A cut above
Computer numerical control (CNC) machines are the product of decades of intense research and development that has fueled a revolution in industries across the world. Before CNCs, cutting out letters, shapes, logos, and motifs was largely done by hand, either by knife or on cutting machines with a limited flexibility. The mass production of logos, for instance made out of layering vinyl, was a laborious and time consuming process.
All the traditional techniques of engraving, cutting out intricate shapes, grindings, slicing, drilling, and routing can be replicated at the touch of a button, or rather a keyboard. Now, smaller sign-makers can produce large amounts of signage very quickly and economically, which has inevitably led to a mushrooming of the industry as now the potential range of customers is vast.
As good as the operator
CNC machines are used in the sign industry to cut out shapes, etch, rout, grind, and print a wide range of materials from textiles to metals, and from wood to vinyl. However, it is up to the operator who inputs into the computer to make the most of the CNC machine as, like all kit, it is simply a tool.
There a wide range of CNCs used in our industry, beginning with desktop models for a few hundred pounds, rising to major pieces of kit taking up large amounts of floor space for tens of thousands. Choosing a machine clearly depends on your budget, but perhaps more importantly what type of work you need it for and the quality that is desired.
Before splashing the cash, it is worth spending time checking out the various machines available and visiting or talking to sign-makers outside of your area. Potential competitors will not be keen, but someone at the other end of the country who presents no threat will probably be more help, and will give you some of the pros and cons of their CNC.
Wall-mounted cutters should slice through foam board, aluminium, and corrugated plastics, and feature laser sight line guides for cutting pre-printed graphics. Some wall mounted units are also freestanding, making them easier to reposition when the workshop is rearranged.
“There are now many sign and graphics companies, invariably two- and three-person operations, moving conspicuously into, for example, the potentially lucrative print wear and promotional products sector on the basis that 90 percent of the equipment installed for core manufacturing activities can now be adapted, with little or no additional investment, to create new market opportunities and introduce a vital new revenue stream to fuel business growth and commensurate profitability.”
Cutting has come a long way from the days of basic machinery in the 1970s when hand and eye skills were the priority. Turning around larger jobs of cut vinyl was a slow and cumbersome operation, but with the advent of computers in the 1980s, that has all changed. For a few thousand pounds, cutters are an essential weapon in a sign-maker’s toolkit, and if you get the right machine, you can undertake work that you would normally sub-contract out, thus keeping the work in-house and increasing profits.