It is hard to believe that it was only seven years ago I witnessed a CNC router in action for the very first time. I was fascinated with what I saw and simply had to have one! Although I had been in the creative end of the three dimensional sign business for most of my life I didn't really know what I would do with one - but I just knew it could do fantastic stuff.

Through extensive research and LOTS of hands-on practice I quickly found out that my MultiCam router was capable of just about anything imaginable.This journal will chronicle that journey to date and continue each week with two or three entries as I continue to explore just what is possible with this wonderful tool... -dan

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lectern - Part two

The gears were next up. These were fairly straight forward and totally done in EnRoute. I first drew two circles for the big gear. I then drew a rectangle with slightly tapered ends. I reproduced and rotated this rectangle to form the gear teeth.  The smaller gear was created by using the point node tool to shorten the tapered rectangle. this was then rotated to form the gears. 

Then I added the middle circles to form the hubs. The gear teeth were combined with the outside circles.

For the spokes in the big gear I drew new rectangles and used the point edit tool to round the ends. This allowed the spokes to be perfectly round then I made then into reliefs.

The first step in making the gear reliefs was to create use the add to command to make flat reliefs that were an inch and a half high, the same thickness as our Precision Board.

I then used the dome tool to create the round spokes.  As I looked at the result I decided the gears would look better if I added an inner round piece to the gear body. This was as simple as creating two offsets (one inside and one outside) These new vectors were made into a separate relief using the dome tool.

The last step was to build the hubs. These were separate flat reliefs that were two inches thick. I then used a new circle vector (not shown) to create a new zero height relief  I merged (highest) all of the reliefs to this new relief. The center hole was created by merging (lowest) a zero height relief.

I created three copies of each  gear (for a total of four) and flipped two since they had to fit to the back when they were laminated together. As I set up the router I purposely left a thick onion skin (1/16") for a couple of reasons. First it helped the vacuum table hold the small pieces in place during the routing. Once the pieces were finished being cut from the Precision Board I left the skin in place between the spokes and in the center of the axle hole. We use Coastal Enterprises one part PB Bond240 guess which expands as it cures. This means it oozes out a little. The onion skin kept it from doing this in the center portions. Cleaning up the glue on the outside is easy with the die grinder.

Once the glue had cured the onion skin cleaned up easily with minimal work or rather should have.
But this time I out-smarted myself. Although I had carefully lined up the gear teeth I didn't hold the gear up to the light to sight the lining up of the spokes. This meant the first pair of big gears was sent to the dumpster. You can bet I took more care the second time around and got it right too.

Next post I'll be working on the tapered base which was a little more challenging. Stay tuned...


Lectern - Part one

Building rather complex objectss is something I enjoy immensely. As I designed I knew from experience just how I would accomplish building the files in EnRoute, how I would machine them with our MultiCa, and how they would then be assembled and finished. Because Precision Board has certain limitations as far as structural strength I knew just how we would weld up a steel frame to go inside. Because the lectern would have to travel many, many thousands of miles and stand up to use in many trade shows we had to get it right from the start.

As I started building the files I first decided in my mind how many pieces we would build and how these pieces would be layered. I first had to decide scale.

The riveted front motor housing was the first piece to be made it a relief. This was fairly straight forward. The file was built entirely in EnRoute.  The inside and outside circle determined the dimensions of raised layer or outer ring. The intersecting lines would be the counterpoints for the rivets.

I then typed in an 'M' and sized and positioned it in the center circle. I didn't get a screen capture but I used the jigsaw tool to get the shapes I needed around the 'M'.

Creating a flat relief was the first order of business.
 Then I used the center shapes around the 'M' to drop the center.
As a last step I created the rivets by modifying the relief using the dome tool.

The table support bracket was next and again it was fairly simple. I defined the shapes using the vector drawing tools.  The rectangle at the bottom was used to segment off the bottom piece. I defined this area using the jigsaw tool.

Then I used the offset drawing tool to create the outline of dropped center portion of the bracket.

At this point I changed my mind and decided that the top (big) flat side of the bracket needed to be as deep as the round collar at the bottom. To do this I created a rectangle of appropriate size. I positioned the rectangle vector and used the jigsaw tool to again define the dropped portion (not shown.)

The round hole through the bracket was created by making a zero height relief. This zero height relief would be merged lowest as a last step to create the hole.

I then made one more outline to make a zero height relief. All of the pieces would be merged (highest) to this relief

The two table top brackets would each have three layers with the center layer  being cut out to accept the steel support. 

With the first two reliefs needed for the lectern created it was time to fire up the MultiCam. The pieces were routed from 1.5" thick 30 lb Precision Board.

