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Looking for a plasma cutter? You likely have a lot of questions. Before you start searching for the right solution, do some research to ensure you choose the right one for your shop. Here are a few factors to consider.
Plate size is the starting point when deciding how to choose a CNC plasma cutter. To determine the maximum plate size you’ll need to cut, whether it’s 4’ x 8’, 8’ x 10’, 10’ x 40’, or sheets.
Every machine model can handle a range of different sizes; however, if the size you need to cut is outside of that range, you’ll need to transition to a larger model.
Maximum plate thickness is also used to determine the right machine model. Some models are limited by the size of plasma they can carry, or the maximum thickness they can clear.
Finally, identify how many sheets you need to cover. Most cutting machines are sized to cover a single plate width. But some high-production shops or steel service centers may want a machine-wide enough to cut two plates side-by-side. That means you’ll need a larger model gantry.
Likewise, most machines have rails long enough to cover one or more plates end-to-end. But the machine width is more important for one simple reason: You can almost always add more rail, but you can’t make the machine wider once it’s built.
Another factor to consider is the arrangement of working areas. The simplest CNC plasma machine only has one working area, which means the CNC plasma cutting table is big enough for one plate at a time. But that means once you finish cutting the plate, the machine sits idle while you unload the cut parts and scrap, and then load a fresh plate. That’s fine for small shops or low-production environments.
However, many companies want to increase the industrial machine’s efficiency by being able to load and unload while the machine is cutting. So do you get one big CNC plasma cutting table or two separate cutting tables? Whether it’s a water table or a downdraft table, either is acceptable.
Sometimes having an open zone between plasma cutting tables is convenient for service access. Extra space between cutting zones also helps avoid hitting the CNC plasma cutting machine with a plate swinging from a crane while trying to load the table.
So the distance between one plate and the next needs to be at least the parking distance of the machine, plus a little extra. The more space you leave, the safer you’ll be. Keep in mind, though, every foot of additional rail length equals some additional cost and floor space used, so there’s always a trade-off.
Having a good idea of what type of cutting process tools you need will also help you decide on a model. Do you only require one plasma station or two? Do you want an oxy-fuel torch or perhaps four or eight of them?
The more tools, the wider the machine gets. This is simply because of the space each tool takes up on the gantry, as well as the ‘cross-cut' requirement.
For instance, think about a machine with one plasma torch and four oxy-fuel torches. To cut a 10’ wide plate, the plasma torch must be able to cross-cut the entire 10’ wide plate.
You’ll want at least one of the four oxy-fuel torches to also cross-cut the entire plate. As a result, you need room on the gantry for all four oxy-fuel torches to park off to the side while that plasma torch covers the plate. Likewise, you’ll need room on the other side of the gantry for the plasma station to park while one of the oxy-fuel stations covers the plate.
If you start adding more tools, like a second plasma, a marker tool, or more oxy-fuel torches, the machine can get even bigger. Add a beveling station to the mix and you’ll need even more space. Most take up 24 – 36 inches of cross-cut on the machine.
Don’t underestimate the importance of programming and nesting software. Even for a small shop where you don’t need nesting capabilities, you still have to be able to generate program code for the CNC to run.
Many new CNCs today have built-in programming capabilities, such as shape libraries or manual program editors. Many also have the ability to take in a DXF file or DWG file and “post-process” it into M- and G-Code for the CNC to run. Even then you have to know how you are going to create and edit those CAD files for the CNC to import.
There are a range of possibilities, from height controls and cutting speed to CAM software. However, the machine is worthless if you can’t generate programs to run it, which is why factoring in CNC controls and software when planning the purchase of a CNC plasma cutter is key.
There are countless options to consider when you’re wondering how to choose a CNC plasma cutter. These include the plasma system, duty cycle, oxy-fuel stations, gantry, software, table, dust collectors, and more.
The best step you can take is to educate yourself on your options ahead of time. This will help you make informed choices that are most profitable for your business.
It might mean choosing higher-end options that cost more upfront but improve cut capacity, cut quality, and productivity down the line. Or, perhaps, you’ll have to make a more economical, entry-level choice that doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles. It’s up to you to learn about what’s available – and the cost and benefit of each – so you make the right purchasing decision.