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WHAT DO I NEED TO GET STARTED?
Your going to need a few things to get started in the CNC Plasma Cutting business or Hobby. The basics are the same for someone that will be doing this as a hobby or as a full time business. I will go over the basics here and you can follow the links to get more specific info on each of the items.
There has never been more options as far as tables and equipment than there is now. When I started in 2000 there were only a handful of companies that built tables or components now there are thousands. Sorting through all of this can be a challenge and even overwhelming at times. I will help you sort through the options and find the best setup for your application.
Cost - Price varies from around 5K to over 200K and everywhere in between. Some of the factors that determine cost are the size of the machine which can be a super small 2x2 ft table to a 6x20ft table or larger. The most common sizes for hobby and light industrial tend to be: 4x4, 4x8 and 5x10 feet. Many people start out with a 4x4 table because it is usually the least expensive but quickly outgrow the table and want to make bigger things or more of something without having to load more material. Common steel sheet sizes are 4x8 feet and 5x10 feet. Which is why you see table sizes to match.
When I first got started I began with a 4x4 table then moved to a 4x8 table and now my latest table is a 5x10. I fully intended this to be a garage hobby but it quickly grew into a full time business. Trying to anticipate future needs and wants is critical and can save you a lot of money in the long run. I get a lot of people who ask me what size I should buy and I usually try and discourage them from a 2x2 or 4x4. More often than not they quickly outgrow these smaller tables. Going one size bigger than you think you will need is often a safe bet. Prices from a 4x4 to a 4x8 are usually not much different because the cost of the other components to run the machine remain the same.
The basic components of a CNC Plasma System:
The Cutting Table – This is where your material is going to go and be cut. Common variations are size ie. 2x2, 4x4, 4x8 and 5x10. Other variations are: Water tables which have water under the cutting surface which helps to eliminate smoke and dust as well as keep the parts cool and minimize warping. Downdraft tables use exhaust fans to pull the smoke and dust down and exhaust it outside of the work area, and then open tables which are the least expensive and have nothing below them but ground. We will discuss all of these and the pluses and minuses in the TABLE SECTION.
Plasma Cutter - This is the piece of equipment that is actually doing the cutting of the metal. It uses electricity to generate the plasma arc and cut through the metal. Plasma Cutters are most often classified by Amps. Common Amp ratings are 45, 65, 85, ect. There are quite a few companies that make plasma cutters but many are not specifically designed for mechanized cutting, they can usually be retrofitted and made to work. This is one piece of equipment that is critical to the quality of the cuts and the product you turn out. Skimping here often results in regret down the road. Check out the PLASMA CUTTER SECTION for more detailed information.
Software - There are a few software components that make up a plasma system. There is the design software where you make your part in a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) program or your artwork in a program like Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator or a host of other programs. Once your part has been created you export this file in a CAD format with the file extension .dxf. Once in this format you can open the file in a CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) program. This program is where you set up what material your cutting, where to start, what to cut and all of the cutting parameters. Once you have completed the CAM step you then export the file out in a file extension .tap. This is your G-Code (Machine Language) This code tells the machine where to go, how fast, how long how many amps to use and directs the operation of the torch and your table. There are a lot of choices in the world of software and I will cover them in depth in the SOFTWARE SECTION.
Compressed Air Source - Air not oxygen or any other special gas is the most common gas used in plasma cutting, IE “Air Plasma” machine. There are special industrial grade units that use, Oxygen, Argon, Nitrogen, and Hydrogen in the cutting process. On this site we will mainly be focusing on Air plasma cutting. Air Plasma units only need you to supply them two things to cut metal - Air and Electricity. Most plasma machines need a supply of around 100 PSI to make this all happen. Its critical to the quality of the cut that the air delivered to the plasma cutter be as clean and dry as possible. We will cover all of this in the AIR SUPPLY SYSTEMS SECTION.
