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Back to Basics

Router and Cutter Tooling

Spending big money on brand new finishing equipment could all be for nothing if you do not have the right tools for the job, Brendan Perring investigates

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“Maintain cutter usage to the material class it’s dedicated to and results will be of simply exceptional quality,” says Julian Sage, managing director of Complete CNC Solutions

Sharpen your competitive edge

If a chain is as strong as its weakest link, then a router is only as good as the cutter it uses. Whether it is a fully leaded high-end routing and knife cutting production centre, or a modestly equipped entry-level router with little or no pedigree, both systems, and all those in between, are utterly dependent upon the cutting tool installed.
A poorly designed cutter, a cutter of dubious quality, a cutter that is work-worn or damaged, all have the potential to make output from high-end machines look less than average, and output from entry level hardware simply unsaleable. Cutter choice is nothing less than mission critical. Your business depends on it.

Despite ‘router-bits’ or ‘cutting tools’ being defined around principles that are older than the modern signs and allied industries, a lot of recent refinement has resulted in cutters that are evolved to purpose and that produce genuinely superior results.

“The days when a 3mm twin-flute carbide end-mill was thrown at the job of cutting every material that a sign-maker needs to deal with are long gone,” explains Julian Sage, managing director of Complete CNC Solutions, who adds: “We’ve evolved. Today’s cutters, correctly chosen, do much more than simply cut out the required profile and leave the finishing to the operator. Today’s cutters do the whole job. And they do it quietly, cleanly, and brilliantly.”

Put simply, if you want high-quality output from your router or cutter, you need it to carry high quality tooling

Given the choice of producing output that is ready to use straight off the bed of the computerised router, or producing something that needs a lot of skilled and tedious finishing does not take much thinking about. The cost of labour that needs to be input in terms of manual finishing and the potential for errors alone provide a very compelling cost justification that makes an appropriate cutting tool the right choice.

This is certainly an argument put forward by Complete CNC Solutions, which represents both the Tekcel and Protek lines of computerised routing and knife cutting systems in the UK. Sage says it was driven to develop its own cutting tools in order to, “liberate the full quality and production potential of the systems.”

He continues: “We’ve moved beyond selling generalised cutters and tooling to our customers. Instead we’ve developed cutters that are unbeatable when cutting the materials they’re designed for. Our CP range is just such an example of this deliberate tooling design approach.”

CP, or ‘cut-polish’ tooling has proved very popular according to Sage. Indeed, these solid, micrograin carbide tools are evidently extremely stiff and embody geometry that is designed to yield very free high speed cutting. Rather than leave in its wake evidence of chatter and chip-breaking though, a CP tool leaves an edge that stands critically close comparison with a hand-finished result. The time, money and energy saved by getting ready to use results is certainly an attractive advantage, and will in even the short-term pay back and extra costs involved.

So, something that costs so little and saves so much. What’s the catch? Sage offers his view: “Our CP cutters are dedicated to task and materials,” he explains, adding: “Though they might appear identical, you’ll need a separate cutter for non-ferrous metals, and another for plastics. Maintain cutter usage to the material class it’s dedicated to and results will be of simply exceptional quality and tool life right up there in the remarkable bracket. The catch is, you can’t have one cutter to do everything—well you can, but don’t expect exceptional ready-to-use results. You’re back into average quality territory.”

Cutting tools make a better case for things being as strong as the weakest link than any overworked chain can. A critical partner component in the cutter’s life though, one that’s totally overlooked as a consumable part of the routing process, is the universally ignored ‘collet’.

A collet is the part into which a cutter fits before, in turn, being fitted to the routing spindle. Collets are subject to enormous stresses and they do wear. On that basis they should be replaced at regular intervals and are not costly. On the other hand, the price of not replacing an inexpensive collet can be. Tools can pull out of worn collets during cutting and the only place they have to go is into the router itself. As best this can mean scarring sacrificial material, more often than not though, the router takes a bite out of itself.
Complete CNC Solutions offers its own range of collets and, rather than dedicate the supply purely to its own systems makes them generally available along with its cutter range. Anyone, claims Sage, can call Complete CNC Solutions and have a conversation about cutters and collets and the result will be better output—no matter what the router.

(Above & below) Complete CNC says its tooling range is highly durable and that buying cheap internet-bought imports is a false economy as they wear out so quickly

Robert Marshall, vice-president, market development, of key sector supplier AXYZ International agrees with Sage’s estimation in regards to the importance of the humble collet: “The most common reasons for tool failure include selecting the wrong tool for the material to be processed, using a tool well past its useful life and then wondering why the quality of cut has deteriorated to such an extent, failure to use an appropriate coolant or lubricant, and not changing tool-holding devices like collets within the recommended time scale. This latter pitfall radically affects how the routing/cutting tool is held in the machine and thus the quality of cut finish.”

