. I know a number of other "garage shop" owners that have even better setups - including Altendorf F45s, Martin saws, Brandt edgebanders and industrial CNCís.

From contributor B:
We thought we could be competitive and never get a CNC. We could stay small and competitive. Well it isn't that way anymore. One-two guy shops around here run routers the bigger guys all have panel saws and P2P's. The router among other things will free up shop space from your previous 4 machine centers, our 5x12 nesting (including safety fence) will take up about the same space as one of our sliders. It will run all day without slowing down and maintain accuracy. It will do the simple task such as cutting rectangles, drill holes, make drawers, MDF doors. It is faster than one operator trying to operate four stations.

From contributor U:
I don't have a CNC myself, but whenever I want to speed up the processing of my cabinet parts I outsource to a guy with a CNC. His Thermwood machine can mill up about six panels per hour with all of the shelf holes, hardware holes, blind dadoes and whatever else I need to do. He mostly does work for small shops. The thing is, with the right CNC you might have a number of those garage guys as your repeat customers. This year might be the ideal time to buy a CNC.

From the original questioner:

Thank you everyone for your responses, it has helped. I will answer a few of the questions and statements made. We built our current building five years ago with the intention of adding a CNC when the time is right. The electrical, dust collection and air supply are all in place and ready to go. I am aware of the cost to upgrade CV to the CNC version, have even had a little training on that version, so I know where I will need to get up to speed. The floor space has already been designated, and the flow of material planned, although I am sure once we get things into place, we will need to adjust some things.

I am very close at this time to either hiring another employee, or adding a CNC, which hopefully will allow me to get more jobs by lowering our prices a little. I am sure there some garage shops around the country who are fully licensed and insured, but that is not the case around here I can assure you. I want to thank all of you for your responses, I will take the information and try to process it all to make the best decision. I am leaning toward taking the jump, been studying it for so long I feel like the guy who is with the hot babe, but can't quite get up the nerve to make the commitment to marry her. I think it's time to take the jump, hopefully it's the right decision.

From contributor P:
A CNC can help is correctly managed. First you need the volume to support such a machine. I have been working with CNC routers since the early 90's and have seen and been involved with several successful programs and a couple that were not so successful. When I think of CNC routers I tend to think of KOMO, Onsrud, Biesse, etc. the larger production capable machines. It has been my experience that some of the smaller machines just are not capable of providing the production rates necessary to justify their purchase. Yes they will help but when the going gets tough and the hours long they are to slow and under powered. The same goes for the software, you get what you pay for and then only if you take the training and take the time to hone the skills required. Almost any program can provide code, some is better, cleaner and more efficient, the programmer needs to be able to recognize good efficient code from bad and be able to correct it if necessary.

The learning curve can be minimal to get code to the machine and make it cut parts but it is a different thing when youíre trying to get a lot of parts quickly with minimum material, that takes a program that it a little techie and loves what he does along with a capable machine and a good operator. Many times I have seen crap code thrown at the machine with the thought that the operator could sort it out and make it run. Well a good operator can and will get the parts cut, but that's not his job to correct code, and besides what about tool life? The operator is pressed to get the parts on the floor not calculating chip load or even if he is using the correct tool. These are fantastic machines but they are not Plug and Play. The more time spent on understanding the what, why and how the better your CNC experience will be.

From contributor T:
I might consider outsourcing my doors and dovetail drawers before outsourcing parts or spending capital on a CNC. The door companies (Decorative Specialties, Conestoga, Keystone, Caldoor) have everything you need, doevtail boxes, trim, finish, etc. Think of all the equipment you could sell if you didn't have to make those things.

The time you save by not making your doors could maybe make up for the time you save with getting a CNC. Why spent so much money to improve the way you make the guts of your cabinets when there is an easier way to improve what your customer will see day in and day out (doors, drawer fronts, drawer boxes). I'm not saying that you don't build nice quality doors, but still, at a certain level, a door is a door. You could offer more door styles already finished thru these companies too.

From contributor L:
On the other hand some of the inexpensive routers are "good enough" for the part time use they will get in a small shop. A three man shop really can't afford a $150K machine but some $60K machines are pretty good. I've been around a couple of $30K machines that were so poorly engineered that they couldn't keep working in a one man shop, that's not to say all of that range of machine are poorly designed but use caution! They have to cut something, that or the guys that buy the big iron are total fools.

Software is a sore spot with me. We've got expensive software, paid lots for training and support and feel like they software company has way too many screw-ups in their program. Every time they bring out an update it's full of bugs, changes are made that don't work with the library you've spent many hours developing and etc. The machine operator should not have to do anything to the code! Fire the CAD guy and find a good one if that's the case. Sloppy code comes both from the CAD man and from the software developer and costs you money, don't put up with it.

From contributor S:
I think you should buy what you can afford, you can always upgrade later if you grow. I have talked to a few techs and they say CNC's are like vehicles, the best ones are made in Europe. I drive a Ford because of the price point and because it meets my needs. So why not do the same with a CNC. If you only want to cut ten sheets a day, buy a machine that will cut ten sheets a day. Get some software that meets your needs and you are set. What is good for me might not be good for you and vice versa.