When Brad Hillis started his sign business 25 years ago, a worker might take two weeks to shape by hand the letters for a typical storefront display.
Today, he can put a pair of workers at Pride Signs Ltd. on the job in the morning and have a second crew complete it within 24 hours.
What makes the job so much faster is a technology that is changing the landscape of the small-shop manufacturing world. Known by its acronym, CNC, which stands for computer numerical control, these tools are essentially robotic lathes that precisely shape parts that have been designed in virtual reality.
Not only do CNC milling machines allow the cutting of materials with computer precision, they enable sign makers and other small facilities to create shapes that were previously unthinkable. "The machine cuts all the parts and bends all the parts and then assembles the parts," said Mr. Hillis, who is president of Pride Signs, which is based in Cambridge, Ont.
As computers have become more powerful, all kinds of businesses have benefited from CNC technology.
In Hensall, Ont., Iceculture Inc. uses CNC machines to carve table decorations and other displays out of frozen water. In the Victoria suburb of Central Saanich, entrepreneur Reg Barber uses CNC equipment to shape the stainless-steel bases and rosewood handles of his eponymous coffee tampers prized by baristas around the globe.
"Oh, it made my company," Mr. Barber said of his decision nearly 10 years ago to lease-to-own a $70,000 Super Kia Turn21 CNC machine that he has since paid off. Before acquiring the machine, he had to contract the work to a machine shop. Today, about the only thing limiting growth at his three-person shop is the lack of another CNC machine, he said.
CNC technology itself isn't exactly new. It has been around since the invention of computers more than half a century ago, said Alf Zeuner, president of AXYZ Automation, based in Burlington, Ont., which sells CNC equipment such as table routers.
"The very first computers built were used for CNC machining," said Mr. Zeuner, who co-founded his company with Gary Harvey in 1991.
From a two-man show, AXYZ has grown to a 100-person operation with $25-million in sales. One of its biggest markets is sign shops, such as Pride Signs, which has several AXYZ machines on its shop floor.
AXYZ also exports its machines to the United States, Britain and India. Among the Indian companies using the technology are makers of wood doors that were traditionally hand-crafted. "Instead of having half a dozen wood carvers on staff they now have one or two graphic artists," Mr. Zuener said.
At Pride Signs, using CNC technology allows for more intricate designs, which has enabled the company to land bigger accounts. "It allowed us greater consistent capabilities, greater design capabilities through 3-D modelling to produce something out of the ordinary so you can get more business," Mr. Hillis said.
Meanwhile, the technology has also reduced workers' injury compensation claims. Using jigsaws and other tools to cut letters was hard on the forearms and often led to carpal tunnel syndrome, Mr. Hillis said. "And now you avoid all that stuff."
Without CNC capability, Iceculture, which was first in the ice business to use CNC technology, would not have been able to fill an order within three days for 48 Vince Lombardi trophy ice sculptures in time for a Super Bowl bar mitzvah in Montreal.
"CNC equipment in our ice business rivals that in the auto and aircraft industries now," said Julian Bayley, the company's founder. "We've enabled ice carving, which had been around for centuries, to step into the 21st century."
As the power of CNC machines increases, Mr. Zuener expects even more small businesses will realize the potential.
"There's still lots of shops out there using band saws and table saws because they either traditionally haven't used CNC or really don't quite understand how accessible CNC machinery is," Mr. Zeuner said.
While CNC machines no longer have to cost millions, they can still cost thousands. AXYZ's models range from $20,000 to $200,000.
At the University of British Columbia, graduate students in mechanical engineering are developing and testing new CNC algorithms.
Yusuf Altintas, a professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department, predicted that in the coming years smart CNCs will be able to detect tool failure, vibrations and adapt "automatically to changing cutting conditions," among other things.
JDi Design, an industrial design service provider in Burnaby, B.C., uses CNC technology remotely. Owner Adrian van Wijk will design an item, such a blade holder for a figure skate, and e-mail the file to a facility in Fujian, China, where a CNC machine will carve a prototype out of plastic.
"CNC technology has improved so much that we're now using it for rapid prototyping," Mr. van Wijk said.
CNC technology is also going wireless, Mr. Zuener said.
"Now we're starting to run the machines on Android tablets," Mr. Zuener said. "A cellphone could run a machine now. That's how powerful it's gotten."