CNC Machining Centers for Woodworking: Trends & Tips
June 4, 2013 | 12:03 pm CDT

CNC Machining Centers for Woodworking: Trends & TipsSustainability, and with that energy efficiency, continue to play a large role in today’s CNC machining centers.

“There are several areas of CNC machining centers that have adopted new technologies allowing the reduction of energy consumption and reduced carbon footprint,” said Cesare Magnani, brand manager at Biesse America. “This is not only good for the environment, but directly translates into lower running costs for the CNC owner.”

Power-absorbing items, such as vacuum pumps, router motors and axes motors are receiving much of the focus. “ “Large vacuum pumps or blowers which power the vacuum decks of CNC routers are one of the more expensive parts to run,” noted Robert Marshall, vice president of market development for AXYZ Intl. “The zoned vacuum deck has multiple smaller zones which are automatically activated or deactivated as the machine head moves around the table. This allows the vacuum hold down to be concentrated in the area it is most needed at all times and also allows the use of smaller more efficient pumps.”

Magnani added, “For vacuum pumps we have adopted scalable solutions with multiple pumps that can be turned on and off based upon need, and especially higher efficiency pumps that deliver more vacuum with less energy. These solutions also have a minimal impact in terms of maintenance. On router motors and axes motors we can now recuperate part of the braking energy that was typically wasted in the form of heat. That energy can actually be sent back to the grid if customers are equipped with smart power meters, recuperating some costs.”

Energy-saving “Green” or “Eco” buttons are being incorporated to a greater extent for powering down machines when not in use, noted Max Salmi, marketing manager at SCM Group North America and Jeff Conger, Weeke product manager at Stiles Machinery. The availability of these as well as devices such as IMA’s recently introduced EnergyBox for monitoring and adjustment of power consumption, are being made available to wood products manufacturers to a greater extent than ever before, noted Peter Tuenker, managing director at IMA America.

Open vacuum tables, which give customers more choice in pump size, also was noted by Jason Susnjara, vice president of marketing at Thermwood Corp. “Smaller single and dual vacuum pumps are a great way to be more energy efficient. Smaller dual pumps give companies a chance to run one pump and/or two when needed for different types of applications. If you have a smart router, the machine automatically determines whether one or both pumps are needed for different jobs. The electrical startup alone on these pumps is more forgiving with starting one at a time compared to one of the bigger units,” he said.

Machine efficiency also is aided by software developments, which help optimize yields, said Mike Kolibas, president of Komo Machine Inc.

Other developments include: high flow tables, opening up the width of the vacuum grid, and the redesign of the vacuum ports to a series of 3-inch diameter ports versus multiple 1/2-inch ports to improve vacuum flow and efficiency, said Michael Cassell, CNC product manager at Holz-Her U.S.

Larry Tolbert, sales representative for Solid Wood Systems, also noted closed pneumatic systems as another new development. “With a closed pneumatic system little or no compressed air is required by the machine. This means a 5-axis machine could be added to a facility with no need to increase compressed air capacity,” he said.

Trending for 5-Axis

Interest has surged in 5-axis machining centers, a trend recently observed at the held Ligna fair. Affordability and flexibility are driving the trend, Salmi said. “All the new equipment have very flexible configurations that can allow small batch production (batch one) or high volume production,” he said.

Dave McFarland, senior manager, CNC Processing for Stiles Machinery, also attributed the rise in 5-axis offerings to two recent influences: unitized 5-axis heads available off the shelf and a downward migration of software incorporating the use of 3-dimension or solid models for use in programming. “Most of the major spindle motor manufacturers now offer fully integrated 4th/5th-axis units, with routing spindles, ready to mount. Today the OEM can purchase the complete set and integrate it with their machine configuration, with a minimal requirement for independent design or development. From a purely mechanical perspective, every CNC machine tool builder can now offer 5-axis.

“The second influence is software,” McFarland added. “To take full advantage of 5-axis, you must first create a 3D surface to be machined. Traditionally this required a high-end design and programming software platform. Today, many of the on-board machine tool software programs incorporate some element of this technology, in addition to programs for 3D machining simulation and even collision avoidance and crash detection.”

“As the machines have become more economically priced it has created a natural increase in interest,” said Ruan DuToit, CEO of Felder USA. “We also found that because these machines are for more complicated component manufacturing, it is clear that the customers understand time is money. Customers have also become more comfortable with the programming of these machines and see the benefits of sitting in an office and getting the job done. Even an owner of a business can now sit at night playing with new ideas and project without running machinery to test the product -- that savings is huge on many different levels.”

Versatility too is an advantage in their favor, noted Magnani, Cassel. Tuenker added, “Customers have the ultimate flexibility in mind when they purchase these machines. One day they might produce a custom staircase and the next day they might work on a high-end conference room table. It is important to not only purchase the machine that allows them to manufacture these products, but also to have the right software solution for creating programs fast and easy for the complex processes.”

