It should go without saying, but it’s impossible to open a locksmithing business without a key-cutting machine. This, of course, has been true for decades. A customer wants a duplicate key: You locate the correct blank, pop the blank into the machine and, in a few minutes, you — and more important, your customer — are good to go.
Yet even as electronics continue to move into the security space — and, therefore, locksmithing — the value of a key-cutting machine remains.
“No matter what, there will always be a physical key,” says Frank Wen, who distributes XHorse products in the United States. “We’re moving to keyless operation through cellphones, fingerprints and even facial recognition. But we still have to have a code key for emergency purposes.”
And customers still want duplicates to replace the inevitable misplacement or to hand out to employees, service providers or family members. However, the increased demand for higher levels of security brought about a radical change in key technology through the years.
The result is that key-cutting machines that performed excellently for decades no longer could cut it (ahem). That isn’t to say that they no longer perform adequately — they certainly do — but long gone are the days where a locksmith needed to worry only about making duplicates of standard edge-cut keys.
Now, the market includes laser-cut (sidewinder) keys, angle-cut keys, dimple keys, Tibbe keys, tubular keys and cruciform keys, among others, for a multitude of applications. Based on conversations with industry experts, we estimate that more than 100,000 models of keys exist from original equipment manufacturers alone!
“A customer comes in and wants a key,” says Marty Jalove, vice president of sales and marketing at Hudson Lock. “A locksmith, his job is to cut those keys, and if he can’t cut them, he loses that business.
“And think of the customer,” he continues. “If the locksmith can’t help him, where’s he going to go?”
Fortunately, a locksmith doesn’t have to have yards of open counter space to handle a dedicated key-cutting machine for each type of key, as he might have previously. Several manufacturers now provide electronic key-cutting machines that handle multiple key types, most frequently through the use of interchangeable jaw assemblies that hold different styles of key to the cutter.
But being able to cut the key is merely the beginning. Today’s electronic key-cutting machines also are smart.
They not only operate — and, in some cases, calibrate — automatically, but they also come with extensive code databases that you access through a dedicated tablet computer or a mobile app. You just find the right code and punch in the number on the tablet’s touchscreen or app, and the machine does the rest.
With some models, you don’t even have to find the code. The key-cutting machine will allow you to place a key in the machine, and the machine will measure and decode the key’s depth and spacing before it cuts a replacement — again, all automatically. You either can cut an exact duplicate or you can have the key-cutting machine determine the appropriate factory measurements if the original key shows wear from years of use.
The software allows you to store key cuts, and it makes developing and cutting a masterkey system a snap. Plus, it means that your electronic key-cutting machine won’t become obsolete as new technology comes out, because manufacturers can update the operating software and the key-code databases frequently. New key types would require only a new jaw assembly.
All you have to do is download the software from the internet on to your computer, copy it on to a thumb drive (in the case of a dedicated, attached touchscreen tablet) and plug the drive into a port on the machine. With app-based operation, it’s as easy as downloading the update to your mobile device and pairing the device with the key-cutting machine through wireless (Bluetooth) connectivity.
Today’s electronic key-cutting machines also have some nifty features, such as LED lighting to illuminate the cutting area and cutting trays for easy cleanup. We particularly like the hoods that most electronic key-cutting machines have, because the hood provides safety not only in preventing shards and fumes from escaping, but also by preventing cutting from taking place until it’s lowered. (A hood also cuts down on the roar of the cutter slicing through the key.)
One of the most compelling features is the capability to engrave through an optional jaw assembly. Engraving allows the locksmith to engrave a key with, say, a corporate name or the name of the locksmith’s business. Engraving is valuable for masterkey systems. In addition, this can be a good marketing tool for the locksmith that lasts far longer than a business card, flier or refrigerator magnet.
Of course, as with any product, the more complicated that key-cutting machines became, the higher the price that they carried, and today’s electronic key-cutting machines have prices in the thousands of dollars.
Here’s a roundup of electronic key-cutting machines on the marketplace, although this is by no means complete. Keep in mind that manufacturers have multiple models — often with different applications and features (and prices). In several cases, we chose to focus on the top-line model. Shop around and ask your distributor which model is right for your business to get the most bang for your buck.
HPC/Hudson Lock has three electronic key-cutting machines. At the top of its lineup is the TigerSHARK2, which is the third generation of the company’s top-of-the-line model.
The TigerSHARK2 comes close to being a one-size-fits-all solution for locksmiths. In addition to residential and commercial flat keys and double-side laser-cut automotive keys, the TigerSHARK2 can decode or duplicate dimple, tubular and Tibbe keys by swapping out jaw assemblies.
The TigerSHARK2 even makes angle cuts for Medeco-brand keys, thanks to the machine’s rotating cutter head. The cutting head (patent pending) rotates up to 20 degrees to the left or right to decode and then cut a key. (Some of the TigerSHARK2’s assemblies, such as the Medeco key assembly, are optional and, thus, have an additional price.)
