Q: This is a two-part question for users and non-users of CNC technology:

For those using CNC technology, what was the biggest challenge with the machine? What was the toughest thing to learn, and what remains a challenge to you today? Was it easier to learn than you thought? Were there any surprises that the manufacturers didn’t tell you about?

For those not using CNC technology, why not? Is it simply a matter of the initial investment? Is it learning the technology? I know that the “You need to be doing XX kitchens per week” argument really isn’t valid, since I have seen high-volume shops without CNC, and smaller shops with CNC, so I was wondering some of the reasons for this.

Eric Reddick, Paragould Marble, Paragould, AR: For me, it is the simple reason of not having the money for the initial investment. I could borrow from the bank, but am waiting until I have more to pay down so as not to have such a large monthly payment. I also don’t want to have one set up and then have to move it and reset after my new building is finished (that is where most of my money is going right now). Being new doesn’t help things either. There are so many brands/types of CNCs on the market that it is hard to decide which brand/type to buy. I am sure that the guys here could help a lot. It would probably help if somebody would do an official survey of the CNCs developed over the past five years and rank them in order of price, efficiency, maintenance, ease of use, service from company and other issues. I can see my next investment probably being a CNC.

Greg Mazzarella, StoneCutters Guild, Inc., Huntsville, AL: In my limited experiences, the manuals [on some of the Italian-made machines] are rather vague. A lot of it is written in Italian, and the English translation isn’t always the best. I also do not like manuals on CD that you have to open up in Adobe Reader. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but it’s easier to find the info you are looking for by thumbing through a folder. I will say that the guys at CMS/Brembana have been great, but maybe it’s pride or ego that I will not call someone until I have exhausted all my other avenues. I worked on another Italian CNC for a short period of time, and learning the software was impossible. The machine was awesome, but the manual was about 25 to 30 pages long, hardly enough information for a 5-axis CNC.

Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL: We will be getting a CNC. Which one? I am not sure yet, I have it narrowed down to one of two companies. One is Italian, and the other is American. Both have great service and awesome machines.

So why haven’t I pulled the trigger? Fear of the unknown and a construction slowdown nationwide. At least that is what I tell myself. It is a large investment and a lot of money up front. Sure, the lease is only first and last. But, my shop power needs to have its electrical upgraded in order to put the machine in, and that is almost $8,000. My drainage is insufficient, so I need new drains in the shop. I have two years left on my building lease, and I am not sure if I plan to move.

For me there are many reasons, but they all boil down to fear of the unknown.

Mark Lauzon, Stoneworks, Hubbard, OR: The CNC changed our company. We purchased a Northwood 138SW about two years ago. It has added a new level of quality that was difficult to achieve prior to our purchase. It became the dominant employee in our shop.

The programming and operation of the CNC has not been such a big deal. I am training my second lead programmer and it has taken about two weeks to get him up to speed. (He was my sawyer before we purchased our Northwood SawJet). Well-written software and simple machine design make this possible.

I think the most difficult part is changing from an analog culture to a digital one. We are now 100% digital - templating, sawing and processing. If someone were to say to me: “Mark, we are taking your machines away,” I would say: “Okay, I will go get a job at Walmart.” I cannot imagine fabricating without this amazing technology. The incorporation of the gear has made our shop sane and productive. Now if the economy tanks, well, we will go out with a big messy bang.

In the meantime, I will let my robots walk the walk.

Dustin Braudway, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc. Wilmington, NC: Since adding our CNC to the shop, we have been able to produce more and give the customer a faster turnaround on installations. In our market, as I am sure everyone else’s, the customer wants everything tomorrow. So we had to figure out how to do that without jeopardizing the quality that we are known for. The CNC was helpful in that respect. The learning curve for us hasn’t been that hard. Already a “CAD Junkie,” all I had to do was learn about tooling, what each tool requires for set-up and calibration, what each tool is capable of doing, etc. Don’t get me wrong, it is not as easy as one would think. We spent many months experimenting (when not running pieces) with the different ways you can assign tool paths, contouring and polishing. It does take time, and if you are not dedicated to it, then your company’s investment will suffer as it will sit there and collect dust.

