Choosing The Right 5 Axis CNC Router for Moldmaking and Thermoform Parts Trimming

There are a number of factors to consider when considering the purchase of a new or used 5 axis cnc router. It starts with understanding what the most critical component of the application is. Will the machine be used mainly for molds or is the trimming process the most important? Do you have strict accuracy and tolerance requirements?

The first thing about a CNC router that really stands out from a CNC mill is the scale. A CNC router can have machinable areas as large as you like. The average 5 Axis CNC Router has a 5’x10′ machining area with 36″ or more of Z axis clearance. While the CNC router is not suited for cutting ferrous materials, it excels at cutting composite prototyping boards, plastics, carbon fiber and even non-ferrous metals with the proper accessories.

A CNC router can allow you to do larger scale mold masters and cavities, and in turn, service markets currently being ignored by most mold and pattern shops. Applications have included mold masters for 1/5 scale RC helicopter FRP molds, 6′ x 10′ centerboard masters for sailboats, antique grille masters for sand casting and various automotive application molds and masters for vacuum forming. The versatility of a CNC router is amazing as it excels at cutting smaller molds and masters with reliable tolerances in the .003 to .006″ range.

With the addition of quality CAD/CAM software, small and start-up shops can create a viable operation with the combination of thermoforming equipment and a CNC router. The CNC machines the appropriate plug or cavity, which is then sent to the thermoforming machine. The thermoformed part is then returned to the CNC and placed in a vacuum fixture or frame to hold the part. The CNC then accurately trims the circumference of the part, in addition to machining or drilling features necessary on the finished part.

This versatility allows smaller shops to be competitive with a minimal investment. Existing shops can use their CNC router to expand their business by catering to larger scale components for the thermoforming, FRP, sand casting, and even prototyping markets. The CNC router also can be used to create fixtures, packaging and a host of other parts to be used in the shop itself.

When choosing a CNC router for your business, the overall build quality of the machine is only one aspect to consider. Many CNC routers quickly become obsolete with costly upgrade paths or expensive replacement parts as the years begin to take their toll on the machine. Do your research, visit local shops that have the brand of router you are interested in and ask lots of questions.

Does the CNC company’s website offer a user forum? How long have they been in business? Do they take the time to really listen to what my needs are? What’s the warranty on the machine and how much will I be charged if I need technical support? In North America there are a number of manufacturers that produce high quality 5 axis cnc routers.

Two Distinct Processes:

Thermoformed Parts Trimming

For Trimming Thermoformed Parts the most common configuration is dual 5’x5′ Tables and a double ender spindle. That type of spindle carries two tools at once and the “tool change” process takes less than 1 second. The router flips over and the 2nd tool turns on. This is a faster process than a formal “Auto Tool Change” which can take up to a minute to execute. Thermoformed parts trimmers like that configuration because they generally don’t use more than two tools in the trim process and its faster than changing a tool.  These machines don’t need to be as robust at machines that will primarily be used in mold making applications. The manufacturers of 5 axis cnc routers for trimming applications tend to focus more on speed rather than power. The most common American Made machinery in this category include DMS, Thermwood and Quintax. The equipment in this category ranges in price from $150,000 to $180,000 new.

Mold Making Applications

For primarily Mold Making applications very often a 5 axis cnc router with an Automatic Tool Changer is the best option. Depending on the material being routed it can also help to have a machine with beefed up gearboxes in the 4th and 5th axes to hold better tolerance. These are considered Heavy Duty 5 Axis CNC Routers. These types of 5 axis cnc routers are more expensive than the trimming types and can range in price from $190,000 to $350,000 new.

These are just a few questions you should be asking before purchasing a CNC router for your small- to medium-sized moldmaking or Thermoforming operation. The focus of your quest should be getting the most value for your hard-earned dollar.

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