Services

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cnc machining

Are you looking at getting some cnc work done? Well finding a great vendor and making sure your final product is perfect can be tough. I’ve been through the process many times, so I’m going to help ease the process with my guide on getting the best cnc job done.

Here’s the 6 stage process from coming up with a file to getting an awesome cnc job done:

1.)  File setup

2.)  First communication

3.)  Negotiating on finish and price

4.)  Keeping tabs with the project

5.)  Building a quality relationship

6.)  Common pitfalls

Let’s touch on each. Please remember there is a comments section below, so if you have any queries or if you want some further advise on getting cnc work done, please feel free to ask.

So my background is in design originally. I have done a ton of drafting since and have crafted files for cnc cutting, cnc routing and rapid prototyping in many different countries including New Zealand, Dubai, America and China.

So I’ve dealt with many different vendors and while a lot of it can be straight forward, setting up the right process is critical. If you’re into business it’s like The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. In his book he talks about setting up a business with specific roles. You will be setting up a system here too, but for your cnc projects now and going forward. Here we go:

1.)  File setup

dropbox

Alrighty so setting up your file is crucial. It’s hard for a cnc vendor to give you the right quote without the right file. You can send in an early file – but this is only ball-park, so I wouldn’t recommend this.

To get your file set up properly, I’d recommend getting in touch with some cnc vendors first, either locally/ overseas and asking what kind of file type they except. I’d say go with a .dxf if it’s for 2d cnc, or .iges / .stl file for export for cnc routing – but every cnc vendor is different.

You HAVE to test the file after you have exported it. Ideally exporting from one CAD program then re-importing it into another CAD program works best to ensure compatibility/ that the file is not corrupt. I suggest using a service like Dropbox, Box.com or Mega.co.nz for transferring larger files.

Key takeaways here: Make sure you know what kind of file type the vendor can work with, get it exported and given to the cnc operator as early as possible to get a quote.

When dealing with vendors overseas I always include a jpeg (screenshot) with a few key dimensions so that the vendor knows what the right scale it for the final output. I’ve heard of horror stories of files getting imported and the scale changing. To avoid this – include a jpeg and get the cnc vendor to verify.

2.)  First communication

cnc communication

By first communication I mean getting in touch with your cnc vendors. Crucial thnigs to remember:

There will always be a lead time – This is the amount of time it will take until the cnc vendor will be able to start your project as they may be busy with others.

Depending on the amount of cnc machines a vendor may have, there may be a large queue that you’ll have to wait behind. This is why you need to get a 3d/ 2d file (depending on the job) for a quote as soon as possible to see when your job can start and thus: when it will be finished.

Look for experience working with the type of material you will be using. If you are using resin or foam, make sure the vendor has worked with these. Ask for tolerences and bed size of the cnc machine.

The bed size will determine how big the job can be. If you are dead set on going with one particular vendor then I suggest splitting up the job into different files and gluing it/ putting it back together after.

You will also have to go for either a 3 or 5 axis machine depending on the project. A 3 axis cnc router is a lot cheaper, but you can’t do compound surfaces with a 3 axis router. Some vendors can move the project around and rout from different angles to achieve a similar effect to a 5 axis machine, but this has its obvious limitations.

Key takeaways here: Find a vendor early and decide either 3 or 5 axis machine depending on the shape of your project. Also ask if there are any specific tolerences; for example, etching vs cutting layers for 2d routing of aluminum plates.

3.)  Negotiating on finish and price

cnc surface finish

Surface finish is CRUCIAL. If you are into model making, then you are going to need a cnc machine that has a very precise machining tolerance.

CNC machines can go down to a fraction of a millimeter making it so you will not have to do any surface finishing – this will save a ton of time especially if the material is a tough resin or a type of steel that needs to be precise.