AXYZ’s cncroutershop.com website provides easy-access to both general-purpose and specialised branded tools that support not only the AXYZ International portfolio, but also virtually any other router

False economies

Tooling for routers does not end with cutters of course. Routers are capable of cutting, carving and engraving and there is a tool suited to every application and purpose. Today’s massively stiff systems are capable of more applications than machines produced only ten years ago. For all applications though, the rules are immutable. You will only get a result that is as good as the cutter you have installed—install the right cutter though, and you will get exceptional results that you never thought possible.

Sage, a veteran in this sector, concludes: “Tooling is simply everything in terms of quality and getting jobs done on time. Putting an indifferent cutting tool into a quality routing system is just like putting watered-down household emulsion paint in a quality printer—it won’t work.

“We have fielded calls for support from companies who just can’t get a saleable result from, particularly, what’s sold as entry-level routing systems. If the machine itself works, and there are some that don’t, we can improve matters for users with decent tooling and collets.”

Whatever you’ve spent on a routing system, it really is down to the cutting tool to keep the appointments its salesman has made

Sage continues: “Whatever you’ve spent on a routing system, it really is down to the cutting tool to keep the appointments its salesman has made. There’s a lot of very inexperienced advice masquerading as knowledge in the field of routing but there’s a very simple fact that’s beyond dispute— If the cutter is wrong, the result will be too.

There’s a lot of very inexperienced advice masquerading as knowledge in the field of routing

As a result of this view, Complete CNC has steadily increased its market share in this sector and today has a very comprehensive range. It has also done well from a trend that is seeing sign-makers require application specific tooling to cater for the increasingly complex demands of their customers and the need for the job to be right first time.

This is a trend that is also being experienced by another key industry player, Industrial Tooling Corporation (ITC). It has found that, with spindle speeds increasing, the impact of unbalanced tools has resulted in reduced tool life and poor edge and surface finishes.

ITC’s technical sales manager Sally Hunt says the knock on effect of poor finishing also needs to be considered: “The impact of poor edge finishes will result in increased secondary hand finishing operations, so the introduction of balanced tools has considerable benefits for the marketplace. The popularity of our new line of balanced tools has already brought an increased range of diameters and geometries for the diverse range of materials being machined.”

Cut once

As well as the balanced tools, ITC has also introduced a diverse range of knife tools for cutting and creasing paper, card, and corrugated board. And within its range the common denominator that unites it is an obsessive focus on premium quality. This may seem an obvious claim, but is one that few suppliers actually live up to.

“As above, the ability to provide high quality tooling is imperative for sign-makers to achieve the high quality finish they desire,” continues Hunt, who adds: “It is a false economy for a sign-maker to invest large sums of money in the latest routing technology and then run the machine with cutting tools of sub-standard quality.
“The enhanced edge finishes and the ability to take jobs from a router as finished parts without secondary finishing is a major benefit to customers. Some issues have arisen lately whereby existing customers have tried ‘low-cost’ tooling alternatives from sales representatives that aren’t experts in cutting tools. The advice that stainless steel could be cut without coolant at high spindle speeds immediately burnt out tools.
“The issue for the customer is two-fold, firstly poor advice from a sales representative that isn’t a tooling specialist and secondly, the issue is magnified by the inadequate tooling quality. At ITC, we deliver high quality cutting tools that will deliver consistently reliable performance levels. Furthermore, our customers are buying direct from us, the manufacturer, and tooling is our specialisation.”
AXYZ’s Marshall concurs with Sage’s and Hunt’s assessment, arguing that good quality routing and cutting tools are ‘critical’ in order to get the best out of any CNC router: “Buying cheaper and invariably inferior tools often proves to be a false economy, resulting in a sub-standard quality of cut finish. There is also a huge reduction in tool life by comparison with that of initially more expensive, but ultimately far more reliable alternatives, and a commensurate reduction in avoidable material wastage.”
Returning to ITC, it has invested millions of pounds investing in additional CNC manufacturing capacity and has extended its production facility by an extra 10,000sq ft (929sq m) in order to keep up with the market’s rapid development and drive for quality. ITC is also heavily involved in the aerospace, motorsport, offshore, automotive, and medical industries. As such, it places a heavy focus on having a customer support service that would rival that of an exclusive members-only club.
Many of these sectors are also pushing the boundaries of material technology to develop components and structures with increased strength to weight ratios. In fact, a major development in recent years has been the increase in carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP), which is heavily used in aerospace, F1, and military applications. As such ITC has been pushing its own boundaries to give them the tooling they need that is up to the job.
Hunt concludes: “This extremely abrasive material is a challenge that ITC is overcoming with its polycrystalline diamond tools. The research and development team is at the forefront of many of these industries and we continually develop new tool designs and geometries as well as introduce new cutting tool substrates and coatings to maximise performance in these sectors.

“With spindle speeds increasing, the impact of unbalanced tools will result in reduced tool life and poor edge and surface finishes,” says Industrial Tooling Corporation’s technical sales manager Sally Hunt

“Whilst the materials in the sign-making industry may be somewhat different, we can transfer this knowledge and technology into the tools we develop for the sign industry.”

