Own, or Outsource? Making Sense of Low-Cost Machine Tools

Own, or Outsource? Making sense of low-cost machine tools

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Kickstarter and other crowdfunded websites are changing the manufacturing game in ways that no one could have predicted. That’s because they’ve given birth to a new breed of CNC machine tools. With names like the Pocket NC, Mr. Beam II, and the increasingly popular WAZER, these low-cost machines promise to give any entrepreneur with a few bucks in his or her pocket (or product designer with a limited equipment budget) full control over their product development destinies.

These machines are small enough to fit on a desktop or workbench and easy enough to use that even a novice can be up and running quickly. And at less than $10,000 (sometimes way less), they are easy to justify, given the historically high cost and long lead-times associated with outsourcing of machined parts.

There’s one question that any would-be machine tool owner should ask before investing in equipment, however, regardless of its cost: is this the best use of your hard-earned money?

Decisions, decisions

As with most things in life, the answer depends on several factors. The first is quality, both of the equipment and the parts it produces. As many have learned the hard way, the old adage “you get what you pay for” is abundantly true with machine tools. Without getting too far into the electromechanical weeds (something you should absolutely do when contemplating a leap into equipment ownership), there are significant differences between a low-cost “hobby grade” machine and one designed for industrial use. ‘Nuff said on that point.

Secondly, what about all the other “stuff” found in any machine shop. There are files and abrasives, measuring tools, auxiliary equipment such as saws and drill presses, not to mention a wide selection of steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and polymers (a fancy word for plastic). Someone with a WAZER, for example, might find themselves buying and storing full-sized sheets of material where only a few square inches is needed, and buying all the accouterments of manufacturing—the sandpaper and micrometers and workholding clamps—and using them just a few times.

Perhaps the most crucial asset in any sheet metal house or machine shop is something that’s not for sale. It’s called experience, and without it, even the most technically-minded entrepreneur will spend countless hours figuring out the best way to slice up a sheet of metal or bar-stock in the most cost-effective manner. As fun as it might be to program and operate a machine tool, these hours are probably best spent designing and marketing their products.

The case for outsourcing

If you had your heart set on a new WAZER, I’m sorry to be such a Debby Downer. None of this was meant to imply that these machines don’t have their place. They do, provided the people who buy such equipment A) understand its limitations, and B) have the time and additional cash needed to get it running. For a hard-core hobbyist or product designer with extensive prototyping requirements, a desktop machine might be just the ticket. For everyone else, there are more sensible solutions.

One of these is a quick-turn laser cutting service. SendCutSend, for example, delivers precision sheet metal components in as little as three days, with prices starting at $29 per order and $1 per part. A wide variety of metals and thicknesses are available, giving customers a low-cost way to try out different materials and part designs without breaking the bank.

An inventor might come to SendCutSend for help designing, developing, and then producing her latest brainchild. Car and motorcycle enthusiasts find it a great option for custom components. Bar and restaurant owners come to SendCutSend for custom signage and fixtures, while maintenance engineers use our services for replacement parts. The list goes on.

At the risk of further extending the sales pitch, SendCutSend is also quite easy to use. Just upload your CAD file, PDF, or scanned drawing (sorry, no cocktail napkins), review the quote along with any design suggestions, enter your payment information, and keep an eye out for the delivery truck. If you have any questions or concerns, give us a call. And if you’re still thinking about a WAZER or MillRight CNC Mega V Router and Plasma System, we can’t blame you. Sheet metal parts are cool. Happy cutting.

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We proudly use hardware by PEM

Flush Standoff, 4-40, .250" Zinc plus Clear Chromate

Aluminum: 5052, 6061, 7075 Steel: Mild, G30

Thread Size4-40 x .250″
Hole size in sheet (+0.003/-.0.000).168″
Minimum sheet thickness0.040″
Maximum sheet thickness.125″
Fastener materialSteel
Minimum distance hole C/L to edge0.230″
When determining the distance between two or more fasteners, you can calculate the distance by the formula, C/L to edge + 1/2 the diameter of the second mounting hole..345″
Recommended panel materialSteel/Aluminum
Coating typeZinc
Aluminum material ranges (5052, 6061, 7075)0.040″-0.125″
Steel material ranges (CRS, HRPO, HR)0.048″-0.119″

We proudly use hardware by PEM

Flush Standoff, 4-40, .250" Passivated

Stainless Steel: 304, 316

Thread Size440
Hole size in sheet (+0.003/-.0.000).166″
Minimum sheet thickness0.04″
Maximum sheet thickness.125″
Fastener material400 Stainless Steel
Minimum distance hole C/L to edge0.230″
When determining the distance between two or more fasteners, you can calculate the distance by the formula, C/L to edge + 1/2 the diameter of the second mounting hole. Example shown with x2 of the same hardware..313″
Recommended panel materialStainless Steel
Coating typePassivated
304 Stainless Steel material ranges0.048″-0.125″
316 Stainless Steel material ranges0.060″-0.125″