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Router, laser, or waterjet?

Discussion in 'General Signmaking Topics' started by Signed Out, Apr 14, 2020.

  1. Signed Out

    Signed Out Very Active Member

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    Looking for best method for cutting aluminum signs. Currently we use a stomp shear, corner rounders and hole punch. But we are getting into higher volumes and our current process is labor intensive. For reference we can finish (1,000) 10x7 signs (mount vinyl / shear aluminum / punch holes / round corners) with 20 hrs labor, but it's not a fun job for the guys all that stomping and punching.

    Signs range in size from 10x7, 14x10, 18x12, 24x18. 040, 063 and 080 aluminum, with applied vinyl. And we aer looking to do about 750-1,000 signs per week. All signs are rectangles with rounded corners and mounting holes.

    I've been looking into routers for..ever, but it seems that a lot of people struggle cutting aluminum. There are also a lot of people saying they have no problems cutting it once you get it figured out with correct feed/speed, hold down, possibly a misting system... which sounds messy and added time cleaning signs? Plus from reading peoples feed rates, seems anywhere from 0.5-1.0 inches per second, which seems slow. Like 1 minute or more for each 14x10 sign not including setup?

    So I'm wondering what a better setup would be. I read that waterjets leave a great finished cut. But I don't see much aobut people in the sing industry using them. Are they? What speeds and what are some popular machines?

    Lasers? Haven't looked into this much, will start now. But viable?

    Since I'm mainly concerned about simple rectangles (although added capability of CNC type cutter would be beneficial) maybe I should be looking into pneumatic shears or presses?

    Any thoughts?
     
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  2. asd

    asd Member

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    i don't know much about brands or whats out there, but I have seem and ordered from different vendors aluminum parts and when it come to cutting aluminum waterjet will leave a much cleaner finish that a cnc router or laser
     
  3. Z SIGNS

    Z SIGNS Very Active Member

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    1000 a week. I would farm the blanks out to a mill.
    Unless your set up like they are it would be hard to make them cheaper.
    On the other hand a 1k a week job could buy yourself some fancy equip.

    I have a router,shear,rounder etc.
    It would not make any sense to run the machines for a job like this.
     
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  4. Signed Out

    Signed Out Very Active Member

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    Thanks for your input, but I'm not understanding what you're saying. Running which machines doesn't make sense?

    Farming out blanks doesn't help much. The idea is to do in house for many reasons. Fast turnaround time is a must and I don't want the hassle of subbing out. I'll assume you would suggest to direct print to the blanks either screen printed or UV flatbed. But while a lot of these signs are larger orders, there are also a lot of smaller runs and customs in this mix, so screen printing is out (don't screen print anyway). And as far as UV flatbed, we don't have one but have also been considering. What scares me off is UV ink adhesion to aluminum and shorter life cycle than printed/laminated vinyl without spraying urethane coatings on everything. Plus a good 30% of these signs are reflective so need to apply vinyl anyways.
     
  5. Signed Out

    Signed Out Very Active Member

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    Been looking into lasers a bit, but I have to imagine the laser would leave a "burnt" edge if cutting aluminum with vinyl already applied to it?
     
  6. rjssigns

    rjssigns Major Contributor

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    I agree with Z Signs. For the quantities stated sub out to a fab shop set up for production runs. In the long run you will be glad you did. Fab shops are set up for production work and can knock stuff out faster than you think. Way faster.

    If you insist on buying equipment buy a laser. I have my 0.125" aluminum blanks lasered at a local shop. Edge finish is perfect. They run a 10,000 watt Hitachi.

    But be warned. The investment for a production laser is steep and they are not just a scaled up Epilog or Kern. You will be dealing with refrigeration units for cooling, inert gas supply and fume extraction.

    Waterjets are expensive and bring their own set of issues. Production units have about 36" of water under the table so you don't cut through your floor. You need to not only supply them with water, but garnet or similar abrasive. Bet you thought it was just water, didn't you?

    Regardless of what you get there are PM cycles that must be adhered to along with consumables. Big upfront investment and a steep learning curve awaits.
     
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  7. Christian @ 2CT Media

    Christian @ 2CT Media Major Contributor

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    You can NOT LASER VINYL, unless you would like to erode the lung tissue of your employees.

    So you would have to laser the blanks out then apply Individually.

    If you are always cutting straight lines you can look into cnc saws or stick with a router. The problem with routers is the dust collection with adhesives, you really need a 4in pick up. Also look in to coated bits to prevent vinyl buildup.
     
  8. bowtievega

    bowtievega Member

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    We have a router and cut a whole lot of aluminum. Looking at individual feed rates you might think it is slow but you need to remember that if you set up files correctly the operator can be doing other tasks at the same time the machine is running. You need to run a mister system but it doesn't flood coolant everywhere, just a small mist that should collect a little dust from your cutting board that wipes off. We wash and scuff/sand our aluminum prior to paint anyway. The edge quality is perfectly smooth and razor sharp if done correctly. I don't understand where people say a waterjet cut is cleaner. Typically waterjets and lasers have different quality edge cuts available because the quality is directly related to the speed of the cut. Most shops i've dealt with don't want to cut slow, they want to cut fast and move on to the next job. We have some certain designs laser cut and it is pretty cheap and the edge is decent but for us it is laser cut because of the design and cut limitation of our machine not because we need a better edge. We don't cut any aluminum with vinyl already applied. For us, if we are using aluminum the sign will be painted. We use our flatbed printer and print on aluminum composite way more for standard quality signage. We typically apply urethane clearcoat over our prints. I take that back, we do cut out reflective blanks on our router on occasion for special size or shape. Normally we order reflective blanks for that type of sign, way cheaper than us doing them. You could definately cut printed vinyl applied to aluminum composite tho.
     