“Customers are looking to achieve the maximum value for their investment,” Cassell said. “Five-axis can provide full 3D contouring and in many cases are more cost effective in the manufacturing of windows and doors by eliminating the need for multiple aggregates,” he added.

“In many cases, a 5-axis machine can be utilized to cut on multiple sides of a part without the need to reposition the part or use aggregate tools,” said Jeff Erickson, executive vice president of Komo Machine Inc. The downside, however, “is that generally, the number of joints to create the 5 axes reduces the rigidity of the machine, which can require reducing feed rates to achieve good part finish. If 85 percent of your work is 3 axis, you might need to reduce feed rates on 85 percent of your work in order to gain the flexibility of the 5 axis machine, which will reduce overall productivity. It is important for the customer to do a good ROI and understand the negatives as well as the positives when purchasing this technology,” Erickson added.

Conger agreed. “As this technology is now in the mainstream more so than ever before we tend to see the “cost of entry” much lower as well. Consumers however, must be careful to thoroughly analyze the complete machine offering as some machines offer 5-axis capability but have so little usable stroke that it prevents thick material applications that the technology was mainly designed for.”

Added McFarland, “While increased flexibility is an obvious benefit of the 5-axis machining center, it also holds true to the old adage that ‘your greatest asset can sometimes be your greatest fault.’ To gain flexibility, it is often necessary to give up some of the rigidity of a dedicated unit. Five-axis or 3D range of motion, incorporating both tilt and rotation, is primarily achieved through the use of precision gear-sets or belt-drive units. Additional range-of-motion is gained, while some of the robustness often required for heavy-duty or long-duty cycle machining may be compromised.”

The real challenge for the machine tool builders, he added, “will be avoiding the temptation to apply the available technologies too ‘universally’ and incorporating them into their most entry-level machine platforms. The challenge for the end user will be to avoid the temptation to pursue a ‘do all’ solution that is essentially OK at a number of things, but not highly efficient or productive at anything in particular…..Time will certainly tell. In the meantime, we all get to push the envelope together.”

More CNC Machining Trends

In addition to more affordable 5-axis machines, Salmi noted, “The trend for all CNC is to facilitate the setup time and programming by new user friendly software platform and programmable equipment that allow the operator to change production cycles in few step by using a motorized pod system and quick onboard tool changer.”

Susnjara also noted the trend for “smart routers.” “The fundamental advantage of a smart router is that it makes a lot more money from nested-based business. Just like smart phones, smart routers do cost a bit more but they make that back in short order.”

He added, “It is interesting to note that the substantial benefits of a smart router are not only in actually cutting parts, but in all the details required to cut parts. It also shines with how fast it recovers if things go wrong. Most folks considering a router for the first time do not realize that the vast majority of their cost will not be running the router, but instead, will be in a myriad of details required to run the router. Preparation, programming, hold down, procedures, sorting, scrap, assembly and error handling are the main cost areas. Ordinary routers do not focus on these areas. They rely on the user to take care of them and usually it’s not all that easy. The operator must be both skilled and well trained to work within the limits of these systems. Smart routers address these areas in a big way. They address the areas where you spend the most money because that’s where you can make the most money. Ordinary routers may seem less expensive at first, but may prove to be much more expensive in the long run.”

Magnani also noted an increase in types of media being cut by these versatile machines, such as non-ferrous metals, plastics and composites. Another trend he commented on was material handling requirements, “as companies are trying to better optimize resources and material flow. So we are experiencing a growing demand for CNC machining centers where material is loaded and offloaded automatically, either from a single feeding point or from an automatic storage system. More technological solutions are evolving to satisfy this growing demand.”

Kolibas and Cassell also commented on the growing trend toward integrated load and offload systems as well as automatic positioning of consoles and pods.

In addition, Cassell, Marshall and duToit noted continuing requirements for smaller footprints. “Machines that require less space is always important,” duToit said. “Customers still want the benefits of CNC control, but need more production and don’t always have space available for the generally ‘big’ machinery available on the market today. Throughfeed CNC machines are becoming more and more interesting to customers. It takes less space, works quickly and can bring a lot more production capabilities to a shop. The throughfeed machines have in the past worked with clamping systems that would grip the piece and pull it through the machine, damage was always a problem. Now with conveyor driven through feed machines you do not have any risk of damage but only benefits.”

Feed-through multi-station machining centers, as well as equipment capable of machining long linear workpieces, such as furniture and door components, while allowing “access to operations on all sides of the workpiece without repositioning,” also offers advantages for today’s woodworkers, Tolbert said.

Laser edgebanding is another technology seeing growing use in North America and Europe, and Tuenker noted that its incorporation on machining centers is a fast-growing area for his company, which is promoting it to customers throughout Europe and other areas.

Editor's note: This is an expanded version of the article which appears in the June issue of Wood Products magazine.

Click here to read some Frequently Asked Questions on CNC machining centers

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