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PLASMA SYSTEMS – Part 3 of 4

Low cost plasma systems - ready to assemble

After reading my two articles in our previous issues, you’ve decided that you want a low-cost plasma system, but don’t have the time or expertise to build it.

In this article, I’m presenting the manufacturers of these low-cost systems. Because of their design, you could call them kits, as they all need some assembly after delivery, and some of them need to either use the hand-held plasma cutter you already have or to purchase one. Some, however, give you many of the main components, while you supply some of the more basic parts. Most of the manufacturers also require that you already have a computer for the system.

What’s important to look for with any of these systems is that(whether?) they offer torch-height control or the ability to add it. Also, you should look at the support that’s offered by each company. For instance, can you call the owner or a service staff if you have a problem? Does the company offer detailed information for putting the system together such as manuals and videos? Also, is it a complete system that includes software?

Bull Tear

While the name is unique − to find out how it was chosen will cost you a six pack of beer mentions the owner, Matt Crescenzo − the company’s plasma system is affordable.

Crescenzo has many years of experience with CNC systems. He started in the automation business back in the late 1980s. “At the time, CNC required some pretty costly items. As a result, that realm of CNC plasma and router systems just weren’t economical, although they were available.”

With affordable CNC controls, software and torch-height control, the cost of a CNC-plasma system is now relatively inexpensive, he adds. His systems offer these features for less than $10,000.

For software, the company typically sends a copy of BobCAD or TurboCAD. The CAM side the company uses SheetCAM, which is a fast way to go from a complex 2D drawing to code, says Crescenzo.

“You can literally generate all your code in 20 seconds from opening the program to popping up your drawing,” he mentions.

When looking at a unit to purchase, he says, “If you were going to look at other manufacturers, review the accuracy of the system and the torch-height control along with the software that comes with it and the quality of the unit. I believe there isn’t a manufacturer out there doing what we’re doing.”

Crescenzo’s units are offered as gantry kits, where a customer would build the table to the company’s prints saving shipping and material costs.

He mentions that another thing about plasma units is that long-term use should be an important consideration. “Units that use small components along with ones that use roller bearings and steel tubes on steel bars are really unreliable in the long run,” he says. “For instance, units that do not have an anti-backlash mechanism for the gantry axes should be avoided. There’s a lot to think about other than the initial purchase. With our unit everything is set-up to avoid crashing them or causing damage. They also have wipers on all the profile and linear rails. It’s really a great unit for an experienced or new plasma operator.”

The company offers a blog for support from people who use its equipment.

“There are three websites that support our tables and software, and we have two phone numbers that the customers can call for support,” he adds.

Plasma systems that the company offers include a gantry kit (minus computer, plasma torch and table), along with a full system (minus computer and plasma torch), both using either a 4 ft. by 4 ft. or a 4 ft. by 8 ft. table. The company also offers 5 ft. by 10 ft. and 6 ft. by 12 ft. table units and are moving up to a 10 ft. by 20 ft. table soon.

CNC Router Parts

CNC Router Parts provides parts and kits for both router and plasma-machine builders. The company’s systems are based on widely available aluminum extrusions and cold-rolled steel rails, allowing for easy and inexpensive fabrication of custom machines.

Current offerings include belt-reduction rack and pinion drives designed to work with Nema-23 and Nema-34 frame-stepper motors, along with inexpensive roller-bearing, linear-motion assemblies. The company sells individual parts, complete kits, or custom sub-assemblies such as gantries or Z-axes to meet whatever level of do-it-yourself that customers want. At around $3500, the company’s large format 4 ft. by 8 ft. table mechanical kits are inexpensive, and gantry plus Z-axis kits can be purchased for under $2000.

“The company has a new patent-pending “V-con” (for V-conversion) system. This linear-motion system is based around a clamp that allows users to quickly and accurately mount standard cold-rolled flat bar at a 45 degree angle for use with popular V-roller bearings. The resulting linear-motion axes are extremely easy to assemble and align, highly resistant to dust, slag and debris, and easily expandable for those wanting to start with a small machine and work up to a larger one as space and funds allow,” mentions Ahren Johnson the company’s owner. “The clamps can be connected to an aluminum extrusion or to fabricated steel framing.”

Eagle Plasma

Albert Nelsen, owner of Eagle Plasma, offers three units made with off-the-shelf components that can come with or without torch-height control along with a floating torch head. None of them offer a water table. Each offers a travel speed for the X and Y axes of 800 IPM, with a 50 in./sec./sec. acceleration and movement accuracy of 0.001 in.