GL Model

Shop around for good pricing. In previous articles my favorite cnc vendor is GL Model in China. That’s because it’s cheaper for me to get smaller work done in China and finished exactly the way I want it to and then shipped to me than it is to get something cnc’d locally. I use GL Model for rapid prototyping too. Full  disclosure – I am not getting paid at all to endorse these guys. Here’s the article I wrote about these guys here.

Make sure you nail down the price using the exact file that you send a vendor. This is because if you change something on a file – typically this means adding more detail, then the price will have to be requoted as another cnc simulation will have to be run and this may increase the time it takes to cnc the new work depending on the new work paths chose.

Key take aways here: Make sure you see samples of finish straight out of the machine vs. after it has been finished. Also make sure you nail down price beforehand on the exact file name you give the cnc technician.

4.)  Keeping tabs with the project

cnc machine project snowflakes

Keeping tabs with the project is important, but there is no need to micromanage here. If you have done the groundwork already and you have the right contract, then you should be fine.

Always have something written or make sure expectations are set beforehand.

Non-cnc related – I once hired a model shop to paint some models I had cnc’d and they did a terrible job. I think it was due to me not having stringent rules that were agreed on beforehand and written and I was on a tight deadline.

Key take away – Lay a solid foundation on expectations – get this written down and agreed upon before work starts. Go for recommendations from people that have successful projects done from the vendor – but beware that every peoject is different and that one great experience and one terrible experience can come from the same cnc technician or cnc company.

5.)  Building a quality relationship

If your cnc company does a great job and delivers on time, then leave a positive review. You can use testimonials to help you choose a great company. The manufacturing niche isn’t too good at this, so the best example I can think of is the web design niche which I’m heavily involved in too. Here’s a good example of a site that uses testimonials to market – look for this in cnc vendors. It’s hard enough to find a great cnc technician or company. Cnc work is expensive so helping others using good testimonials to find a good one is crucial to help cnc consumers make an informed decision.

Once you have a few good cnc/ rapid prototyping vendors, then I highly suggest keeping the communication going as projects will always pop up if you are in the manufacturing industry.

Remember that cnc router machines and cnc lathes are getting more sophisticated and that cnc software prices and cnc machine training are going up – so don’t expect discounts all the time going forward – although it would be a nice bonus.

6.)  Common pitfalls

I think I’ve pretty much covered everything above, but here are some extras to help you get a kick-ass cnc project done.

-Never go with hand engravers

No offence to the talented out there – but nothing beats a machine for accuracy. I know sometimes given the shape of an object it may have to be hand engraved, but flat name plates should always be done with a machine to look pro.

-Always send a complete file

Pricing could jump when you send a lower quality file with less detail then send the proper one later. To avoid paying more than you were quoted – give your cnc technician a chance to quote you correctly with the right file.

-Always ask to see examples of surface finish done straight out of the machine (not finished up/ touched up afterwards)

-Always allow plenty of time

You limit the pool of great cnc vendors if you try and rush things as the best cnc providers always have some sort of lead time – typically at least 2-3 weeks if not more depending on the type of company and contracts they get.

What tips do you have for getting great cnc work done? Please leave your thoughts below!

photo credits: photos 1 and 6, photo 2 is Dropbox logo, photo 3, photo 4, photo 5 is GL Model logo (my fav cnc vendors).

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Have you decided to outsource your cnc machining to China? Well you’ve made a great decision. I’ve had positive experiences doing this many times in the past and I’d like to share with you the guide to doing so successfully.

First up, I highly recommend both outsourcing your cnc and your rapid prototyping/ 3d printing to a place like China. The benefits are obvious, and you can manage some of the frequent disadvantages that people can conjure up in their mind.

Benefits:

China cnc outsource

Cost is cheaper

Depending on the size of the project, even including packaging and shipping rates – the cost to outsource your cnc work is cheaper. This is because of the scale that some of these companies work at.

I’ll tell you my favorite company at the end of this article (actually screw it – the secret is out.. GL Model) – but you can expect companies in China to offer a massive range of cnc machines and higher tolerance levels for a VERY reasonable price.