Monday, January 19, 2015

MultiCam with all the bells and whistles

We've owned a MultiCam CNC router for about eight years and have figured out how to make it do some pretty neat stuff. It wasn't long until the makers of the machine noticed. In the years since we've cooked up some pretty cool samples for them and have been asked to do some presentations at the International Sign Association world conference on MultiCam's behalf. This year we were asked to go to the conference in Las Vegas once more in April and do a series of presentations in their booth. The area where we present simply couldn't be ordinary. They needed some new samples to demonstrate what the wonderful mechanical machines are capable of. We couldn't resist the challenge.

 We decided on a steampunk theme for the display, giving us lots of room to have some fun. We'll have three new pieces on display. The first piece will be the lectern.  Standing behind this piece of eye candy will demand some enthusiasm and passion which I love to deliver.

Behind me will be the MultiCam TV. Here, I'll illustrate my presentations with pictures of the many fun projects we've done over the last eight years.

The third new piece will be my version of a MultiCam Router. While not terribly big in size it is very large in character. It will measure about six feet tall.

This is going to be a fun gig!  I look forward to talking with everyone who has a chance to visit the show this year.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Picking a CNC router - part three

In the first two blogs in this series about picking a CNC router I discussed learning about router specs, picking the ones we needed and then selecting a manufacturer and dealer to supply our machine. I hear a great deal of talk about routers and how much they should cost. Some of my friends have bought routers from China. Service isn't part of the package. When something goes wrong there is a steep learning curve to get the necessary parts and get things going again. I know people who want to do it all themselves, including building the router. I have no doubt they save money but they trade this money saved for the amount of time they invest. I maintain that time equals money and time is my most valuable resource. I don't want to fiddle with my machine. I don't even want to think about it. Other than greasing it as necessary and blowing off the dust I don't do anything other than running it. Once or twice each year I'll have a little maintenance done and occasionally the bearings need replacing. I let a knowledgeable and experienced factory tech do that work. I keep busy doing the work I love.

Choosing a top end router with top notch service didn't come cheap. You get what you pay for. I didn't endlessly haggle nor beat my guy down. I wanted a long term relationship with a friend that would take care of me over the long haul. And that I got.

Once we had negotiated a price it was time to figure out the terms to make sense of our purchase. My business plan indicated we could pay for the machine over two years. To be safe we decided to finance it over four. To be able to write off the machine quickly, we opted to lease the machine for four years with a small buyout at the end. Delivery, installation, setup, training, software and two years of service were negotiated into the deal.

The price of the machine worked out like this...

My math includes everything. Please notice that even though we purchased one of the top machines (read that expensive) out there it amounted to only 28% of our total cost. 

Delivery, duty and taxes amounted to another 10%. A good screw compressor with an air dryer added 5% more to the cost. Hooking up the electrical added 2%. The software was 4%. A good dust collector added 4%. 

When we make a big addition like the router it is time to seriously rethink the production of the shop. We literally tore apart the whole shop, cleaned and rearranged everything to fit it in right. We spent the better part of a week at the task. At shot rate this added up to 6% of the cost of the router.

Most shops would total up the cost at this point. But we weren't done. We could do little more than turn on the machine. We had to learn to use it to it's best advantage. We also had to create samples of the new work we would do. Unless customers can see it they don't buy it.

Learning the software meant investing time, starting with the basics. I had never operated any type of computerized equipment previously. We had to invest in ourselves. And that we did.

For two months we only produced samples on our machine. We started with the alphabet. This meant twenty six samples - all different. I learned about creating reliefs, making shapes, adding textures and a whole lot more. While we were at it we explored finishing techniques including paints, glazes and gilding.  I filled our dumpster multiple times with things that didn't work, and each time learned something new in the process.

Having one of the best machines in the world and not being able to use it is a poor investment. So we invested properly and counted all of our costs in the process. This meant we went in with our eyes wide open knowing we would come out the other side equipped to do anything imaginable. It worked!

Next time I'll begin a discussion about software. Stay tuned...

Picking a CNC router - Part two

In my last post I talked about discovering CNC routers and wading through the technical specs and language to determine which machine was best for our needs. Once I had determined the specifications of the machine we needed it was time to go shopping.

Our new CNC router would have the following specifications:

Heavy duty steel construction throughout. Steel gantry with 6" of clearance
All servo drive
Four foot x eight foot table
6" minimum gantry height
12 hp spindle with auto tool changer - linear style tool holder.
Vacuum hold down

As I started talking to various dealers I quickly discovered they all had the perfect machine for my needs - or so they said. Some did their best to talk me out of what I wanted and instead to go for the machine they stocked. Others offered to build and deliver a custom machine. All offered excellent service. Delivery times of machines varied greatly.

A tour through their operations yielded plenty of information. Some were organized and neat, others much less so. A few carried parts in stock. Consumables like bits and collets were plentiful at some dealers, less so at others. Quick chats with their support techs made it clear who would be helpful when help was needed.

