3 Axis CNC woodshop, looking to transition to non-ferrous metals
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  1. #1
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    Default 3 Axis CNC woodshop, looking to transition to non-ferrous metals

    Hey everyone, been lurking here for awhile and thought I should finally make an account.

    For the last ~5 years My fiancé and I have been operating our own very small wood CNC shop producing an extremely niche product that has seen some success over the last 5 years. It was enough to support us and the workshop while putting food on the table. However with how 2020 has gone and how 2021 is looking, we realize that our main method of advertising our work isn't a viable option anymore (tradeshows) and I personally feel like I'm ready to step up to expand my knowledge and find new challenges with metal. Thankfully our overhead is extremely low, so we are in a position where we can take that risk moving into new territory.

    I think my main question here is: is it actually viable to start bidding on government contracts and calling around for small batch jobs with two 3 axis CNC machines that (at the time) met our requirements for our wood cutting, but compared to the big sexy vertical mills aren't "extremely accurate" @ 2.5-5thou resolutions

    Reading around, it sounds like in the metal world these tolerances aren't exactly great, but my hope is I can leverage our existing equipment long enough to invest into some real machines that I can compete on the market with.

    A few more questions rattling in my head the last few weeks:
    1-With our current machines, what kind of soft metal work can I viably and confidently take on?
    2-What kind of gigs should I avoid to prevent headaches and disappointment?
    3-Is this just a pipedream and I am completely screwed trying to do metal work right out of the gate with our equipment, or is this a viable option?

    Thank for taking the time to read my post, I'm quite eager to read your responses!

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    I wouldn't touch a government job with a ten foot pole. You will NOT turn a profit. The documentation requirements alone would bury you.

    What machines do you have?

    The best approach is to develop your own product line tailored to your manufacturing abilities. If you're trying to compete for loose tolerance non-ferrous jobs you're competing with everyone with an old Fadal in their garage, with big businesses that have top of the line state of the art machines that will make the parts ten times as fast 24/7/365 unattended, and with China and Taiwan. You will not win in that market. Maybe if you can develop a personal relationship with someone local that needs a few parts and isn't shopping around.

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    I have done some 3d cutting of aluminum on a router and it is doable but needs way more babysitting than wood. You have to be ready to make compensations for the flex in the machine. You will also need an MQL system of some sort or you will end up with plugged up end mills scrapped jobs and possibly damage to your router. We recently bought a mill for our aluminum work and I hope I have cut our last job on the router. The only jobs I would prefer to do on the router are simple jobs with large plate or long extrusions that need a really large machine.

    Are you able to do 3d work or are you just 2 1/2D? What is your glue up capability? What kind of z Travel do you have? I might have some overload work coming up. If you can work with Step files cut 3d and have minimum 10" of Z PM me.

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    Use the machines you have to do what they are good at, and then use the profits to buy the right machines to cut metal. As noted above, trying to compete with a Robodrill using a router probably isn't the fast track to success.

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    Obviously with the little info posted its hard to say but what advertising have you done? A website with decent SEO will get you some traffic.

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    So what kind of CNC woodworking machines do you have? Are we talking flat bed CNC routers or are we talking light machining centers with a smaller working envelope?

    You already realize you need a product suited to your machines. A big step going from wood to aluminum or brass though.

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    I would recommend looking into plastic sheet change parts for the beverage industry.

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    Thanks everyone for responding, really appreciate it!

    Part of the desire to move away from wood is also the change of scenery and learning new skills. I've done plastics before which were cool, so that's definitely an option.

    Some more details, I should have noted that I'm in Canada, and we have a 18" x 24" shopbot (2013), and a 48" x 48" Avid CNC (2019). Both have spindles and run very well. I purchased the Avid cnc last year to replace a very sub par marine plywood home build which was a big waste of time and energy. Love the machine and it's capabilities!

    Quote Originally Posted by mhajicek View Post
    I wouldn't touch a government job with a ten foot pole. You will NOT turn a profit. The documentation requirements alone would bury you.
    I've heard success stories from others in Canada, and since our overhead is very low (we have no debt at the moment, own everything, no employees, etc.) it makes me think it could work? I'm not sure how much different it is between the US and Canada

    Quote Originally Posted by Pattnmaker View Post
    I have done some 3d cutting of aluminum on a router and it is doable but needs way more babysitting than wood. You have to be ready to make compensations for the flex in the machine. You will also need an MQL system of some sort or you will end up with plugged up end mills scrapped jobs and possibly damage to your router. We recently bought a mill for our aluminum work and I hope I have cut our last job on the router. The only jobs I would prefer to do on the router are simple jobs with large plate or long extrusions that need a really large machine.

    Are you able to do 3d work or are you just 2 1/2D? What is your glue up capability? What kind of z Travel do you have? I might have some overload work coming up. If you can work with Step files cut 3d and have minimum 10" of Z PM me.
    Both machines are rated to "mill" aluminum. We don't have routers but spindles, and I have successfully milled brass and aluminum with good results. The bulk of the work we do is 2.5D, and I have ~8" of travel. I've done a few 3d parts where I use dowels and mill guide holes to flip the work piece to do the back, but that's still not true 3D like a 5 axis. Upgrading the Avid cnc to a fourth axis is in reach though since they have an affordable upgrade, and adding a MQL or similar system is a planned upgrade if I'm going to do more metal work.

    Quote Originally Posted by LOTT View Post
    Use the machines you have to do what they are good at, and then use the profits to buy the right machines to cut metal. As noted above, trying to compete with a Robodrill using a router probably isn't the fast track to success.
    Both machines we have can cut aluminum and brass, and just recently I found out that older HAAS machines were accurate to 5 thou or so. My main concern was that kind of tolerence isn't passible, but after finding that out it changed my perspective.