Of course, if your project is too expensive to ship, then this negates the benefits.

Manual surface finishing is cheaper

Rates overseas are a lot cheaper for surface finishing of your product. You can request samples of different surface finishes, colors and textures.

GL Model actually sent out sample plastic cards that have all the coatings I requested – such as rubber (which is AMAZING by the way), different colors and even chrome. You would NEVER get this level of detail in many of the local cnc places I have seen.. unless you are willing to fork over a ton of money, and even then – this is rare.

A wider range of machines to choose from

Your local cnc operator may only have one or two machines. GL Model and many other cnc companies that I have approached have 3 4, and 5 axis Chinese cnc machines and rapid prototyping machines that can cnc into very high tolerances.

I had some miniature chairs made and they CNC’d it to less than 1mm thick, that’s right – cnc NOT rapid prototyped, that is just INSANE!

Quick turn around

I was presently surprised with the quick turnaround times  that some of these cnc places offer. While it’s imperative to tell them a turnaround time and discuss how long typical lea times are – I’ve found the service and their able-ness to stick to this has been really good.

One project I had with GL Model – they actually employed an outside 3d modeler to re-model the file because it did not export properly on their end – at no additional cost to me. This was an extreme case, because I had a tight deadline and I had worked with them before.

Commitment to impress 

Competition between different cnc vendors that you can outsource to is hot. Because of this, rates as well as services are a huge value over what you would get in places like the U.K. or North America.

With the many different places that have cnc routers in China – I’ve seen places that have Skype, as well as quick email turnaround to ensure that communication is solid. This combined with the surface finish, quick (reliable) turnaround and quality makes for a solid choice over a domestic cnc operator.

CNC China

So from all the above benefits, I’d have to say I am sold on the idea of outsourcing to China. With the huge selection of China cnc machine routers available, you will have luck finding a company with a Chinese cnc router or lathe that will be able to do the cnc job that you want.

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So the big question is always, do you keep your manufacturing in-house or do you outsource the work?

I’m a huge fan of outsourcing. It really comes down to cost and time.

But there are other important considerations to ponder. Outsourcing can save you money, but it can be time consuming and can end up costing a lot more than you think in terms of time as well as effort to get exactly what you want.

I really liked my experience outsourcing cnc work to China. At the time I was in NZ and it was much cheaper ato get stuff cnc’d in China than it was in New Zealand.

In saying that though, I went through a friend who recommended a site to me, so finding the right freelancer or cnc company was easy. This is always most of the battle.

Always remember that it may be cheaper to outsource, it may not be the easiest options. Outsourcing involves finding both the right freelancer or cnc company and being able to delegate your task effectively.

My verdict is to outsource, while for the inexperienced on a tight deadline, then taking it in house may be the way to go.

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Autocad 2013

AutoCAD is one of those programs that comes with a ton of changes every year. So staying on top of the game by learning all the commands and all the tools will make you the fastest and the best.

Here are some solid timeless tips that will separate you as a top performer over all the other amateurs out there:

1. Know every single keyboard shortcut inside out. Keyboard shortcuts can be quicker than clicking icons.

2. Use dynamic blocks for repetitive tasks. Amateurs cut and paste. Power users set up easily changeable dynamic blocks.

3. Draw in multiple viewports. Some people don’t like this, but it saves you panning around in your model space trying to find where that detail went.

4. Have your blocks ready. 80 percent of what you will be doing requires a lot of repitition. Have those blocks ready to just place in when needed.

5. Control your layers. This is one that is easy to forget. Having things in the right layers by using ‘ma’ or the match properties command will allow you to see what you drew later. For example: different plate thicknesses/ material.

6. Always save. Autocad does have an auto-save, but it is time based. Make sure you save multiple copies and important things all the time. Do this ESPECIALLY after drawing something that took you ages.