It was time for a little more information gathering. I asked for a list of past customers and talked with them at length about what I might expect from each machine dealer. Some had a reputation of dropping a machine off and then disappearing while others were there for the long haul.

I was looking for a machine I didn't have to think about. If something went wrong I absolutely wanted my dealer to take care of it with the minimum fuss or delay. The quality of service I was to receive was as important as the quality of the machine itself.

Notice in all of this that saving money wasn't at the top of my list. I've long believed that you get what you pay for - especially when it comes to tools. By virtue of what I was demanding from my machine it automatically kicked me to the top of the food chain. I wanted a top quality machine that would serve me trouble free for years. I wanted top notch service to back this up. My specs limited my choice from the start.

One company continually rose to the top of the list at every turn. MultiCam. They weren't the cheapest by far but they offered me a stock machine that was exactly what I wanted. They had built thousands of routers and more than 400 just like mine in the past. This meant I was getting a machine that had all the bugs worked out of it. MultiCam also had a hard earned reputation of providing quality service to back it up.

There was one last test they had to pass. I asked for a demonstration of a similar machine in their showroom. I would bring the file. I had someone else make up two files to run. One was simple, the other almost impossible. My dealer was waiting for us when we arrived - all smiles. We handed him the disk with out files and he treated us to lunch while the tech set things up. The first file was set in motion while we ate. I could see the tech in the back sweating over the second file. He was on the phone to head office and whomever else he could thing of to sort things out. By the end of our time he hadn't had any luck. I told the dealer not to worry about it. I promised to give him our final answer the next morning.

Imagine my surprise when I went out to the shop to unlock the door I found a routed sample of the impossible file leaning there. The tech had worked late to figure it out and route the file. He had even driven out to our shop after hours to deliver the piece to our shop. This was service - above and beyond the norm. We were ready to pull the trigger on the deal with no reservations. MultiCam would supply our CNC router. We opted for the 3000 series machine spec'd exactly as we had wanted.

The next step was to pick the software we would use to build out files. That will be started in the next post...

Picking a CNC router - Part one

I witnessed a CNC router for the first time at the International Sign Show back in 2006. I was amazed to see the machine going back and forth cutting so very fast. The machines I saw at that show were all doing cuts and not 3D. Few people were doing 3D back then. Over the course of the three day show I looked at many routers and talked with the software folks at length about what these machines were capable of. In a word - ANYTHING. Anything I could think of the machines could do.

Keep in mind that I have never owned a plotter of printer, had never even built vector files to this point. The language and terms I heard at that show were all foreign. I had so much to learn. By the end of the show I only knew one thing. I had to have one of these machines in our shop.

When I got back home the work began. A cnc router wasn't to be a small investment. After the purchase of my building it was the next biggest number. As I got into my research I quickly discovered that the router alone was only part of the cost. I also needed a good sized compressor, an air dryer, a dust removal system, and software. Then there was the electrical needs and the time to learn how to use it as well as build a market to sell the work I would produce on the machine.

I first had to educate myself about the specifications and options available on the routers. As I stated before the terms I heard to this point were confusing. 

Stepper motors were common back then, servos only came on the more expensive machines. Through talking to many owners of machines across the continent I learned that steppers were slower, and if pushed too hard would lose their way. Servos were closed loop and were better. That was a no brainer in my book for I tend to push my equipment hard. Steppers have improved since then but based on my experience I would still only consider servos if I had to do it again.

Gantry height was the next thing to consider. I learned that the higher the gantry the more shake was possible. I also learned that by beefing up the structure and bearings this movement can be eliminated. Heavy duty wins the day here. While the height of the gantry was important the limiting factor was more about the length of the tool. The longer the tool, the more deflection was possible. This translates to less accuracy, chatter, and tool breakage. There is also what I term the cone of death. This is a triangle defined by the tool length and collet size. If your tool is only two inches long you can't cut deeper than that (vertically) without bumping the collet. In the end I settled on six inches of gantry clearance and it proved to be right. I got a very stable machine that could be run at high speeds. I've never cut material thicker than four inches.

Table size was the next question. I had to think about what I would be cutting. All of my substrates come in 4' x 8'. This included high density urethane, MDF and plywood. Shop space was also factored in. I never planned for a router when I built it and space was at a premium.  I decided a 50" x 100" router would work just fine. You also have to plan how you are getting the router into your building. I know people who have had to take out walls to locate their machine. We had to hire a heavy duty forklift for the task.

Electrical needs will have to be addressed and this adds up in a hurry. We only had single phase power in our shop with no option to upgrade to triple phase. This meant we had to have our router built with an inverter. It takes 60 amps of power to run the machine. Then there's the vacuum pump and the dust removal system. New heavy duty wiring had to be run for all of the components. 