They also offer ultra smooth and quite belt-drive V bearings on a rail drive to insure X-drive alignment along with steel construction. Motors have sprockets on them that have a 200 pitch that work with timing belts.

He says, “Sometimes we will sell just the gantry, motor controller and electronics for those who want to do everything else themselves. Some people want to build their own table which is not a complicated item.”

Nelsen offers unlimited support, even if his customer doesn’t know how to use a CAD program. He offers a six-hour training video for the Qcad (Qcad? Is that correct?) software he uses.

GearHEADCNC

GearHeadCNC

GearHeadCNC started several years ago, and is now offering a plasma table system that retails for under $10,000, says Ryan Schoch, part owner of the company along with his father.

GearHeadCNC’s kits vary as to what equipment is included. Schoch says he offers a complete table setup along with a gantry system. “Every one of our tables come with the gantry system with all the motors and wires included. We’ve designed a PC controller that gives us all the modular connections to the motors and computer. This makes it very easy for set-up along with maintenance.”

He adds, “We designed the systems ourselves so that they would be affordable. My father is a computer programmer. He has a lot of computer knowledge and mechanical skills. It took us several years of prototyping to come up with a salable plasma-cutter system. But our goal was to create an affordable one.”

Eventually, the company will be offering its own technology for torch-height control, but it’s not available yet.

Schoch is currently working on a new table design. “Our new table will be all aluminum with a dual-X axis and can be used for routing, light milling, and plasma cutting with a 4 ft. by 4 ft. table.

PlasmaCAM

PlasmaCAM, Inc. offers low-cost plasma cutting systems. Their system has and continues to set the bar high for other manufacturers.

PlasmaCAM has “reinvented the wheel” to offer the software and CNC-drive systems needed for a low-cost system. Dan VanderPloeg, sales manager for the company, says, “The only thing you need with our system is the computer and the torch. The system comes complete with a fully integrated CAD/CAM software suite. Our software allows you to draw a part and cut it all in one interface. No time consuming importing or exporting required.

“The integration also extends to the part nesting and artwork scanning with each taking place in the same interface. Our free vectorization tool is as good as any other software available.”

This is not a stand-alone cutting table, but rather, an intelligent system that includes the complete, tested machine and the software that work together, says VanderPloeg. An example of this integration is visible in the control box, which includes the motor controls, the torch-height control and all of the jogging capabilities. In other products, this takes two or more different wired boxes and still lacks any jogging capabilities.

“Because everything happens in one software interface, we believe our system is also much easier to use,” says VanderPloeg. “The ease of use is also designed into the digital-height control that automates the torch height and saves on plasma torch consumables.”

Each PlasmaCAM unit uses a rack-and-pinion axes drive system along with closed-loop servos that gives the unit an accuracy of +/- 0.005 in.

Plans for a water table are available, but it’s a do-it-yourself project. In terms of manufacturing, all of PlasmaCAM’s equipment is American-made, produced in Colorado and includes a three-year warranty. The service support is handled by the company from its Colorado offices.

Praxair

Praxair offers its ProStar series of plasma cutting systems. They have three systems within the $10,000 category: the Pro SK10, Pro SK8 and Pro SK4. These are designed for light manufacturing, job shops and the serious hobbyist mentions the company. They offer: a 100-percent welded tube and plate-steel frame, 25-mm precision Hywin Rails with 0.001 tolerances, a router option, large-diameter ball-screw option, CNC-grade carriers and cables, 800 oz./in. advanced micro-stepper motors, available A/C-digital super-servo drives with matching amplifiers, Hypertherm or Thermal Dynamics plasma units, a standard WinCNC controller on all models, an available Hypertherm or Burny PC based controller (PRO Series), QuickDraw software, shielded wire guards, fully assembled and ready to run.

These units are available from 63 in. by 73 in. by 60 in. up to 90 in. by 136 in. by 60 in. and the Pro SK10 and Pro SK8 models can cut up to a 1.5-in.-thick steel plate.

Precison Plasma LLC

According to its website, Precision Plasma LLC offers a turnkey 4 ft. by 8 ft. plasma-cutting system called the Patriot that includes a complete table with electronics and software for $7995, but the computer and plasma cutter are not included. The company also offers a 6-in. rotary chuck for plasma cutting. This product was designed to be a low-cost, single-direction rotating chuck for tube slicing and can be added to a CNC-plasma table.

TensorCNC

In business since 2009, TensorCNC offers a water table as standard equipment with its heavy-duty Patriot 4 ft. by 8 ft. line of plasma tables.