7. Proof your drawings with a smaller test plot. What you see on paper is always different to on screen. I have caught a ton of mistakes this way.

8. Keep a system for revisions on drawings. Always have company drawing standards.

9. Use the 20,20,20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This wills ave your eyes during long drafting sessions.

10. Create templates for your paper spaces and model spaces to save a ton of time. For example, copy in layers so you do not have to create new layers for every drawing.

Now keep on drafting!

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G Code

Alright so you want to learn G Code? Here’s a quick and dirty G code tutorial to get you started in G code and being able to talk the talk when it comes to the G code language.

Learning G code is actually pretty easy. With a bit of practice and this tutorial, you will be ‘the G Code’ pro in no time.

Learn the different planes

Depending on how many axis the machine has, you will have to figure out where the x,y,z axis are. You will also get a,b,c axis when it comes to machines that have more than 3 axis, such as 4 or 5 axis cnc machines.

The z axis is almost always the spindle that moves up and down, and the x and y will be the table directions.

Coordinates in G Code

We are going to be using inches in this G code tutorial. You can change this to metric pretty easily within whatever program you will be using. You can choose to omit the spaces if you want to, also do not add commas to the code.

X2 Y2 Z2

The above is a position at each axis. So in the above we have a position that is 2 inches from 0 in all axis.

For rotational axis found on a 4 or 5 axis machine, you use angles instead of dimensions. So rotating an A axis (4th axis) 45 degrees would be written as A45.

Your starting coordinates may affect your G-code coordinates. So if your cutting material is not lined up at X0 Y0 Z0, then you will need to adjust for this.

You can also use offsets to create duplicates of the work on a cnc machine, this is a little more advanced, but is something definitely worth learning later on.

G code dialects

Remember that there are different cam and software packages out there. Each manufacturer may have slightly different G-code, or a different dialect of G-code. It’s like the difference between American and British English, different words for different things and extra words for others.

Your job is to decide what the differences are and see what is supported with your cnc machine and what is not. This is to make sure the G-code you write will work smoothly on your chosen machine.

Using CAM programs to get the job done

There are a variety of different cam programs out there that will help you get the job done. I’ve always recommended starting with a program and then working backwards and learning the G-code later if you really want.

Some cam programs I would recommend are: Mastercam, BobCAD-CAM, and CAMworks for SolidWorks.

There are a ton of different programs out there, so I always like to try before I but. A lot of cad/cam programs usually come with a free trial. The programs themselves can be expensive for a single licence or seat, so give them a free trial before commiting to paying a lot of money up front.

G Code Simulator

NC Plot

NCPlot.com has a great simulator. NCPlot v2 is available for free for 15 days as a trial.

CNCsimulator has a good simulator worth checking out. They are currently working on the new CncSimulator Pro, which will be cool when it comes out.

Cnccookbook has a good G code editor called G-Wizard G-Code Editor which also has a free trial worth checking out.

G Code Generator / cnc code maker

Here are all the free/open source ones:

For 3d printing generators, check out SkeinForge, RepRap Host Software or SuperSkein

For milling generators, check out Cad.py, Cam.py, CL-Mill, GCAM, Gcodetools, PyCAM and Gcode enabled xfig.

File types for export to CNC

Some of the most common file types that are exported are STL, DXF and BMP. Other file types may include SVG, CMP, PLC, SOL, STS, STC, GTL and JPG.

If you are outsourcing, then you need to make sure your cnc operator will be able to accept at least one of the above files.

Always double check files by reopening them in another program or the same program after export. I like to provide extra files of different formats to make sure there is no delay.

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Engraved tie bar

An engraved tie clip or an engraved tie bar is a great for standing out from the crowd.Cuff links have been become popular in terms of all the fancy new designs and styles, so you can now back that up with a cool tie bar engraving.

Here’s my personal guide on how and where to get a great engraving, as well as a little extra section including my favourite engraved tie clips worth purchasing.

