Automation is a beautiful thing. CNC plasma cutters allow you to input instructions into a computer terminal and the machine carries out the cutting instructions. You can buy complete CNC plasma cutting machines or you can try to build on yourself. I am not really that into building automated machines, I just like to use them, so I prefer to buy complete CNC plasma cutters.
If you wanted to build one you would need three major components.
- A Computer Numberic Controller (CNC)
- The Plasma Cutter itself (conventional or precision)
- The Base
You can have the controller prefabricated or if you are REALLY good, you can soder a controller chip youself. You would just have to tell the manufacturer what the controller is for and how many axes you want to have. Generally, a two-axis controller (the x- and y-axis) is all you need, but you may want a three-axis controller if you need one for torch height. You can apply the idea of axes to almost any machine and its controller. If you wanted to build a milling machine or a wood router you would need a 3-axis controller. If you wanted to build a machine with a rotary axis you would need a 4 axis controller. And on and on.
You can also buy controller kits and assemble the components yourself. Most of the CNC plasma cutter controllers that you can buy come with a motor and cable system. If you are a beginner, I would not recommend buying a controller kit, stick to the completely built CNC machines. If you are ambitious and want to assemble a kit, the cost is usually between $7, 500 and $15,000. The fully built major machines cost in the hundreds of thousands, but they are worth every penny if you have a need for them.
The two types of plasma cutters that you will run into are conventional and precision. The conventional are not as accurate or as efficient as the precision ones. If you are a hobbyist or an artisan then the conventional machines should do. If you are a professional who wants to manufacture parts and sell them you will want to find out more about the precision machines. You can find out more in what to look for in a plasma cutter.
The metal used to build the base and the machine components can be extruded aluminum or fabricated steel. The fab steel is for industrial use and is rugged enought to run continuously all day. The extruded aluminum machines are only for infrequent use.
The fully built CNC plasma cutters come with everything you need, including the controller. Be careful where you by from though, some companies will try to incorporate proprietary components and mechanisms so that CNC Plasma Cutter cutting sheet metalonly they can fix the machine when it breaks. There are other companies that use common components and any well-versed maintenance engineer should be able to repair it. From my experience, it is best to stick with machines that have common components. The main reason is that if the company with proprietary components decides not to make older models anymore and your older model breaks then you might be on a very long and frustrating hunt for used proprietary parts.
To touch on the controllers again, I buy them ready made. When it comes to controllers I do not have any idea what is going on; I let the pros handle it and then buy from them. Here is a little more detail for anyone who wants to have a little more insight into the controller. Each axis has one driver. Gecko Drivers appear to be the market leaders probably because they provide great value and great customer support. I have used controllers that have Gecko Drivers and I have never had any problems with them. Another component is the process which does the computing for the controller unit. There is a power source component, which you guessed it, provides the power. Lastly, there are the cables that connect the controller to the motors of each axis. That is a very basic overview of the controller components.
Pendants are an optional component in controlling a CNC plasma cutter. You can make or purchase pendants. They can be very useful and once you use them you may not want to go without them. With a pendant you can access common functions of your machine from almost anywhere. You can job the machine to another location, you can control its speed and you can even zero out any axis you want.
Since this plasma cutters are heavy machinery you want to make sure that you are aware of plasma cutter safety guidelines. Your machine should come with guidelines of use and you will want to ask an experienced plasma cutter for advice.