10 years of local innovation

CNC Clear Cut celebrates 10 years of manufacturing South African designed plasma tables


What started out as a simple process to cut metal is now a fast, productive tool.

Back in 2007 Paul van Niekerk, CEO of CNC Clear Cut, needed a plasma cutter but couldn’t afford one. However, with two decades of experience in steel manufacturing, it occurred to him that he could probably design one himself.

Van Niekerk qualified as an aircraft fitter when he completed a stint of five years in the South African Air Force before moving to a company that manufactured components for the automotive OEMs such as Nissan and Mercedes. It was at this commercial enterprise that the calling came for plasma cut components and van Niekerk is happy to admit that he had no knowledge or experience in plasma cutting. Cost implications of an imported machine steered van Niekerk to investigate alternative options that would have a profound influence on his professional career.


“Like me companies and their employees are generally ignorant about the process of plasma cutting and the benefits it provides. Precision plasma cutting has come a long way, and the technology that helps create the process’s clean, almost glassy edge, with little to no taper or edge rounding, continues to get better. Alone or assisted with water, plasma has proven itself to be one of the most efficient cutting processes for sheet, plate, tube, pipe, and profiles,” said van Niekerk.


“As a company we still have a long road ahead to educate the local metal cutting market. Advancements in the process and the evolution of the machines are taking giant leaps forward, which South African businessmen, engineers and operators need to be made aware of. Like the development in CNC lathes, machining centers, lasers and 3D printing technology plasma has kept pace and is no longer regarded as a backyard operation for cheap and nasty cutting.”


“There are many different ways to cut metal using a thermal cutting process. Laser, oxyfuel, and plasma are the three major processes, each viable depending on the cutting needs of the business.”


“The laser will always have a place in the market place. Laser cutting uses a high power laser beam to heat and then partially melt and vaporise the material. However, laser cutting has its restrictions in that it needs clean material to cut and it is only effective up to a certain thickness of material. Laser is often used when cutting thin sheet and in cases where tight tolerances are required. However, capital costs and overall operating costs are high. It also loves long production runs to cover the cost of capital outlay.”

“Plasma cutting uses a high-temperature, electrically-conductive gas or air to cut through any material that is electrically conductive. Plasma is suitable for ferrous and non-ferrous material, as is laser cutting, however it is suitable for metal that is in any condition (rusted, painted, grated), and covers thicknesses ranging from gauge to 50mm. Plasma provides a good balance in terms of capital cost and an optimal mix of cut quality, productivity and operating costs. It has significant thickness range and material flexibility and provides the highest cutting speeds.”


“The cost per component cut on a new generation plasma cutter still has a big advantage as compared to one cut on a laser when you take into account initial outlay, flexibility and the cost of the monthly consumables.”



Development of South African designed plasma tables

After securing some investment, van Niekerk set about building a prototype in his garage. It took a full year to complete, and cost twice as much to develop as it was ultimately sold for, but it was a phenomenal success.


“We took a year to develop our first machine, which was eventually sold to Wubbeling Engineering. This machine is still in service today, 10 years down the line. The machines we manufacture today are vastly different to the machine that Wubbeling Engineering purchased,  but it proves that our machines are reliable.”


“The market segment that we decided to operate in is the small to medium format area.  We also provide industry leading tables for the larger industrial market, and there are many of these machines out there. Our Advanced tables has had its motion tested by Hypertherm representatives and is believed to be one of the best in the world. The smallest workshop system that we manufacture has a table size of 1 300mm x 1 300mm whereas our advanced machines will have table sizes X-axis of between 2 000mm and 2 800mm and a Y-axis of between 5 000mm and 16 000mm, depending on the customer requirements.”


“2010 was a significant year in the development of the company and our machines in that we went into full production instead of operating from a garage and we were also recognised by companies such as Hypertherm. We have since standardised on Hypertherm plasma units as our power and torch source and they have been very influential in our rapid development over the last few years.”


“We can’t say that our machines comprise of 100% local content because the main working components, such as the Hypertherm power source, bearings and a big part of the electronics, are not made in South Africa and we have to import these components. However, the rest of the machine is locally fabricated and constructed and they are all designed internally.”


“In essence you could say that we have developed a fast, efficient plasma cutting table that is enhanced by the use of internationally recognised working components, software and accessories that come together in perfect harmony at optimal speeds using the correct amperages to fit the profile of material size and type.”


Light and fast gantries

“A major selling point of our machines is the design and ease-of-use of them. A standout feature is the construction of the gantries. We went with light and fast. We have noticed other manufacturers claiming their gantries can move at a speed of “X”, but never mention the acceleration. The base of a table is obviously still steel, since you need the weight for stability. But you don’t have to use huge motors to move the plasma torch around, and since massive gantries aren’t required, we’re able to use aluminium, which is lighter, more rigid, and more resistant to deformation than steel is. Less weight means the torch is able to move with far more precision.”