As of press time, HPC/Hudson Lock was working on adding the capability to cut safe-deposit-box keys to the TigerSHARK2. We’re told that this is simply a matter of updating the machine’s software and extensive database of key codes, something that HPC/Hudson Lock does frequently — typically with help from locksmiths in the field.
“If a locksmith tells us, ‘Hey we can’t cut this key,’ we go back to the manufacturers,” Jalove says. “Then, it’s just a regular software update download via the internet.”
The software also allows you to store key information in the machine’s database that you can tie directly to the customer, and the 10-inch touchscreen tablet that you use to operate the machine can be attached to a flexible arm that allows you to move the tablet to just about any position.
The TigerSHARK2 has engraving capability through an optional jaw assembly and includes a library of copyright-free art in its database that you can use. It also will let you create your own designer keys.
- Cutter speed: NA
- Dimensions: 14 in. (w) x 17 in. (d) x 15 in. (h)
- Weight: 64.5 lbs.
- Warranty: 2 years
More info: www.hudsonlock.com
Ilco Futura Pro
Part of a four-model series, the Futura Pro has two distinct cutting stations to decode and duplicate a wide variety of key forms. One station handles edge-cut and cruciform keys; the other tackles laser-cut and dimple keys through interchangeable clamp jaws. Additional accessories for the laser-cut station allow the Futura Pro to cut tubular and Tibbe keys, as well as engrave customers’ keys.
A removable 10-inch touchscreen tablet on the Futura Pro provides access to an extensive range of key codes as well as step-by-step instructions through the cutting process. (We also like that Ilco provides technical support Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.) You can cut duplicates or check and correct the cut of a well-worn key that the machine decodes.
Operating software and database codes are updated quarterly, according to William French, product manager for Ilco key-cutting machines.
One particularly helpful software feature is an improved shortcut function that allows you to call up the correct key manufacturer by entering only a few letters of the manufacturer’s name. Ilco also throws in a USB thumb drive that you can use to transport software updates downloaded from your computer — a nice bonus.
The Futura Pro has a protective shield that slides into the body of the key-cutting machine (think: the visor on an astronaut’s helmet). A built-in accessory tray for tools or keys is part of the hood. Finally, LED lights indicate the machine’s progress, changing from white for ready, to yellow for cutting and green for complete.
- Cutter speed: 1,585 rpm edge; 12,100 rpm laser
- Dimensions: 12-33/64 in. (w) x 16-31/64 in. (d) x 20-1/2 in. (h); 13-3/8 in. (h) without tablet
- Weight: 44.0 lbs.
- Warranty: 2 years
More info: www.ilco.us
JMA has three models of electronic key cutter in its Multicode lineup, but the original — the one that bears just the Multicode name — is the Spanish company’s top-of-the-line model.
Although the Multicode has been out for a few years around the globe, a recent update has made it ready for prime time in the United States, according to Eduardo Urbieta, general manager of Altuna Group, which oversees JMA.
“What we wanted was to make the software more compatible with the way locksmiths use key vocabulary in the United States,” Urbieta says.
That’s because JMA uses its own software for its key-code database, as well as its machine. Urbieta says JMA updates its software every week, and its database now contains the codes for 75,000 keys of all types, including tubular, Tibbe and cruciform models. These are cut by using included or optional jaws and accessories.
The Multicode includes a 7-inch touchscreen tablet made by well-known computer brand Lenovo, but Urbieta says that if the tablet breaks, you don’t have to go to JMA for a replacement. That’s because the JMAKeyPro software that runs everything is available as a mobile app. Simply download the app from the Google Play store onto any Android based tablet, and you still can operate the key-cutting machine. (In other words, it won’t work if you have an Apple iPad.)
Urbieta adds that although you could run the Multicode through the app on your Android smartphone, he wouldn’t recommend it because of the smaller size of a smartphone’s screen.
The Multicode also includes a metal-shavings tray and a tool holder.
- Cutter speed: 1,100 rpm edge; 12,000 rpm laser
- Dimensions: 16-13/16 in. (w) x 16-17/64 in. (d) x 24-7/64 in. (h); 16-31/32 in. (h) without tablet
- Weight: 59.5 lbs.
- Warranty: 3 years
More info: www.jmausa.com
Keyline Gymkana 994
There’s no denying that automotive work is profitable for locksmiths. As a result, an increase of electronic key-cutting machines have been aimed at locksmiths who spend a lot of time out of the shop. Keyline USA, which has five electronic key-cutting machines, offers the Gymkana 994 for automotive-heavy locksmiths.
