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Finishing: The importance of CNC router maintenance

Photos courtesy Axyz International

By Noel Archie
Many of today’s computer numerical control (CNC) routers have achieved the epitome of high-tech sophistication for sign shops focused on providing precise cutting and shaping to meet their customers’ demands. These machines—usually representing one of the largest investments a sign shop will ever make—are capable of 20 years of productivity.

From a pure business perspective, the more regularly a router runs, the more income the shop can generate. Idle routers, on the other hand, negatively affect the company’s bottom line, to the consternation of its owner(s).

All too often, the reason for a router’s downtime has nothing to do with the design of the machine and everything to do with how it is being maintained. Every router comes with a recommended maintenance program, but while a sign shop’s employees may conscientiously try to follow it, they can still sometimes fall short.

Their difficulties cannot be brushed aside by simply attributing maintenance shortcomings to negligence. Usually, the smallest and seemingly most innocent oversights end up jeopardizing operations over the long term, perhaps due to the rush of the production schedule or a shortage of manpower on a particular day.

Frankly, whatever the cause, the problem is the same. Everything from less-than-thorough lubrication to improper tooling in the spindle will play a role in shortening a router’s lifespan. And just because a machine continues to work efficiently the next day or the day after that, there is no guarantee against undesirable cumulative damage, which is certain to shorten its longevity.

Keeping tooling components clean is vital in achieving a polished edge finish.

Avoiding the pitfalls of shortcuts
As mentioned, CNC routers should last up to 20 years if the manufacturer’s maintenance protocols are adhered to on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. They are designed and constructed for heavy-duty use. Their potential lifespan can be significantly reduced, however, when the recommendations are not followed.

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Murphy’s Law, which states anything that can go wrong will at the worst possible moment, is certainly applicable to router operations. The last thing any shop needs is a machine sitting idle during a production run.

Router downtime can certainly occur for reasons unrelated to routine maintenance, such as an electrical outage caused by extensive dust in the facility, but for the most part, such occurrences are rare. More commonly, improper maintenance is the problem, increasing the likelihood of an incident that is bound to increase the shop’s workforce and production costs.

“I’ve experienced what a lack of proper maintenance does,” says Andrew Kovach, shop supervisor at Barbican Architectural Products, a commercial and industrial lighting manufacturer in Fort Erie, Ont., that operates three routers. “If you don’t keep up on grease and oil, you’ll ruin the bearings and shut them down.”

As such, Kovach explains he follows the manufacturer’s recommendations to grease and oil the routers’ bearings every two weeks or, when the shop is especially busy, every 40 hours. He attributes adherence to maintenance for the continuing performance and reliability of Barbican’s three routers, one of which is 12 years old. The machines are used to cut metals and plastics in an environment Kovach describes as “dusty,” due to the presence of medium density fibreboard (MDF), other fixtures and shades, as Barbican maintains its manufactured hardware, lenses and shades on-site, but he points out router operations are rarely interrupted.

“We have had minimal downtime and when we do, it’s usually because of electrical parts that we’ve been trained to replace,” he explains.

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