Extra features

What makes a plasma cutting table great isn’t simply its ability to move a cutting torch with speed and accuracy. There are additional considerations, depending on what a client wants cut.


For example, plasma cutting generates conductive dust, which can play havoc with nearby electronics if uncontrolled. For cutting thin stainless steels, CNC Clear Cut offers tables equipped with HVAC systems that suck the dust away during the cut. If the intended material is long and thick, CNC Clear Cut might recommend a waterbed table instead. Water also traps dust and helps keep the steel cool during the cut, which in turn prevents heat deformation.


Complete solution

CNC Clear Cut has also embraced the idea of offering a complete solution rather than just selling a plasma cutting table. To help customers get up and running, and get the most out of their machines, CNC Clear Cut offers a full on-site training programme. Once your plasma cutting table has been delivered, a qualified trainer will be available to educate any staff on how to maintain and operate the equipment. CNC Clear Cut can also train a customer’s staff in the CAD skills necessary to design cuts for the tables to perform, and can provide CAM training using any of the recognised software as well as CNC training of the CNC controls that run the machines.

Start your own business or add capability

“Companies working in the engineering sphere will always have a project where they need metal components cut. Whether they are a factory or farm maintenance department replacing damaged or wear parts, a construction company completing a development or even a fabrication business there is always going to be a call for a last minute one-off cutting of sheet metal or plate components. In some cases it is more than a one-off but not enough to regard the order as a production run. The metal service centre businesses that have a laser or a large plasma cutter as their main source of cutting are not interested in this type of work. Their machines are hungry beasts that need to be fed and kept busy to make them economically viable. If they do accept your order you will have to wait weeks before you get your component,” continued van Niekerk.


“We believe there is a gap in the market to service this type of metal cutting yet still being able to produce production-grade components. Our standard machines are ideal for an individual who wants to start a business and offer a ‘walk in and order and wait for your component’ type business.”


“Equally they are ideal for an existing fabrication shop or a small welding shop that needs to cut precise components in-house, and even maintenance departments of larger companies can invest in our standard machine without breaking the bank.”


“Light industrial CNC plasma cutting options now make it possible for small businesses to complete amazing jobs that were almost impossible a decade ago. ”


“Don’t get me wrong though. These machines are not just for one-offs. They are comfortable running longer production runs and are happy cutting mild steel with a sheet size of up to

3 000mm by 1 500mm and up to 16mm thick at an accuracy of 0,05mm. Supplied with a Hypertherm plasma unit and Alibre Design CAD software and either ProNest or Fastcam CAM software, it becomes a workhorse producing quality components at a very economical rate.”


“Once established, a small business entrepreneur can then upgrade to either our mid-range or advanced machines and achieve even better results.”


Launch of Rhino CNC Controller

CNC Clear Cut have recently launched their latest mechanised plasma cutting machine. Dubbed the Rhino, the machine fits into the Standard segment of the company’s range but comes with a new and improved CNC control and plate alignment and up to 25% faster cut time as compared to the older controls.


“We don’t normally give our machines a name but we think the Rhino is very appropriate and fits the profile of the machine.”


“We have developed the controller in conjunction with Beckhoff Automation and as such has a Beckhoff back end. It has taken us over a year to develop. We believe the defining feature of this new control is that it has been developed by one of our design engineers who understands our machines. Together with a South African from Beckhoff, who understands CNC, they have produced an advanced controller that is unique to us.”


Hypertherm’s new XPR300

“We are not scared to try and stand out from the rest. When Hypertherm informed us that they were going to launch their XPR300, which is based on what Hypertherm calls X-Definition™ cutting and is the most recent advancement in plasma cutting technology, we geared to accommodate the launch of the new system. As a result we were one of the first in the world to manufacture a machine incorporating the new technology.”


“We have seen how the system offers ‘unmatched cut quality’ on mild steel, stainless steel and aluminium, increased cut speed, dramatically improved productivity as well as a 50% operating cost reduction.”


“It is too soon to reveal what our next development will be. If a client requires tighter tolerances and more productivity from our machine we will come up with a solution.”


“Whether you are in metal art, gate, fence, railing and staircase manufacture, frames, posts, furniture, cabinet, letter cutting, faceplate and logo design and manufacture, in the shipbuilding, structural steel, construction, energy and mining industries or just general fabrication we have a machine for you, even one that can do 5-axis bevel cutting. Duct work, brackets, gussets, flanges and angles are just a few of the many different components that have been cut on our machines.”