There has been a great debate for many years about the construction of routers. Is heavier steel construction better than lightweight aluminum? In one camp weight is your friend. Heavy duty castings and I-beams absorb the forces and vibrations. Strong servo motors allow for quick changes in direction. In the other camp everything is lightweight aluminum. The thought is that everything can change direction quicker if it takes less force due to less mass. When a machine is cutting a true 3D file it changes direction quickly and often. This produces a lot of force and vibration which affects cutting quality. I like to do what I call the nickel test. With the machine going full speed I place a nickel on the frame rail. A properly designed machine will allow the nickel to stand with the machine in operation. If it continually falls over you are pushing the machine too hard or the machine is not rigid enough. That means slower cutting speeds and much longer machine run times. That translates into more electricity costs and slower production times. I much prefer a heavy duty steel machine.

Then there is the matter of equipping the machine with an automatic tool changer or not. With our 3D work we typically use three tools (or more) per job. The work is first roughed out using a 3/8" ball nose bit with a high overlap. A fine pass is then done using a 1/8" ball nose bit. And finally I use a cutter to cut out the pieces. All this tool changing meant an auto tool changer made sense for us. It added a considerable cost to the machine but has paid for itself in the long term. There are also two options in auto tool changers. Linear style tool holders have the spare tools arranged in a holder at the end of the machine. A rotary tool changer is bolted to the gantry which means quicker tool changes as they are closer. I prefer the linear tool changer and there are less moving parts. Having the gantry travel to the end of the table to grab a tool doesn't take very long.

Vacuum hold down was another option to consider. I quickly determined I didn't want to fiddle with clamps or screws to hold my work in place. A quality vacuum hold down system was a must.

Spindle size (horse power) is another option to consider. I knew I would push my machine hard and so I needed five-eight horse power. Because we have single phase power and have to run an inverter I effectively lose up to thirty percent. So we opted for a twelve horse power spindle. Run times on 3D projects tend to be very long and so durability was a major factor. We opted for a spindle with four ceramic bearings. Air cooled versus water cooled is another option. Because we live in a temperate climate an air cooled spindle was deemed adequate.

Familiarizing myself with all of the terms and options for a CNC router took me a couple of months and many phone calls to both router manufacturers and owners. The internet also helped a great deal. After I had completed my research I knew the type of machine I needed. 

Our new CNC router would have the following specifications:

Heavy duty steel construction throughout. Steel gantry with 6" of clearance
All servo drive
Four foot x eight foot table
6" minimum gantry height
12 hp spindle with auto tool changer - linear style tool holder.
Vacuum hold down

Once I knew what I wanted it was time to actually start shopping. That's for the next post...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Looking forward to a great year!

As the New Year rolls in we like to look back at what we've done and also to the future, hoping we can do things even better. This blog is the same. I look forward to hearing comments and suggestions from our readers. The comments on this blog have been turned off because of all the spam that we were getting but feel free to email me with your comments.  dan@imaginationcorporation.com

From feedback I have in hand I have already planned a few things.

I'll write a series of articles about how we picked the router and software we continue to use to this day.

It has been a little over eight years since we got our first MultiCam. I still remember how daunting the purchase was. It was a LOT of money and there were so many choices. I wanted to make sure I did it right the first time! The specs and options of the machine were numerous and the machine part terms almost like a foreign language. Every machine salesman of every brand I looked at had the perfect machine for me even though it was plain to me the rookie that they were very different. It took us months to sort it all out. In terms of software everyone recommended what they were using, mainly because they were familiar with it. A series of blogs on these subjects will give you my perspective as a user based on what I found out then and what I know now.

I'll also write a few articles about the high density urethane we love to use along with the glues and primers. How-to's are great but sometimes the why's are just as important.

I'll also go back to basics with the creation of router files using the software.  I sometimes forget how daunting it can feel when you first open EnRoute. But believe me I know for prior to owning a router I never used vectors, never even fired up a plotting machine of any kind.  And trust me when I say that if I can do this kind of work anybody can.  But we first have to learn to walk, then work up to a run before we fly to the heavens.

I've had some requests to show some of the other things that EnRoute does so well like rapid texture and the parametrics. These are things we don't use too often in our shop so I just may recruit some help to show these to their best advantage.

I'll probably do a series of posts on other things too, never before covered on this blog. How I come up with ideas and designs, how we market our work and how to build a business doing dimensional work are all important - just as important as learning to do the work in the first place. We need to earn the money to pay for all this fancy equipment that is so fun to use!

Each time we post a video the response is always very positive so I'll do my best to put together more of those.

Again I ask for feedback from the readers to help shape the direction the blog goes from here.