“We offer our plasma tables with integrated electronic controls that includes the gantry and the plasma cutting head (and offer a router head and/or scribe). Basically it’s a complete system minus the plasma cutter and computer,” says Julian Pishko, owner.

“We provide the electrical controls package from CandCNC and integrate it with our machines.”

The company also offers its Iplasma cutting table models available in 4 ft. by 4 ft. E, 4 ft. by 4 ft. (with water table) and 4 ft. by 8 ft. E. It’s Iplasma 4 ft. by 4 ft. system offers: precision-ground stainless steel side rails, 60-in. plasma gantry and carriages (50 in. by 50 in. cut area), Z-axis with 5TPI-precision two-start screw and anti-backlash nut, universal floating torch mount with “touch-off” switch, router mount for 3/4-HP router (router not included), powder-coated bolt together frame with wire/cable arm, stainless-steel water pan and slats, BladeRunner Dragon-cut AIO with 4-300 oz.-in. hybrid stepper motors, digital-torch-height control and choice of RAV-01 card or MIC-01 cable. Limited versions of Mach3 and SheetCAM are provided, and licensed full versions are available.

Torchmate

Torchmate is now owned by Lincoln Electric. The company offers a number of different computer-controlled plasma systems tailored to the customer’s capabilities and needs.

They offer full turnkey systems to ones available as a kit, as most customers have welding experience and can save money making their own table mentions Josh Schohn, sales manager.

“Our do-it-yourself kits allow a customer to buy the steel locally to make a CNC-plasma cutting system. The largest system we make is 12 ft. by 60 ft. We offer many different levels of kits for the do-it-yourself person. We can offer our customers the software, motors, cables and electronics, and they would provide their own steel for the table. They can make the gantry from our design along with the support table. We also offer a pre-built gantry-kit system.”

He adds, “I think one of the most important things is that we have been revolutionizing CNC. We have brought plasma CNC to the masses. It’s no longer for the fabricating elite or the larger machine shops. This is a product you can have in your garage. Because of this, it’s enabling small companies to get off the ground and offer cutting services that can compete with a laser.”

As one of its offerings, Torchmate has its Growth Series 2×2 CNC Prototyping System that has a 2 ft. by 2 ft. table. Other products in this group include a table that is 2 ft. by 4 ft. and a 4 ft. by 4 ft. table. The Growth Series product line allows customers to upgrade their system as their business or hobby grows. Other CNC machines the company offers can be custom sized for the customer.

Viper Plasma
Matt Dobra is the owner of Viper Plasma and has been working with CNC equipment all his life.

“I started out in sheet-metal fabrication, operating mainly brakes, punches, and lasers. After a few years and some formal training, I moved to a position that involved designing custom CNC machinery for Nabisco, Dupont, Philip Morris, and a few others. My interest in this type of CNC spawned from being in this industry. Before we started Viper Plasma, I spent every waking moment designing and building CNC machines at home. We started this business about three years ago and our primary focus has been on CNC-plasma systems.

“Having owned several brands throughout the years, I’ve seen the good and the bad in these systems. We believe a key feature to our system is that it doesn’t use proprietary equipment. Other then the laser-cut stainless carriages, every last component can be purchased online from several vendors. This is a benefit for the end user. It keeps the cost of replacement parts low and availability good. We are selling systems that will hold their own in the $15K and under range and at about a third of the cost.

“We believe in using quality components to provide the customer with a solid machine that will last for years. Hardened steel v-way rails and wheels, Gecko drive electronics, torch-height control, dual-drive rack and pinion and all metal components,” he says.

The company sells three different types of systems in various sizes ranging from gantry only, to complete turnkey packages with plasma cutter. Dobra realizes that support is important, because most people purchasing these systems are new to this technology and are investing a good amount of money. He gives everybody his cell phone number for service if they need it, and has talked to customers at midnight to help support them.

Viper Plasma offers plasma systems from 2 ft. by 2 ft. tables up to 4 ft. by 8 ft. and 5 ft. by 5 ft. with various options.

Cutting with a Viper Plasma System.

ArcLight Dynamics

Although the company’s products are just above the $10,000 limit, I’ve included them. The company offers three systems ranging in price from $8750 to $11,850 without a torch. They also include a water table. For more information see http://www.arclightcnc.com/arc-pro-4800-4×4.html.

My next article will discuss the plasma torches you need to purchase to complete your system.

ArcLight Dynamics
Bull Tear
CNC Router Parts
Eagle Plasma
GearHeadCNC
Precision Plasma LLC
Praxair
PlasmaCAM
TensorCNC
Torchmate
Viper Plasma