    Quote Originally Posted by Frater01 View Post
    Obviously with the little info posted its hard to say but what advertising have you done? A website with decent SEO will get you some traffic.
    We won't stop producing the previous products we make, I'd like to expand into a new area. We have a good website, social following and lots of referrals. Since we've done a few thousand pieces most of our work is referral based, but since its very visual, trade shows were the cream de la cream since people could actually see the minor optical illusions with their eyes which doesn't translate well over screens.

    Quote Originally Posted by CatMan View Post
    A big step going from wood to aluminum or brass though.
    Yea, which is why I'm doing my research everything I'm seeing looks interesting though and is more inline with what I *think* I'd like to do.

    Quote Originally Posted by macds View Post
    I would recommend looking into plastic sheet change parts for the beverage industry.
    We did some covid polycarbonate boxes for local hospitals and it was a very interesting experience. Transitioning that way is easier than metals. Thanks for the suggestion! I'll look into this more, perhaps I got enchanted by the metal work :P

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    Quote Originally Posted by mhajicek View Post
    I wouldn't touch a government job with a ten foot pole. You will NOT turn a profit. The documentation requirements alone would bury you.
    While Canadians are welcome to most all DOD jobs in the USA not only is the documentation and packaging requirements a PITA as mentioned above, unless you are soliciting work that goes to high end defense contractors everything goes to the lowest bidder. In economic downturns new people sign up to become government
    suppliers in droves, some of them not the sharpest tools in the shed. Not only does the glut of potential vendors drive prices down, it also exponentially increases the chance of people making extremely low bids due to overlooking all the job requirements.

    I did DOD small contract work from 2010-2012, I probably did two dozen jobs. I had a niche, as I was willing to do low volume Swiss work most people did not want. If the jobs were going to a normal customer I would have made shop rate, going to the government which meant anal retentive paperwork and packaging requirements I probably got 75% of shop rate. Prices that longer run jobs went for was ridiculously low.

    As for mistakes made by newbies they were pretty obvious when you looked at the procurement history of a part. It seems a lot of people overlooked extreme packaging requirements as they did not seem to affect the prices the jobs went for. As an example, on a job for special screws, 1,000 piece lot, some required 100 per each labeled bag, while others wanted one screw per each labeled bag. If someone cost out a job using what packing houses charged, individual bag and tag at 25 cents each should add $247.50 to the job. If you looked over procurement history on screws packaging requirements made no difference in price.

    Some of the parts I made were replacement parts for military hardware going back all the way to WW2, so some of the items showed a long procurement history, I can't remember if they showed up to the last 10 or what it was.
    You could definitely see price trends shrink drastically in all the previous recession periods. You would see jobs go for less than half of what they had a couple years before a recession.

    From the grumblings I have heard it has even become more of a PITA to do government work now than when I did it 10 years ago. Even then I killed a good part of a week getting approved. I would only suggest pursuing it if you have absolutely nothing better to do and are bored out of your mind.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dulak View Post
    Both machines are rated to "mill" aluminum. We don't have routers but spindles, and I have successfully milled brass and aluminum with good results...
    Even with a spindle, it's still a CNC router. The spindles they put on those are not metal working spindles. Also, you give up a ton of rigidity going to the large work envelope. Yes, you can mill some non-ferrous, but not very well and it will beat up your machine over time. You'll make metal parts way slower because you'll have to use smaller tools and compensate for much more deflection.

    I have a CNC router and I've done my fair share of AL work on it. Compared to a real metal working machine, it's night and day.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dulak View Post
    Both machines we have can cut aluminum and brass, and just recently I found out that older HAAS machines were accurate to 5 thou or so. My main concern was that kind of tolerence isn't passible, but after finding that out it changed my perspective.
    I can't speak directly for "older" Haas machines, but the five year old machine we have here will still hold +/- .0002" all day every day. Tighter if I'm careful.

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    Dulak,

    I checked out a video of the Avid, PRO4848 Cutting 1" Aluminum (6061) Plate - YouTube. It seems like a good bang for the buck as routers go, but not something your going to want to be bidding aluminum jobs on. And I'm not trying to discourage you, but you asked if those were machines you could bid non-ferrous work on, and my personal recommendation is no. Too flimsy, Acme Z screw, rack and pinion X and Y, etc.

    That said, I was talking to a guy that had a side business making shipping fixtures by laminating parts made from 3/4" plywood that he was cutting on a 4x8 CNC router in his garage. He had two guys putting these fixtures together while he worked his day job, and it was cheaper for his customer to buy more of these things then ship them back from Europe, so he had a steady production going. This guy was sharp, he saw an opportunity and ran with it.

    Edited to add- I'm not trying to discourage you from moving to a metal manufacturing business. By all means go for it, just find some sturdier machines OR find work suited to the machines you have.
    Last edited by LOTT; 10-28-2020 at 09:14 PM.

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    What you might do is hit up a bank for a loan to buy a proper machine. It sounds like you've had some success so far, so the bank might be willing. You'd probably want some sort of plan though.

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    Quote Originally Posted by CosmosK View Post
    You'd probably want some sort of plan though.
    100% this. you'd want at least one customer, preferably a few, lined up. Then choose a machine suited for the customer's needs, then seek financing. If you choose that rout that is.

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    not to condone this behavior, but we regularly cut steel & stainless on our steel framed router. I'd be less optimistic about a kit machine, stiffness is a real thing. From a business perspective... not a great idea. but like you, we own the machine & we make it work because it's faster than quoting the parts out all the time


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