The Gymkana 994’s self-aligning universal clamp allows you to cut by code or decode most edge-cut and laser-cut keys without having to swap out jaw assemblies, and it doesn’t require a tip stop or an adapter, which helps to simplify the cutting process, according to Giulio Bianchi, Keyline USA’s sales manager. A dedicated Volkswagen clamp allows you to handle even newer four-side keys, and Keyline also has optional clamps for Tibbe keys and Simplex keys.
Locksmiths operate the Gymkana 994 in one of two ways: In so-called stand-alone mode, you use the Liger operating system software on the key-cutting machine’s 7-inch touchscreen tablet, which can be mounted. In mobile mode, you operate the machine through the Keyline Duplicating Tool app on your Google Android smartphone or tablet via the key-cutting machine’s Bluetooth connection. (Again, no Apple devices.) Bianchi says Keyline updates its software roughly 10 times per year, which allows Keyline to make operation more efficient or add advanced features (and update the key-code database). Technical assistance is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m EST weekdays.
The Gymkana 994 includes LED lighting to illuminate the cutting area, and a slide-down shield helps to prevent shards from spraying out and makes cleanup easy.
- Cutter speed: 3,000–8,000 rpm
- Dimensions: 11-51/64 in. (w) x 17-19/64 in. (d) x 15-3/16 in. (h); 12-3/16 in. (h) without tablet
- Weight: 40.2 lbs.
- Warranty: 2 years
More info: www.keyline-usa.com
Laser Key Products 3D Elite
Part of a two-model lineup, the 3D Elite cuts by code and decodes edge-cut and laser-cut keys, as well as tubular and Tibbe keys (and some dimple keys) through optional accessories. The 3D Elite even will cut slotted keys for safe-deposit boxes. The capability to engrave keys and cylinders is another optional add-on.
A direct-drive brushless motor powers the 3D Elite, so you don’t have to worry about replacing belts that can wear out. Instead, Laser Key Products puts the brush on an integrated wheel to allow you to clean dirty, worn keys before duplicating or to buff out rough edges after a new key is finished.
The 3D Elite is operated by a mountable 10-inch touchscreen tablet through a USB connection, and you can decode keys through Laser Key’s software (which also provides automatic calibration), or you can access key codes through Genericode. Genericode is a subscription database provided by partner Framon Manufacturing, and the software is updated regularly, according to Phil Agius, vice president of sales for Framon. Locksmiths are alerted when an update is available.
The 3D Elite has several features that make it suited to field work, including built-in handles for carrying and the optional capability to run through a direct, cabled connection to a 12-volt vehicle battery (in the back of your truck). Rich Kuebler, CEO of Laser Key Products, says that capability can be retrofit but that it would be better to have it built into the machine at the time of purchase.
The 3D Elite includes a shield that fully encloses the work area, a chip tray and a plug-in USB light to illuminate the cutting area. Built-in lights indicate the machine’s power, operating status and connectivity.
- Cutter speed: up to 7,000 rpm
- Dimensions: 12 in. (w) x 16 in. (d) x 19 in. (h)
- Weight: 42.0 lbs.
- Warranty: 2 years
More info: www.laserkeyproducts.com.
XHorse Dolphin XP-005
The Dolphin XP-005, which is the newest model in the Chinese manufacturer’s Condor line of electronic key-cutting machines, is aimed particularly at the automotive locksmith. It will decode and cut a wide assortment of automotive keys, include dimple keys. Through the use of optional clamps, it also will decode and cut Tibbe, flat household and cruciform keys.
However, the Dolphin XP-005 is geared for use away from the shop. In addition to an attached carrying handle, it includes a lithium battery for maximum portability. Wen tells us that the Dolphin XP-005 can cut up to 20 blanks on a single battery charge. The battery is recharged when you plug in the key-cutting machine’s AC adapter, and Wen says going from empty to full takes 3–5 hours.
Another feature that speaks to portability: The Dolphin XP-005 has no included tablet or touchscreen for operations (although we’re told one is coming). Instead, all facets of the machine are controlled through your mobile device via XHorse’s self-titled app, which is available for Apple iPhones and iPads as well as Google Android devices. You connect the device through Bluetooth connectivity on the machine, and Wen says XHorse will send download reminders of software and database updates, which typically happen every two months.
We haven’t tested a newer feature of the Dolphin XP-005, but it’s worth mentioning: The key cutting machine can cut a key merely from an image. Here’s how it works, according to Wen: You take an image of the key on your device, which connects with XHorse’s server via the app. The server reads the key and sends the proper code to the machine, which then cuts the key. Wen says XHorse is working on adding auto-correct functionality, so the key code automatically will correct for wear based on the image.
- Cutter speed: 12,000 rpm
- Dimensions: 8-19/32 in. (w) x 10-41/64 in. (d) x 12-25/64 in. (h)
- Weight: 33.1 lbs.
- Warranty: 1 year