While some startups simply need a computer and a whiteboard to get started, there's a whole industry of makers out there that are able to start producing manufactured products too. This is quite literally a revolution that will put Americans back to the leadership position we once had in manufacturing since even a small startup operator can buy a CNC machine and create prototypes as well as finished products with a bit of work. While most of you probably know what to expect when shopping for a computer, a notepad, and pens ... how much is a CNC machine?
There are a lot of different types of CNC machines but one of the most common is a CNC milling machine. A CNC milling machine is the best investment an entrepreneur looking to start a manufacturing business can invest in, but it is also not an investment to take lightly or jump into without being thoroughly prepared.
What is a CNC Milling Machine?
Milling is an industrial term for the process of machining parts using rotary cutters to remove pieces of material. Think of it somewhat like the inverse of a 3D Printer. With a 3D printer the machine adds tiny pieces of materials together to create a finished object. With a milling machine, however, you take a solid piece of material such as wood, stone, and more commonly metal and then methodically remove material from multiple axes. The CNC part is where the fine details are controlled by a computer program to ensure fine details and precision. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control and unlike a human milling machine operator, the computer controlling a CNC milling machine can produce dozens, hundreds, even thousands of parts without error. When you consider not only the cost of a skilled milling machine operator and the cost of lost material due to error, buying a CNC milling machine just makes sense.
To that end, here are a few key things to keep in mind as you plan to buy your very own milling machine.
How Much Is A CNC Machine Going To Cost?
The simple answer is, "It Depends". The cost of a CNC machine depends on a wide variety of options including the number of axes, speed, size, number of bits and power. Additionally, some machines now use lasers and water jets to reduce material instead of a standard bit.
Here are Some Sample costs for a CNC Machine:
A CNC Machine for a hobbyist may cost as low as $1,000 for a single axis CNC milling machine though many makers choose to build their own from parts and open source software available online. A CNC machine at this price point is mostly going to be good for prototyping and may be slower than needed for full production. However, it is a quick and easy way to get started if you aren't sure if your business is something you will actually need the ability to produce parts in volume for.
The next step up is a professional CNC machine. Like the hobby-level CNC machine example above, this entry-level professional CNC machine will also be limited to one axis of operation. There is a pretty huge range here but cost for an entry-level CNC milling machine will be between $5,000 and $100,000 depending on various factors.
As we begin to step up from there, the question of how much is a CNC machine really depends on the number of axes you need. For instance, a CNC machine with 3 or even 5 axes is going to be substantially more expensive than one that operates on a single plane. As a result, the cost of these CNC machines can go sky high $500,000 or more for a new 5-axis CNC milling machine.
Used CNC Machines Cost Much Less
Until you start looking into it, you might not realize just how cost-effective and strategically savvy it can be to buy second-hand equipment rather than automatically opting for a brand new model.
From small mills suitable for workshop use to large-scale industrial CNC machinery, second-hand options of all shapes and sizes are available, and you can find more here to see just how diverse and value-oriented this market can be.
Of course, there are risks that come with buying used, so be sure to only use reputable sellers and to get a thorough appraisal of the gear before you commit. Look for well-maintained machinery and do not be scared of older models so long as the condition is solid.
CNC Machine Software Is Essential - Don't Be Cheap
If you are aiming to buy a fully computer-controlled milling machine with all the latest bells and whistles that allow you to automate many aspects of its operation, you will also need to invest in the right software to make full use of its functionalities.
This will add extra costs on top of the basic price of the equipment, both to cover the training necessary to use the software by a skilled operator as well as any licensing fees that the developer charges. This will lead to savings in the long term, but it is worth factoring this into your calculations so that you are not surprised by the total procurement and operational costs involved.
Transport & Shop Space Should Be Considered in Your Budget
Before you go overboard and buy a milling machine online, you need to think about how you will get it to your premises and also whether you have the space to accommodate it on-site.
Some sellers will take care of the transport and installation, while others will expect the buyer to orchestrate this aspect of the transaction.
You should also balance the size of the machine against the tasks you hope to achieve with it. More compact models may save you space, but could also be incapable of meeting expectations from a performance perspective. Weigh your options carefully and consider the specifications to come to a suitable conclusion.
How Many Axes of Operation Do You Need?
Milling machines range from the primitive to the cutting edge when it comes to the angles from which they can operate, and at the higher end you will encounter 5-axis machines that are capable of creating space-age components that have been meticulously designed in CAM software.
However, you will need to be prepared to pay more for machines with multiple axes, and of course you may not need more than 2 or 3 depending on the kinds of manufacturing work you have in mind. You may even decide that, for your rapid prototyping needs, a 3D printer may be a better short term investment; it is all a matter of taking this on a case-by-case basis.
Tooling Is The Point And May Be The Most Important Feature
The final thing to bear in mind when investing in a milling machine is the compatibility it offers with different types of tooling. Without the right tools for the job, the question of "How Much is a CNC Machine?" is almost irrelevant.
Correct tooling can allow a machine to do almost anything, but the tool holder has to be able to work in tandem with any add-on you want to include.
Do your research, compare different options, and do not rush into anything and you should be on the right track to snapping up a suitable milling machine.