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  9. Notarealsignguy

    Notarealsignguy Active Member

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    Get a shear with an automated back stop. We bought a hydraulic shear last year to replace our stomp unit. It made a huge difference in terms of fatigue.
    We use an electric corner rounder (which sucks except on acm) and roper whitney hole punch with a jig setup to quickly do the holes.
    Its a cheap way to upgrade. Water jets are slow and expensive
     
  10. John Miller

    John Miller Member

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    A CNC machine with vacuum hold down would do your job. Make a file with as many blanks as will fit on a panel the size of the bed. include rounded corners and holes. Buy bits specifically designed for cutting aluminum (single flute carbide) they require no misting and run at about 70 impm at 18,000rpm.
    With a small 24x36 or 48x48" machine the project would be a bit painful, but a 4x8 or larger machine would do quite well. You could cut (14) 12"x18" .063 aluminum blanks and (9) 7"x10" .063 blanks with rounded corners and two holes in each out of a 4x8 in 20 minutes, with the machine unattended.
     
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  11. Signed Out

    Signed Out Very Active Member

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    I've looked at the roper whitneys. Which do you have, an electric one? Wondering how you would compare to a hand operated one if you've used both styles.
     
  12. JJM7288

    JJM7288 Member

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    We cut 6061 aluminum on our AXYZ Pacer routers.
     
  13. Notarealsignguy

    Notarealsignguy Active Member

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    The punch is an old 218 which is hand operated. Theres a guy that converted his to air and sells plans for that. I like the hand operated because its easy to line up for 1 off signs because you can lower the die right on top of the mark before punching. Our corner notcher is foot control and I hate it. Its awkward to hold a decent size sheet and reach the pedal to stomp it.
    We apply the vinyl first on 4x8 or 4x10 and print corner marks to shear and x for the holes. The remnants of the marks are cut off when you round the corners. Its really fast. Cutting blanks first seems like it would really slow everything down.
     
    Last edited: Apr 16, 2020
  14. Signed Out

    Signed Out Very Active Member

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    I agree cutting blanks first just doesn't make any sense, unless you run them through a flatbed or screenprint. I don't want to go down the screen print road, and uv inks on aluminum won't hold up as well as printed vinyl unless you spray them with urethane.

    We do the same for cut marks, but we don't print marks for holes. We use a hole punch table from xpert sign tools which has adjustable guides so you can just stuff the corner in and punch like your corner rounder. Can punch 4 holes in a sign in under 10 seconds. Without ever using a foot operated one, I just have a feeling that they would be slower but can't really explain why?
     
  15. Notarealsignguy

    Notarealsignguy Active Member

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    We have guides setup too but for 1 off sizes or a random hole configuration its easier to put a mark than reset the guide. Ours is recessed on a table with holes that we put pins in for stops. The problem with foot pedals is that you have to reach under larger panels to hit it. It gets rough on your hip too hitting it over and over. Im talking with mechanical setups.
     
  16. spectrum maine

    spectrum maine Member

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    if you are looking to do a 1000 a week, i would get a cnc shear. at least 10 foot. pre apply the vinyl, shear, pneumatic corner round & pneumatic punch. over time you could automate the corners and holes also. if it eliminates 1 employee a year its worth at least 40k to automate. possibly flatbed print the metal also. you are talking about over 50,000 signs a year.
     
  17. JBurton

    JBurton Signtologist

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    Without being too nosey, can I ask what sort of customers are after this volume? Like is this a single customer, or have you become the go to shop for this style in your area so you're serving the same product to a larger audience?
     
  18. Signed Out

    Signed Out Very Active Member

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    A few heavy hitters make up the bulk, think manufacturing companies whose products require safety and/or warning signs. And we are also exploring some new to us markets, which I will keep to myself for now. Nothing world shattering though.
     
  19. JBurton

    JBurton Signtologist

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    Cool, thanks.
    BTW, between the 3 I'd vote router. Bottom line cheaper and less maintenance, but each has it's own strengths. Router is messy and requires some cleanup. But worse case scenario, you break a spindle (almost everything else tends to be bullet proof). Laser and waterjet both require necessitate a tech for repairs, plus maintenance and CO2/sapphire consumption, whereas the router needs...bits and spray coolant.
    If you have all the money in the world and a robust customer base primarily concerned with finish and speed, waterjet.
    One thing I've noticed when router acm or aluminum with prints applied, slivers of the vinyl stick back onto the part. This can be alleviated by masking it beforehand, but it is adding another step to alleviate the issue. I'm sure others have a solution, I just didn't have ideal results so I didn't pursue a solution.
     
  20. Signed Out

    Signed Out Very Active Member

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    Seems I'm circling back to a router as being the best method for cutting our aluminum signs. And since these will be routed with vinyl already applied to them, we are going to have a learning curve to figure our best way of doing this. Some say vinyl face down, some say face up with oil mister, others say mister is bad as it causes inconsistent heat disbursement shortening bit life and adding a step in cleaning finished signs, and yet some others say all you need is the correct combo of feed/speed and air blasting for cooling the bit.. I'm wanting to strive for the latter.

    So now to pick out and locate the router... I'd like to keep my budget around $40k and don't mind used. Will need at least a 8'x4' table. Main usage will be cutting down 8'x4' aluminum sheets like described in original post. We also do about 15-20 carved signs a year but sub that out, so we could bring that in house. We have a summa s2t160 that we do kiss and die cut stickers on so I don't think we really need knife cutting on the router.

    Anybody have some recommendations on what to look at? Head is spinning looking at AXYZ, zunds, colex, multicam, industrial cnc, sabre, etc....

    Also whats a good cnc routing forum anybody belong to? Looking for another platform to do some research.
     
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