The biggest challenge has been tool set-up and calibration. Learning how to do proper tool set-up without blowing up the polishing pads on the first try has been fun and expensive. Nothing like seeing a $120 polishing pad go flying through the bed because you bumped the pad in just a little too hard. After you figure it out, it gets easier, and you make less of those expensive mistakes. Calibration and keeping an eye on tool wear has also been a challenge. As a stone setter and tile mechanic, I was use to dealing with things down to a 1/16 or 1/32 inch (on a good day), but now we have to think smaller (.004 inch) and so on. That is the great thing about the CNC is that it can be very, very accurate.

Boyd McGuire, All Stone Granite and Marble, Tulsa, OK: As a user of CNC technology the biggest challenge was to fully utilize such a mammoth machine (and investment). The toughest thing to learn was to trust the machine. It’s a bit like giving a Ferrari to an eight year old. It can do so much more than you can initially believe. So it took a number of months to gain a firm comfort level, and from there, only your imagination limits what you can do.

Our biggest challenge today is time utilization. We now have two CNC machines, and you need to have both either running or being programmed. One operator can easily run two machines.

Learning the technology was not that difficult. My lead guy looked like he’d seen a ghost throughout the training, but once we began to run it, that look gradually subsided. (He’s looked fairly normal for the last couple of years.)

We also didn’t run into any surprises. As usual, I researched this one to death. I spoke with most of the major competitors and spoke with a lot of people who ran various machines. Marketing and the truth often take different directions. Ask a ton of questions of the people who actually have the machine you’ve chosen.

Like Mark, we’re completely digital. And, as he mentioned, we’d be lost without this technology.

There are some urban myths:

· “It will take the place of four or five employees.” No, it won't. Two-plus is more realistic.

· “Put a piece on the machine, run it, then load it on the truck.” Uh, no. There are many variables here, but it always needs some attention from a skilled fabricator. Not much, but some.

Given eight hours per day, the first CNC costs about $22 per hour. The new one costs about $25 per hour. These are payments only - no tooling added or power, etc. But the machines are never sick, they don't complain and they work during hunting season. They are very easy to get along with, but very hard to get along without.

Mike Stites, Genesee Cut Stone, Flint MI: We started using CNC machines in 1999. We have three and bought them used. We use Gibbscam for programming. There were no big challenges, as our guys already had some CNC and computer experience. Finding the correct feeds and speeds for different stones and what type of tooling to use was a little challenging. The toughest thing to learn was the CAM software because we are using “high-end” Gibbscam, there is more to learn with solid surfacing and things most manufacturers don’t need for basic kitchen fabrication. We use our CNCs for carving and shaping as well as the basic kitchen fabrication work. Nothing really remains a challenge. We have had a five-axis CNC machine and CNC lathe for two years now, and with our CAM software there is not a lot we can’t do.

Ronald Hannah, Charlotte, NC: We began considering CNC technology over one year ago - with the plan being to procure a machine by the end of 2006.

Our market, like so many others in this industry across the continent, has been racing to the bottom due to several contributing factors. In order to be successful and even survive, we came to the realization that we must invest in technology in order to automate, reduce costs and ultimately increase our throughput.

We decided to invest in a new shop and equip it with CNC technology and digital templating. We researched several machines and purchased a Northwood for its customer service, ease of operation and its recommendation by some other SFA members, among other reasons.

We received our machine in early December (two weeks early) and are pleased to be able to report that our machine is presently producing approximately five full tables per eight-hour shift. This has increased our throughput tremendously.

Our shop bottleneck has moved from sink cut-outs and profiling to polishing. (We do not polish on the CNC).

While tremendously intimidating at first, the machine has proven to be easy to operate and program. It was much easier than anticipated. The most challenging aspect, as previously stated, is the set-up of the tooling. However once properly set-up and calibrated, the investment is more than worthwhile.

The attitude in the shop is in a state of flux, as our staff has yet to fully understand or appreciate that this piece of equipment is going to affect their well-being. After only six weeks of full operation, we are now planning the purchase of our second machine.