Steps on how to get a tie clip engraved

1. Make sure you have a great design in mind or whatever you want written/engraved on your personalized tie clips. Having a clear idea of what you want here is key.

Think about the empty space around the design or words, as a cluttered look does not look too flash. Also, call ahead to make sure you have an engravable tie clip. Most materials can be engraved, so you should not have a problem here.

Engraved tie clip

2. Find a good engraver. There are a few ways to do this. One is to go to a key cutter/engraver that might have an engraving machine.

Another is to go to a proper cnc technician. A cnc technician is someone that uses a computer to control a machine that engraves your tie clip.

3. Check for past examples. Make sure to look at size, scale and most importantly, quality of finish for what you pay for.

Make sure you find something that suits your style, so you have a point of reference to come back to if you get a rather crappy looking product in the end.

4. Make sure you communicate clearly what you want and get a few quotes. Each place will vary, because some cnc machines are just more expensive to run than others.

Some may use a press to stamp letters on, while others might use a fancier laser engraving machine to get the job done.

5. Once you have communicated clearly what you want, then you can leave your tie bar there and then go to pick up and pay later.

Remember that a lot of laser engravers now use cad (computer aided design) software, so you should be able to preview your writing or design before it gets engraved if they have the time. This will give you a good sense of scale and look of the final design to be engraved.

6. Pick up and pin the new engraved tie clip and look flash. Maybe get a higher job position and a raise, because you look so much sharper. Too easy. Or not.

Here’s a few of some cool looking engraved tie clip designs that are worth purchasing:

 

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cnc operator machinist

Alright let’s get down to it. So you are a CNC operator and want more info on salary, the job and training. Here’s our guide for everything to do with being a cnc operator.

CNC machine operator Salary

In U.S. and Canada (2012) Cnc operator salary – about $30,000 – $40,000 starting

Hourly wage can range from $12 an hour all the way up to $40 an hour (2012)

In 2012, the average wage advertised for a CNC operator fell between 10-30% the nationwide average salary in the U.S. and Canada.

CNC Programmer jobs usually start at around the $40,000 a year mark

CNC Operator Training

Where to train and how?

cnc operator machinist

Well it all depends on where you are based. You can do College and certificate programs that will get you started off as a cnc operator. From there, you could gain experience or do some extra coursework and become a cnc programmer, which typically pays at least an extra $5-10,000 a year in salary. This increase of at least 10% may be worth the cost of extra cnc training.

There are also other facets for the cnc technician, such as becoming a cnc lathe operator or a laser/plasma/water-jet machine operator. These new cnc machinist jobs will crop up as new technology gets brought to market.

Cnc operator course work

Usually a degree or certificate will involve math, cnc machine set-up and operation, cad/cam program training, and cnc tooling. You will also learn the basics of programming for cnc machines, such as learning how to program with G code.

Cnc operator apprenticeship route

Another way to learn is take an apprenticeship. This is good, as it will save you some money and you could even earn money while learning during your cnc machinist training. You will probably end up working for the same company as well. Cnc operator apprenticeships normally take up to 4 years.

You will learn some of the above things outlined while taking a course, but will probably have more of a hands-on based learning program as opposed to being drilled in theory or spending a lot of time working with cad programs.

The future of cnc operators

The U.S. BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) predicts an increase in this sector. We will see a 7% increase for the 2008-2018 period for cnc operator jobs.

Also, with new machines coming and old machines going, being a knowledgeable cnc operator or programmer is going to give you a huge jump on the competition later on down the track when demand increases.

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CNC Model Boat - CNC Establishment

There are a ton of different cnc machining services out there nowadays that can do some amazing things. Depending on what kind of cnc machining service you want, you may want to consider the following things before going out and finding someone to get your cnc work done:

Preparing for a Quote

Make sure you have the right file formats and a good file export for a potential cnc company to look at. A great cnc machining service will not give you a definite quote on a file that is half finished. Even if they do, it can only really be a ball park figure. They will need to know exactly what material you want to be cut. They will also need to know if there is anything special you want done such as complex routing using a 5 axis machine or engraving using a cnc engraving machine.

