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Goings on at the Because We Cannery

cnc costs (or don't be a snob!)

So we seem to run into two types of folks a lot: those that don't know how affordable CNC tools have gotten, and those that feel that an inexpensive CNC tool must be junk.

For the first types, yeah, CNC tools are now well below $10,000. As we started our talk with at AU this year, and as others have said, we're in the beginnings of an explosion in personal fabrication. Just as what a consumer-level Laser Printer did for desktop publishing, inexpensive CNC tools are starting to do for fabrication. It's awesome to be part of that!

However, with the second types, I thought I'd just pass along a few ideas that we learned first hand over the last few years:

The first is that CNC machines are a heck of a lot like cars. A $15,000 car and a $50,000 car will get you to the same place in about the same amount of time. Sure, the $50,000 car is nicer to drive. Maybe it's way faster (theoretically). Maybe it will have a lot less issues, less things to have to pay attention to, or last a lot longer without maintenance. But you can really only drive so fast. And while the more expensive car has features to make you a better driver, such as traction control, no car can turn a bad driver into a good one.

It's the same with the CNC. You can only cut materials so fast. Physics of cutters, chip load, and other issues creep in to where your 'real' cutting speeds aren't going to be even close to the maximum speed your CNC is capable of. And while the very expensive high-end CNC machine is certainly full of great features, if you, the person setting up the jobs, isn't really up on machining, maintenance, and toolpathing in general, well, it's not going to really matter anyways. Finally, if the CNC machine is able to produce parts much faster then the rest of your workflow can deal with them, well, then they will just pile up waiting to get sanded or finished or assembled.

Finally, just like with the car: an expensive machine doesn't guarantee success in any way. Sure, it looks better to be driving the BMW to the outside world, but it doesn't make you better at your job so that you can make the payments. And that's the final thing, really. We hear folks all the time saying that if they bought a CNC machine, that they would have to bring in 'X' amount of 'CNC work' to 'support' it because they are only looking at the very, very expensive models. That's like thinking that you're going to take on a night job delivering pizzas to afford your BMW, when you could have just bought a Subaru and used your time in more productive ways!

So don't fear the sub-$10k machines. Don't be a stupid snob, for it's limiting you. Everything we've done has been on a $7,000 machine, just to put things into perspective. While we'd love the $50K 5-axis machine, we get along fine with our 3-axis inexpensive machine by being smart. And hey, that's lead to a heck of a lot more freedom in the kinds of jobs we take. So, yeah, the inexpensive 3-axis machine sometimes limits us; however the bigger limits are always budget, schedule, and imagination anyways!

Jeffrey McGrew