Seven years ago when I first saw a CNC router in operation at the ISA show in Las Vegas I immediately knew we had to have one in our shop. The machines could be programmed to do amazing things without a doubt. But first I had to do some homework and educate myself all about routers. I spoke to a number of router manufactures at the sign trade show. Each and every one assured me they made the perfect machine for my needs even though it quickly became very clear that routers were not all the same nor created equal.
To this point we had never used computerized machines of any sort in our shop for we did everything by hand using highly skilled labor. A router would speed up production in our shop. When I returned home I started my research. First I went to the archived sign trade magazines on my shelf. I went through them one by one and each time I saw work produced on a router I would make note of the shops name and contact information and then make a long distance call. I made dozens of calls all across Canada and the USA. Each time my questions were the same.
What brand of router did they own? How was the machine equipped? What kind of problems had they encountered? How did their dealer handle these issues? What kind of support did they get? What software did they use? What were the limitations and learning curve of the software?
After a few dozen calls I began to see trends and I was much more knowledgeable about CNC routers. The answers I discovered were as follows...
Not all routers were created equal. Some required a lot of maintenance and tweaking to keep them operational. Very few brands offered exceptional service and support long after the sale was done and the warrantee expired. Most people spoke of how good a router mechanic they had become. Only a very few brands offered meaningful training. Some routers were truly faster than others, living up to their touted speeds - others were not. I also heard about the tough learning curves some software presented and of limitations with others.
Through months of research I boiled down the spec's I was looking for, based on the specific routing I intended to do with my machine.
Because we would be using our router to do primarily textured and dimensional pieces I needed certain things to make the machine efficient. Because of the types of files (high overlap) the machine we bought would be called on to run for many hours at a time and be constantly in motion in all three axis with rapid changes in direction. A stepper machine would be slow and could easily lose it's place if pushed hard. This meant we needed all servo drives. A heavy, all welded steel machine with a sturdy steel gantry would be necessary to provide the rigidity and speed we required - especially over the long term. A vacuum table was a must as it would make clamping unnecessary. An auto tool changer was also on my wish list because we use multiple bits with each job. Six inches of gantry clearance was ample for I discovered the limiting factor was the length of bit and what was termed the 'cone of death', an imaginary line formed from the tip of the bit through the collet.
One other factor in our decision about spindle size was the fact that we only have single phase power in our shop. This meant we would have to use an inverter which would effectively take away up to a third of our horsepower. We opted for an eleven horse spindle that would run continuously for long periods of time without problems.
Size of table was another big question. Two factors influenced my decision. The material we most often use comes in 4' x 8' sheets. The available space in our shop fits a machine of this size much better.
In all of my research one brand of router was most consistently rated as the best with quality service and support to go along with it. MultiCam. It was not the least expensive router out there but I was looking for good value and not a cheap price. I wanted to think about what I was creating rather than the machine I was working with. I am not a mechanical person, nor did I wish to be - ever. I was in the routing game for the long term. Those I talked with that had purchased another brand of router often told me they would like to upgrade to a MultiCam some day. Upgrading later was false economy in my view.
As part of the routing package we also opted for EnRoute Pro software. From my research I found it was able to do the most while offering the easiest learning curve. From what I could see the software would have no limits going forward.
We selected the MultiCam 3000 with all servo drives. The machine has 6" of gantry clearance. It has an 11 HP motor and a six station linear tool changer (less moving parts than a rotary one). It came equipped with a vacuum table. While other manufacturers could have built me a similar machine it would be all custom. MultiCam had built many hundreds of similar machines. I would bet they had made improvements along the way, meaning this proven machine was well thought out.
That was seven years go. So, looking back, how did we do with our choice? The machine performed exceptionally well with only a few minor issues. One issue was poor quality electrical power to our shop. (not a MultiCam problem) Our dealer removed the fuse panel in our machine and replaced it with a breaker panel - at his expense. We also had an occasional problem with the machine pulling tools through the holders every twentieth (or so) tool change. It turned out to be a problem with our compressor (not supplied by MultiCam). My dealer didn't charge me for the service call and handed me some tool holders to replace the broken ones without charge. Our MultiCam dealer also provided us with extra training at no extra charge. Do I happily recommend them? You bet for it is a recommendation well earned!
After six years we decided to upgrade our MultiCam to a four axis machine. Although our six year old machine still gave us problem free service, it was less expensive to upgrade the entire machine rather than retrofit the old. I spec'd the new machine exactly the same as the old (save for the fourth axis) for it had proved to be the perfect machine for our needs.
The new machine has been in production in our shop for about a year and a half. I'm still more than pleased with both machine and software. Once again both have proven to be the right decision for our needs.