By Liam Hodson
Signmaking companies that turn out customized work for their customers have more options today when it comes to programmable computer numerical control (CNC) routers. With so-called ‘hybrid’ CNC machines, all of the cutting tools that might be required for a wide variety of materials are mounted and ready to be used interchangeably.
CNC hybrids are a relatively new trend. For small sign shops, especially, they can improve efficiency and reduce downtime, as there is no need to manually change out the cutting tools.
The key to versatility
CNC hybrids are becoming increasingly popular as a niche technology because of their versatility. They allow a broad variety of flexible and rigid materials to be cut on a single machine, rather than having to purchase two or more different models for different types of jobs.
The key to this high degree of versatility is in the design and engineering of hybrids, which can accommodate both the standard router bits typically used for hard materials and knife cutters for softer ones. With only minimal setup time, the router itself can switch from one type of cutter to another, after being programmed.
Thus, installing a CNC hybrid can make a lot of sense for sign companies, particularly smaller shops where floor space is at a premium and capital expenditures are made only with the utmost caution.
CNC routers, which themselves began as plotting machines before the cutters were added, have now been around for more than 40 years. They use digitized point-to-point ‘maps’ to cut shapes along the X and Y access and to drill holes along the ‘up and down’ Z axis.
As the number of materials requiring precision cutting and close tolerances grew, a CNC router’s standard carbide bit would not always do a sufficient job. This was especially the case with softer materials, where the bit would tend to grab and distort the edge it was cutting.
This is where knives came in handy. Since the cutting surface area of a knife is much smaller than that of a bit, there would be (a) less chance of bunching up the material during cutting and (b) more chance of staying within the required measurement tolerances.
For sign shops that used a variety of materials in their production department that needed finishing, the market demand for both CNC routing and knife cutting could mean having to lay out additional funds—and find additional room—for at least two cutting machines. This problem is one of the main reasons CNC hybrid technology was developed later on.