CNC machining centers have become the new workhorse in medium- and high-production woodworking facilities. This is due in part to their flexibility for applications, speedy setup and their ability to process a wide variety of media, including composite panel products and solid wood.

“The success of CNC machining centers is due to the fact that they have a broad spectrum of applications and their capabilities can be tailored to customer’s needs,” said Cesare Magnani, sales manager at Biesse America. “But in today’s difficult market and economy, every enterprise — to be successful and thrive — has to be versatile and efficient. That reflects directly in the machinery capabilities.

“Flexibility is definitely one of the most important features,” he added, “but to reach maximum efficiency there are two important capabilities that are gaining momentum: reduced set-up time and automatic loading/unloading solutions.”

The technology that drives the machines also is being utilized to aid in setup, noted Larry Tolbert, sales representative for Solid Wood Systems. “It is being used to position tables and clamps among other aids.”

Michael Cassell, CNC product manager at Holz-Her US, a member of the Weinig Group, agreed. “The trend is toward reduced set-up times and a wider range of functions. This is accomplished by automatic rail-and-pod positioning systems and the use of projection lasers for alignment. The range of aggregates continues to expand and tool changers are growing up to 100 positions,” he said.

The popularity and development of automatic tool change systems with faster cycles on CNC machining centers also was noted by Robert Marshall, vice president of market development for AXYZ Intl. He also commented on the importance of “a good vacuum deck for secure hold-down” as well as a good nesting solution as being among the capabilities most requested by wood products manufacturers.

Another driver of the CNC’s popularity is the wide range of capabilities offered by these versatile machining centers.

“Drilling, routing and grooving capabilities will always be the mainstay, however machines with fourth-axis capability to use aggregates for such work as drilling or routing on angles are making their way down to even smaller machine platforms,” said Jeff Conger, Weeke product manager at Stiles Machinery Inc.

“We also see the trend for 5-axis capability to become even more popular as this capability becomes available at much more affordable price points,” Conger added.

Max Salmi, marketing manager, and Karl Frey, product manager at SCM Group agreed. In addition to a growing popularity for 5-axis machines with the capability to machine all faces, they also noted a number of requests for CNC machines with the ability to handle a part once, and complete the machining with software that is user friendly. “This includes automation from order confirmation to machine code,” they said.

In addition to 5-axis capabilities, boring and routing, edgebanding also is a frequently requested feature, said Peter Tuenker, managing director of IMA America. “We are mostly concentrating on CNC machining centers with edgebanding capabilities these days. It is a growing market for us in North America,” he said, in all segments of the wood products industry.

As technology develops, Tuenker said the next generation of these machines could soon incorporate laser edgebanding technology as well as lightweight board edgebanding.

Benefits: Flexibility, Footprint

With time and space at a premium, production flexibility and a small footprint are among the most talked about benefits of these versatile machines.

CNC machining centers are also highly touted for their “increased efficiency, more predictable production and consistent workflow,” said Sebastian Ward, marketing manager for Omnitech.

Other important benefits, Marshall noted, “include speed of operation and setup, quality and repeatability of cut parts and choice of machine configuration to suit exact customer requirements.”

Added Conger, “Without question, flexible machines with small footprints continue to lead the list of number one priorities for more and more customers.”

An equally important benefit, Conger continued, is the machines’ ability for fast setup and changeover. “As average production run quantities continue to drop to single digits, companies continue to search for solutions that meet this priority,” he added. “The great news is that this is no longer an unrealistic request as machine manufacturers are meeting the challenge with ‘near [zero] setup and changeover times’ in a chassis that is a small fraction of the size of a traditional machining center.”

Both Salmi and Frey also commented on the benefits of batch one production with a reduced to zero setup time — utilizing a single machine. “Payback is important relative to the value of the product. We are finding the ability to eliminate up to six machines with one CNC setup in many industries,” they said.

Magnani and Tuenker concurred with the idea expressed by many that CNC machining centers can often help improve a company’s bottom line.

Said Tuenker, “Most of our customers who come to us looking for a CNC machining center are interested in making a high-quality, and often high-dollar, product at a much faster rate than they can do by hand. They also want to manufacture that product over and over again without having to worry about a difference in the quality of the finished product.”

Added Tolbert, “Users also like the ability to bring components back in-house that are currently being outsourced. This enables them to react quicker to their customers’ [needs].”

