CNC Routers: Their Use in Sign Manufacturing and More
Table of contents
Sign manufacturers require a number of tools to produce displays for their clients. However, those new to the trade or in the process of evaluating their equipment inventory may not know which machines are worth investing in.
CNC routers, for example, typically run anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 depending on brand, condition, and capabilities. Plus, sign shop owners have to factor in the costs of software, training, installation, and shipping—all of which can add an extra $10,000 or more to the total price.
In determining whether you should purchase a new CNC router for your own shop, it’s worth looking at a few things, such as…
- How CNC routers were originally created
- How they work & what parts are involved
- How they’re used in sign manufacturing
- And more…
By having a firm grasp of CNC routing and the equipment required, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision regarding your machinery needs.
What Are CNC Routers?
CNC (computer numerical control) routers are machines used to cut a number of hard materials, such as aluminum, steel, wood, fiberglass, and acrylic. When the machines are linked to sign design software, fabricators can shear and shape nearly any material to their specifications.
A CNC router is composed of various parts that all work together to cut a given material. These parts include the following:
- Spindle – The spindle is a high-speed rotary tool that holds the cutting bit (chosen based upon the material being cut) in place.
- Axis movement – In order to cut designs into the material, the spindle needs to move in X (left and right) and Y (up and down) directions. The function varies depending on the machine, with a stepper moving the spindle by either a belt or a gear along a rail system.
- Bed – The bed allows the material to be precisely aligned with the spindle. It’s a flat surface on which parts can be clamped into place.
- Vacuum – The vacuum nozzle is attached to the spindle, reducing cleanup while cutting the material.
- Computer – To operate the CNC router, a computer must be outfitted with machine control software. Fabricators can then input the desired design and measurements, allowing the program to drive the router motors and control the cutting path.
The Origins of CNC Routers
History buffs may be interested to learn how CNC machinery first came to be…
Prior to the invention of CNC machines, the concept of NC (numerical controlled) machines was introduced by John T. Parsons, a machinist and owner of Parsons Corp., in the late 1940s. Working closely with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Parsons helped in developing a product for the United States Air Force—the ultimate goal being to find a more cost-effective way to manufacture intricate aircraft parts.
The first machine was built in the early 1950s, operating with “punch tape.” Within a few years, NC became the industry standard.
It wasn’t until 1967 that the idea of computer-controlled machinery came about. Roughly 10 years later, computer-aided machining systems were available, and they replaced NC machines as the industry standard by the late 1980s.
For his contribution to the field, Parsons—along with associate Frank L. Stulen—was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1985.
How Are CNC Routers Used in Sign Manufacturing?
Though CNC routers can be used in a variety of applications—everything from woodworking to instrument production—they’re often utilized for sign-making purposes.
Depending on the complexity of a client’s desired design, it can be difficult to achieve the necessary cuts and angles without sophisticated machinery.
And that’s where CNC routers come in.
When fabricating a sign using a CNC router, the process is roughly as follows:
- Using machine control software, set up the job on a simulated table.
- Measure the thickness of the material needing to be cut as well as its height.
- Select the appropriate bit and secure the material to the bed.
- Enter the material measurements into the system.
- Allow the CNC router to cut the material according to the set specifications.
- Spray a mixture of water and alcohol to prevent the drill bit from overheating.
- Once the material is cut, double-check for any rough edges and sand if necessary.
It should be noted that the procedure may vary slightly depending on the type of material you’re working with.
When Should You Invest in a New CNC Router?
As previously mentioned, CNC routers are no small expense. These machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which is why it’s important to ensure you’re making a good investment for your business.
Despite the fact that CNC routers are incredibly useful, some sign shops may not use them every day.
For example, if you routinely get requests for intricate design work, a 3D printer may be a better option. Or, if you deal primarily in banners and other flat displays, you’d be better off investing in a high-quality, direct-to-substrate printer.
However, if the focus of your new business will be custom signage or the old CNC router you use very frequently is beyond fixing, then it may be worth purchasing a new machine for your shop.
Ultimately, you need to consider your most popular products and then figure out if a new CNC router will deliver a high ROI.
CNC routers are popular among those in the sign industry, and it’s not difficult to see why. These versatile and intelligent machines can be used in any number of applications to fabricate attractive, complex displays.
However, if your own sign shop doesn’t have the means to purchase such machinery or you simply don’t do enough routing to justify the expense, outsourcing to a third-party fabricator may be your best choice.
By taking this route, you can provide the displays your clients need without incurring the expense of buying the machine, training your team, purchasing the software, and replacing parts when needed.