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When is a CNC retrofit a good idea?

Here’s our checklist of factors to consider

Let’s start with something you already know: replacing machines can be somewhat expensive. Not necessarily from an ROI standpoint, but certainly from a capital investment perspective. For that reason, many wood manufacturers will seek to retrofit existing CNC machines to try to squeeze more productivity and output from existing investments instead of laying out additional capital for a fully automated solution.

This can be a great idea, in the right situations. It lets you do a phase by phase transformation at your pace. But the fact is, not all CNC machines are good candidates for a retrofit. Some provide a great opportunity to maximize the benefit of new technology, while others won’t give you as much bang for your buck. Below are a few key factors to consider when determining whether a retrofit is a good idea.

Age of existing machines

If your machine is only a few years old, this generally goes in favor of doing a retrofit (with certain exceptions). It’s still easy to get replacement parts, which means the machine can still be repaired without excessive delays. This makes it more reliable and worthy of being incorporated into a retrofitted setup. In addition, technology may not have advanced a lot since your last purchase, so there may not be as great a need or opportunity to take advantage of innovations.

Machines that are more than ten years old present a tougher case. If parts are still available and your repair/maintenance technician is skilled, you may still find that a retrofit makes sense. In situations like that, the machine is not expected to go down and potentially stay that way for long periods of time. On the other hand, if parts are getting scarce or you don’t have significant repair capabilities on your team, you may want to consider a fuller replacement of your equipment.

Has technology advanced?

Another factor to analyze when considering a retrofit is whether technology has significantly advanced since you bought your equipment. At the time of this writing, horizontal boring machines haven’t developed much in recent years, but other machines have, and they present a much greater opportunity for a retrofit. If we discuss the advancements of recent years and find that a particular type of machine has seen some innovation, it’s a point in favor of retrofitting.

However, there’s another practical issue to think of here:

Do you really need greater speed and scalability?

Just because you can speed up a machine or scale up production doesn’t mean you should. Some operations simply can’t take advantage of these greater capabilities. We always advise clients to think about whether an innovation will remove limitations like production bottlenecks that are currently holding back efficiency and profitability. If an innovation won’t truly help deliver ROI, then you can put it on hold and address high priority areas of need.

Speaking of ROI…

Do you have access to capital?

The returns of an automation or robotics upgrade may be fully justified, but securing funding isn’t a given in certain situations. If you aren’t able to get access to capital to make a substantial upgrade, a retrofit can provide a way to increase your productivity without having to lay out the same amount of money. Retrofits are high impact, cost effective ways to make a difference in your production line.

How worn down is your machine?

Some machines make it clear that they’re getting ready to die. If your machine has loose bearings and other chronic issues that would be costly to repair, it’s a point in favor of replacement. On the other hand, if your equipment is in good shape, not wearing down, and still capable of high machining accuracy, you can think about retrofitting it.

Do you need more flexibility?

Upgrades are important if you can take advantage of increased capabilities. Some examples are zoned vacuums that let you hold larger part sizes, or zoned dust collection that lets you focus suction where it’s needed most. Retrofit appropriateness depends in part on whether your process could use features like these.

What are your long term plans?

There are cases where a CNC retrofit might seem to make sense at the moment, but will be more costly because of additional custom work that needs to be done in the future. Doing upgrades piecemeal might wind up being more expensive in the long run than simply replacing existing machinery with modern robotics. Make sure that when you’re thinking about a retrofit, you consider your plans for the next few years as well. If you think you’re going to want to introduce other upgrades (like adding a labeler), it might make more sense to simply install a fully automated cell to avoid retrofits that eventually become costly in the aggregate.

A final note on controllers and software

All it takes is one good power flash to kill an old controller. The risk presented by older machines sometimes isn’t really mechanical – it’s electrical. A controller upgrade is sometimes an easy way to increase the productivity of your CNC machines while reducing your downtime risk. We encourage clients to think about whether the benefits of a modern controller are worth it. It may be a relatively simple way to get more out of your existing hardware. For example, the scan time of old controllers limits acceleration and deceleration of arms. Upgrading your controller may increase your production capabilities and make your process more flexible.

There’s also software upgrades to consider. Valuable third party automation solutions exist, but without an upgrade to your aging CNC software from your supplier, you won’t be able to take advantage of them and make a connection between your CNC’s native system and a more modern platform.

Retrofits can be a valuable way to begin transforming your production line, but each unique situation should be evaluated thoroughly before simply choosing this option because it looks cheaper today. For more information, please contact us and we’ll be happy to help you review your situation.

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