Contact a handful of cnc machine shops to see just what they can offer you. See what their possible lead time will be. The lead time is how long the queue is, or how long it will take until they will even be able to start your project. This is why I always encourage people to contact early with a cad file as soon as possible to get in the queue of a cnc machine shop who may be busy.

The cnc machining center should also give you a solid indication of how long a typical project of your size should normally take and how much it will all cost. Of course this is really up to how well prepared you are and how good the cad file is that you give them for production and whether or not it involves broad routing or requires a more precision machining service.

Getting a Good Quote

To get a good quote, you need a great cad file. Make sure when you export a cad file for cnc, that you test it by reopening it in your own program, and if available, on a different program. Sometimes there are incompatibility issues, so make sure you talk to the cnc machining service to ensure that they will be able to take your file format, or have them specify at least two that they can take. That way if an export with one of the file formats does not work, then they have an alternate file that they can work with on the day.

There are many different cad/cam programs out there that will be able to give you a cnc file for routing, engraving or cutting. The top one I recommend for 2d work is AutoCAD. You can even get a free 30 day trial with them. Some fo the more solid 3d programs I have seen for cad/cam and cnc production are Inventor, Solidworks and Rhino. Concepts Unlimited is also a cheaper 3d program that I have used and recommended before, but does not have the power and stability of the other ones mentioned.

Always check with your cnc machining center to see what file formats they will take. Remember that every cnc machine service is different, so to get the ebst service, consult them first and do not just assume that everyone will take the same file formats.

Also, look for experience. See what kind of cnc machining training that your cnc technician has had and make sure to see actual physical examples of their work to judge the quality and craftsmanship that the cnc machine may be able to achieve for your project. Remember that photos are not enough, get some real samples!

Clear Communication for the Job – Communicating with CNC Machining Companies

Once you have a few different quotes, it is time to choose a winner. Obviously things like cost, and time are important. But something else I recommend looking into is the actual finish of the job. Make sure you see real physical samples of the surface finish to see what kind of finish you will get. Some routers provide a rougher finish, while others require no finishing at all when it rolls of the machine.

Some precision machining services can make things super small and can have tolerances that go down to a quarter of a millimeter with a cnc machine. I have encountered this with companies abroad, as local cnc machining companies tend to be very expensive when it comes to precision production cnc machining.

Also you will need to find out if you need 3 axis or 5 axis cnc machining. A 3 axis machine may be able to be used if you can split up different parts of the project and connect them together. You will probably need a 5 axis milling machine to make more complex shapes out of a single block of material. For 2d stuff, a 3 axis machine is sufficient enough.

I have had 3 axis machine technicians be very creative and split up a project, then rotate the actual project itself to achieve the same finish result as a 5 axis machine, but with only a 3 axis machine. This is also beneficial to the customer as getting time on a 3 axis machine is normally a lot cheaper than trying to get your project through 5 axis cnc machining. So depending on the axis and the cnc machine parts needed, this will sway the price up or down.

Let the cnc service know exactly what you want, before getting the project started. One of the things I like to do is include a separate file that includes the objects rendered in 3d and some basic dimensions and finishes. This is important especially if you are outsourcing the work overseas and you can not be there to oversee or describe what you want, so getting it down on paper visually makes sure that you will not get a job that does not match your initial specifications.

Getting the Final Product

Getting the final product is always exciting. But if you have done all of the steps outlined above, you should get exactly what you want. Paying a ton of money for something that you did not want can be terrible. While you can outsource the task, you must always keep tabs on it and explain exactly what you want. This is super important, in fact, it is so important, that you need to get it down in writing sometimes.

Make sure you specify an exact date for pick up and keep your fingers crossed that with all the hard work you have put into the cad file and with all the clear instructions, you should get exactly what you want.