One Sign or 100: Why Programmable CNC Routers May Be Ideal for Your Operation

Published in the January 2017 issue of Sign Builder Illustrated. View it online HERE.

Sign making companies that turn out custom work for clients are now benefitting from the use of programmable CNC routers. This technology is operator-friendly and offers cost-effective ways to maximize productivity, making it ideal even for smaller sign shops, where manpower levels may be an issue. Due to the wide variation in types of companies that turn out signage, it’s difficult to put a percentage on how many sign makers have opted for CNC (computer numerical control) technology. However, it is safe to assume the number is well below fifty percent.

When productivity is a concern, CNC is a viable option

Companies that produce high-quality indoor or outdoor signage that demands accurate reproduction from the original design with intricate graphics, and are made from durable materials that also makes tolerances harder to hold, are ideal candidates for manufacturing via CNC equipment. It’s a matter of repeatability as well, when producing more than one piece with the same design.

With the required materials seemingly becoming more costly all the time, CNC routers can help reduce scrap rates by getting it right on the first pass: cutting simulations, provided by the software, provide a digital rendering of the cut product allowing toolpath adjustments before any material gets cut. Scrap materials mean money coming right out of the sign shop owner’s pocket. Additionally, CNC router technology enables increased production, which has a direct impact on the bottom line. Consider this example: an entry-level CNC router suitable for the industry may cost $40,000 or more including the CNC table, a vacuum “hold down” system and an operator-friendly software program. For a smaller sign shop that may have two or three employees manning the equipment, payback on that investment may occur in as little as two years with an entry-level CNC router.

Using the right cutting tools

Now more than ever, sign shops are willing to consider CNC routers with one very good reason at the top of the list: digitally-rendered designs make it much easier to create a CNC program that cuts using traditional router bits for harder materials and tangential knives for softer ones like foam core, which router bits tend to “grab.” PVC, acrylicaluminum, brass and composites are just some of the sign making materials suitable for today’s CNC routers. Creasing wheels fitted to the tangential knife are another equipment option that can be implemented in cardboard products to create fold lines without creating cuts. Programmable CNC routers can cut materials between a few thousands of an inch and two inches in thickness. For non-digitized designs, CNC router technology can scan an existing product using a laser pointer to create a router path after assigning digital points for each feature.

The leap from traditional sign making software to programs used by CNC routers is not a long one, and eases the transition for operators. In fact, learning the capabilities of the software is 70 percent of the learning curve and reputable suppliers of CNC equipment should supply all of the initial requisite training needed, in less than a week on average.

CNC routers are more reliable than ever

The quality and durability of the typical CNC router has never been better as it also adapts for usage in different sectors of the manufacturing industry. In the sign business, the more robust construction overall mean decreased regular maintenance, increased flexibility and more cost-effective production. For example, it is very unlikely that the servo motors driving the motion of the router, would need to be replaced during the lifespan of the machine. Stable power supply within the shop helps protect the electronic circuitry. Additionally, a helical gear rack and pinion system allows more power to be driven into the gears and creates a smoother motion and more efficient material cutting. That means increased accuracy and tighter tolerances.

Selecting the proper tool for the material to be cut is often the operator’s toughest task. That’s why proper training at the time of installation and a database that cross-references materials and appropriate tooling is key to any shop’s success.

Is it time to consider a CNC router for your operation?

The Sign Bros., a four-man sign shop in Athens, Georgia, took the plunge and invested in a CNC router when they realized how much money they were spending to outsource work. Their business has grown considerably in the four years since making that upgrade. Much of that growth is a direct result in increased speed of production, the ability to create signs on-site, and the addition of new configurations that weren’t possible when outsourcing jobs. A CNC router was “the best purchase we ever made as a sign company,” says co-owner Justin Seibert. “Now we [can] route shapes and letters for all kinds of dimensional signage.”

Over the past few decades, CNC technology has evolved and become an increasingly user-friendly and turnkey operation for the sign industry. Essentially, if someone can use a computer mouse, he/she can operate a CNC router. There are even smart-phone apps that can digitize photographs of signs and send them via e-mail to the CAD software used to set up the router. This could mean that a salesperson could snap a photograph in the field, and have the program ready by the time he/she returned to the shop.

Profitability is a direct result of increasing productivity, controlling manpower costs and minimizing waste. CNC routers give sign makers reliability, consistency, efficiency, productivity, cost savings and reduced turn-around time. For about the annual cost of one experienced employee, companies can invest in a reliable, repeatable, operator-friendly technology that will be on the job for many years to come.