Power - Power is one of the critical components that make all of this happen. You will need power to run the computer, control system and table drive system as well as power for the Plasma Cutter. Most tables only require 120v connections. Most plasma cutters on the other hand require a minimum of 240v Single Phase to power them. The larger the plasma cutter (more amps) equals more cutting capacity and requires more amps to make the larger cuts. Larger industrial and high definition plasma units will require 3 phase power. It is critical that you carefully evaluate the power requirements of the plasma cutter you are considering and look at the manufactures listed amp and circuit breaker requirements for the unit. Many small shops and garage based shops may not have the electrical wiring to support the larger plasma machines and may require expensive electrical upgrades. Make sure you evaluate the manufactures recommendation on the plasma unit you are considering and discuss this with a qualified electrician and evaluate your individual situation before making a purchase. What I believe to be two of the most widely used plasma cutters in the world in the Hobby and Light to Medium fabrication areas are the Hypertherm Powermax45 XP and the Powermax65. The 45 and 65 refer to the cutting amps of the units. We will discuss the plasma cutters in greater depth in the PLASMA CUTTERS SECTION.
Computer - Your going to need a computer for all of this two work and often two of them. Most software and machine manufactures will recommend that you have one dedicated computer to run the the machine and only have the software necessary to run the machine on it. You don't want to be surfing the Internet and playing games on the computer that is running the machine. Computers have so many things going on in the background and the more programs you add to the machine the more likely you are to have things running in the background. These background operations can disrupt and interfere with the cutting operation of your machine and ruin a project. There are plenty of people who risk it and do everything on one machine some are lucky and some are not. I have always kept my machine computer dedicated to machine operation. Its safer and a better option. The computer running the machine does not need to be a high end gaming PC. The machine requirements are pretty basic. Different Plasma cutting machines have different computer requirements. Most table manufactures will advise or supply the needed computer for the machine side of the operation. If building your own system from scratch you can often use a refurbished dell to make it work. Be sure to check with the table manufacture or control system manufacture before purchasing a computer so that you get one that works for your application. Many times manufactures do not recommend laptops for the machine computers due to several internal configuration settings seen in laptops. Your second computer will be the computer that you do all of your part or artwork design on and prepare your project for cutting on. This tends to be your higher end computer to handle the graphics and CAD operations. Once you have created your project on this computer you can export the finished G-Code over to your machine computer via, Wifi, Ethernet (Home or work Network) or a simple USB jump drive. I have my design software loaded on a laptop and my office computer to allow me to design anywhere I want or the comfort of my air conditioned office and then send the Job out to the machine to be cut. I will cover software more in depth in the SOFTWARE SECTION.
Control System - Your control system is best described as a box containing circuit boards and driver units that take the computer code that was created in the software and turn it into electrical signals that tell the Stepper Motors or Servo motors where to go when and how fast. Steppers and Servos are the motors that drive the Gantry and your torch around the table. There is quite a bit of debate over Stepper vs Servo and you can get more info in the PLASMA TABLES SECTION. This control system box and all of the internal components vary from manufacture to manufacture. There are control systems that are exclusive to Table manufactures and are sold with the table as a package and there are companies that make DIY packages allowing you to build your own table.
Turnkey System vs. Build your own or Kit system
This is another highly debated topic and one which has pluses and minuses on both sides. There are hundreds of turn key solutions offered today. A turn key option is one where you can purchase everything you need in one shot ready to cut. Everything is configured and ready to go all you do is supply air and power and your off and running. Advantages include faster, simpler, less of a learning curve, less to go wrong, no compatibility problems between components, one contact point if something does go wrong. The only real disadvantage is price. You are going to pay for all of this convenience with a higher price tag.
Kit or Build your own systems are almost always less expensive than turnkey but all the advantages of a turnkey system can now be disadvantages of a build your own or kits system. With a build your own system you have the ability to control the quality and components at every step of the project and you will be able to gain a great deal of knowledge about the inner workings of your system and likely fix problems on your own if they come up. Building your own will require skill and precision. Having a table that is not square or that has problems will affect your products quality and appearance.
My first two tables were build your own / Kits. I did a ton of research and learned a tremendous amount in the process. They were time consuming and at times frustrating but in the end they worked well and I saved a lot of money. For my third and current table I took all of the knowledge I had gained from the previous two and opted to do a turn key system. I knew all of the things I wanted in a table as far as features and components and found them in a quality and convenient for me package in my Westcott Plasma Pro Series 5x10 table.