Kaleidoscopic choice

In addition to the key arguments around the quality versus cost of today’s routing and cutting tools, is the reason why a good few sign-makers have sourced inferior products. And funnily enough it is less to do with price and more to do with ease of access. Today we live in an online shopping culture, and some sign-makers would rather order over the internet today than pick up the phone—even if it means taking a risk on an unknown supplier offering attractive discounts.
As such AXYZ International has reacted by setting up of its 24/7 online cncroutershop.com division to keep its customer’s new and old close to them. This continually expanding facility provides both general-purpose and specialised branded tools sourced from leading global manufacturers that support not only AXYZ, Pacer and Z Series machines in the AXYZ portfolio but also virtually any other router, regardless of type and country of origin.

The choice of tools and accessories is not, however, limited to router cutters, but also includes blades for oscillating and tangential knife cutters, accessories like collets and cones, cutting fluids, and a wide range of spare parts.

“Tooling is a continually developing area of routing/cutting technology,” says Marshall, who adds: “This is attributable to the availability of new and frequently more complex materials, coatings, and geometries and the need to process widely differing materials to accommodate multiple applications.”

O Factoid: To take a routing tool up to 60,000rpm and achieve peak speed and cutting quality, you have to use specially balanced bits that have near-perfect ‘concentricity’. This is a complex tolerance used to establish a tolerance zone for the median points of a cylindrical or spherical object.  O

The incredible choice on offer from those such as AXYZ and its supplier peers is being driven by the need to process more advanced substrates, for example aluminium composite materials  like Reynobond and Dibond, as well as glass-fibre reinforced plastic, Trespa high-pressure laminate, various woods, and carbon fibre.
This need to cater for so many materials is certainly a driving force at Blackman and White, which has made its mark on the industry by manufacturing machines that run from its entry-level Orion through to its Versatech that can cater for a routing, knife cutting, and laser cutting in one head.
Alex White, managing director of the firm, makes some salient points when it comes to considering how to keep your machine humming: “The running costs of owning a finishing machine should not be overlooked during the purchase process.  The costs of blades and other consumables can be a considerable cost of the production process.
“Whilst some jobs can be completed using a high speed steel knife blade, and the operator can be diligent in spotting the signs of rapid blade wear.  Other jobs simply demand high quality carbide blades in order to maintain production requirements and customer demands in quality.  The cost of blades can vary from under £1 up to £30 per blade.  Obviously the high cost blades show a considerable increase in lifetime, but not only this, a carbide blade is a much stronger material and will suffer far less with blade distortion during the cutting process.”

“Customers still need to be aware that lower quality blade imports from Asian markets can still be sold at a premium price and represent a very poor cost to benefit ratio,” says Alex White, managing director, Blackman and White

White also agrees with the assessment from Hunt at ITC when it comes to balanced tooling, commenting: “The customer using lower cost unbalanced bits runs the risk of damaging the spindle and incurring considerable repair costs.”

The other advantage of a balanced bit of course is being able to achieve up to 60,000rpm, meaning the speed of cut can directly increase and the extraction of the chips is improved.
This is not the only benefit of using balanced tooling though, as the managing director of another important sector player, Regal Tools, points out. "With larger diameter tools we are seeing that for some customers the surface finish benefits of using fully balanced tools are now offsetting the small additional tool price premium involved. So less vibration, less noise, better surface finish, longer tool life, and reduced surface finishing, lead to reduced total job costs,” says Andrew Darwent.

Using fully balanced tools are now offsetting the small additional tool price premium involved

White also expands on this point: “The speed of cut also does not tell the entire story if the operator has to spend five minutes cleaning the machine between job runs, so a good extraction system is vital.”
A Regal choice

The aforementioned Regal Tools is the UK’s dedicated supplier of the appropriately named Crown Norge brand of tools, and Darwent expands on an interesting trend he has noticed in regards to the differing strategies being employed in the market: “Some choose to use a limited number of different tools, which provides them with a certain set of efficiencies and then allows them to concentrate on optimising all the other factors for machining with just those tools, such as feeds, speeds, hold-down, and cooling.
“Other customers choose to operate with a much wider variety of different tools and they consider that identifying the optimum tool for each job, even if it is one that they are not using currently, is all part of the process.”
Darwent continues: “We can see that either strategy can be equally successful for a customer depending on many other company or market factors. But, since both approaches still depend on having the best possible tools, we are continuing to see an ever increasing demand for Crown Norge tools."

“We are seeing more and more of our customers moving into the v-grooving market and the Crown Norge ACM tool range with 90°, 120°, and 135° angles and up to 30m/min feed speeds is proving to be a very popular choice,” says Regal Tool’s managing director, Andrew Darwent

Darwent also points out that the trend for sign-makers to invest in high-quality entry-level cutting solutions from the likes of Zund and Esko has seen a rise in demand for its products. Likewise, there has been a bump in sales for smaller diameter tools for cutting light materials in order to reduce material wastage and provide a more accurate finish.
So there you have it dear reader, who knew that the humble router bit could be the centre of such a swirling debate and could have quite such an impact on your business? Talking straight, I think there is only one conclusion you can draw; buy the right tools for the job or suffer the long-term consequences of your competition making the perfect cut.

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