Greater Energy Efficiency

With every aspect of the production process coming under scrutiny in recent months, wood products manufacturers continue to look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and manufacture sustainably — even their machines’ efficiency.

“As every company continues to embrace the green initiative, machine manufacturers continue to work extremely hard to make their machines more energy efficient,” Conger said. “As competition is greater now than ever, it’s one additional way for machine manufacturers to separate themselves from the competition.”

He cited several examples in which a machine can be made more energy efficient, including hold-down systems. “As vacuum pumps are one of the greatest energy consumers on the machine, new technology machines without these units use a fraction of the power of the ones that do,” he said.

Another alternative, Magnani said, is for the automatic management of vacuum pumps, i.e., turning them on and off based on actual need of usage.

The use of smart valves on dust collection manifolds which redirect flow to the units in use and close it off to those not in operation, is another example of energy-saving technology in use that was cited by both Magnani and Cassell.

Salmi and Frey also commented on work optimization practices and some additional power-saving features in today’s CNC machining centers. Methods cited include: determination and use of the optimum feed speed according to material, type of processing and tool being used at that time; vacuum energy savings through an intelligent use of the vacuum pumps’ power according to the component’s hold-down requirements; exhaust energy savings optimization based on the machining taking place; and motors’ energy saving through automatic recognition of non-operating motors set to stand-by mode.

“A lot has been done over the years to optimize the power usage of drives and motors,” said Tuenker. “We are running intelligent drives with onboard diagnostics at their optimal torque curve to get the maximum performance at the minimum power consumption.

“The controls are much more geared towards conserving energy as well,” Tuenker added. “Software has been written to constantly monitor the machine and the power consumption of the working units. A lot of these improvements have been driven by government regulations or newly adopted industry standards.”

Ward agreed. By their very nature, he added, CNC machining centers are more energy efficient “in that they are processing parts 30 percent to 40 percent more efficiently than conventional standing equipment.” In addition, he added, “3ph power at higher voltage and lower amperage uses less Kw hours for that more efficient work.”

Magnani added, “A more technological solution is the one that allows, for example, [the CNC] to feed back to the grid the energy produced when the motors break. When coupled with the new smart power meters, this allows a considerable reduction of energy consumption.”

For another view in the efficiency conversation, Marshall noted that with web-enabled controllers on the CNC machining centers, “most machine problems can now be diagnosed remotely, thus avoiding the need for technician travel and minimizing the carbon footprint of machine ownership. This provides a fast, efficient and cost-effective solution for many machine breakdown situations.”

Wish List of Developments

When asked about customers’ wish lists of CNC machining center improvements, reducing footprints and set-up time, higher versatility and flexibility and, of course, lower pricing, topped the list.

“After slowly coming out of tough economic times, customers are reluctant to invest in more machine than they need,” said Conger. “More customers are looking for ‘right sized’ machines that accomplish 80 to 90 percent of their requirements rather than large, expensive machines that include anything they may imagine needing in the future.”

Magnani added, “The driving forces of future developments are the ones mentioned already above, which are increasing the competitiveness of manufacturing companies. In the close future the development will be focused on more automation, faster, more efficient and with a modular approach so that the solutions can fit better any manufacturing environment. Additional developments will be in part-tracking solutions like RFID chips and more environmentally friendly machines.”

Others agreed. “We are seeing more and more automation,” Cassell said. “The metalworking industry has embraced automation and we believe this will continue to grow in the woodworking industry.”

Software usage “with greater system-wide communication” was also mentioned by Cassell and others.

Tolbert added, “More user-friendly programming software is at the top of everyone’s list.” He noted that while earlier generations of 5-axis programming packages were difficult to learn, “advances have been made in this area and improvements need to be continued.”

Remote access and other capabilities are also growing in importance. With more machines controlled by standard Windows-based PCs, this allows for the integration of the CNC into the company’s IT structure, Tuenker said.

“This offers almost unlimited opportunities that our customers are taking advantage of,” he added. “We have customers who know what their machines are doing and how well they perform — even when they are out of town — just by dialing into their network.”

Equally important, especially when considering today’s economy, is price. Said Tuenker, “People want as much bang for the buck as possible. A lot of the features that we originally developed for larger industrial machines are now available on more standard machine offerings at a much lower price than a couple of years ago. Five-axis technology, edgebanding and finishing of irregularly shaped parts, window and door processing and other features can now be incorporated in off the shelf type machining centers.”

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