what is a CNC machine

What Is a CNC Machine? The Ultimate Guide to CNC Machine Uses

October 29, 2021

What do a cell phone, Boeing 777X, prosthetic leg and topographical map of the Smoky Mountains have in common? A computer numerical control (CNC) machine was instrumental in their creation.

The CNC device is a single piece of technology with countless applications. But with technology as adaptable as this, it's essential to know its capabilities to use it to its full potential.

What follows is the ultimate CNC machine guide. In it, we'll answer the question, "What is CNC machining?" and review various CNC machine uses and types.

The Origins of the CNC Machining Process

John T. Parsons first used numerical control (NC) technology in 1949 to create helicopter blades for a research project for the Air Force. These early machines didn't use a computer, but they manually fed the punched tape used in telecommunications through a tape reader to control the machines' movements.

As digital technology rose in the decades following, computer automation replaced tape. This made the process far more precise. By CNC machining products, you can create a tighter tolerance than NC or manual processes allow. Other advantages of the CNC machining process include increased safety, productivity and efficiency.

What Is CNC Machining?

CNC machining operations are a subtractive manufacturing process, meaning portions are removed from stock material (also called a workpiece) to create an object of the desired shape.

The CNC machine process begins with CAD drawings, which provide all of the information on how a part should be created.

  1. Based on the details in the CAD file, a CNC programmer sends the instructions to the CNC machine and provides the setup operator with the list of the necessary tools.
  2. The operator sets up the machine and supplies it with enough raw material to run the parts.
  3. A machine operator monitors the CNC machining process to ensure products are manufactured to spec.

CNC machining operations can take place along multiple axes, allowing for the creation of complex parts.

CNC Machine Components

There are many CNC machine types, but they all work on the same principles. Because of that, you'll find the same CNC machine components across all applications. The primary features include:

  • An input device where you put a code into the system
  • A machine control unit (MCU) that interprets and converts the code into instructions that you can transmit to the machine
  • A drive system that takes data from the MCU, augments the signal and communicates both the speed and position of the axes to the machine
  • A machine tool that performs the action
  • A feedback system that takes in positional data to send back to the MCU to adjust the tool

Thanks to the closed-loop nature of the system, the machinery constantly gives the tool instructions and adjusts it for maximum precision.

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CNC Machine Types and Uses

Nearly any machine can be improved with CNC controls, but there are several pieces of equipment that most commonly incorporate industrial CNC machining. These include:

CNC Mills

Also known as cutting machines, mills remain one of the most common CNC machine types because of their wide range of uses. CNC milling machines can complete a broad array of functions, from cutting a cog out of a metal sheet to engraving words on a sign.

CNC Routers

A router works on the same principle as a CNC mill in that it can cut materials into a wide variety of shapes. However, where you primarily use milling machines with hard metals like steel, CNC routers work with softer materials, such as:

  • Plastic
  • Wood
  • Foam
  • Acrylic
  • Aluminum and other soft metals

CNC Lathes

While milling machines cut a piece of metal lying on a flat surface, some operations require you to rotate the piece while shaping it. This is especially true for long, thin or cylindrical materials, such as car drive shafts or baseball bats.

A CNC machine like a lathe can rotate materials at high speeds while using its feedback technology to shape the pieces at the same time.

CNC Grinders

Like lathes, CNC grinders are well suited for forming materials that are thin, long or cylindrical. But instead of rotating the workpiece, these machines hold the metal steady while the grinder components move to shape it.

CNC Drills

These machines do just what their name suggests — drill holes into materials. Because their functions mostly surround a rotating motion, CNC drills typically favor spindle drives over servo.

CNC Plasma Cutters

CNC plasma cutters shape flat pieces of metal with a plasma torch, which uses high temperatures to cut through the metal. Among the various CNC machines, they're best suited for creating two-dimensional pieces out of heavy materials like steel.

CNC Laser Cutters

Although they're similar to plasma machines, CNC laser cutters work well on materials like plastic, metals or hardwood. Because of its high accuracy, CNC laser cutting is often used to create small holes or intricate designs.

CNC EDM Machines

Electric discharge machining (EDM) uses electrical discharges or sparks to shape the material. The mold-making, die and tool industries frequently rely on this CNC machine type.


Industries That Use the CNC Machining Process

It's one thing to understand what the CNC machining process can do physically, but no guide to CNC machines and their uses is complete without recognizing real-world CNC machine uses.

1. CNC Machines in Manufacturing

Because CNC machinery creates things, it only makes sense that it's most at home in manufacturing. CNC machining operations offer several benefits to the manufacturing industry, such as:

  • Precision
  • Repeatability
  • Efficiency
  • Low cost
  • Flexibility

Flexibility is especially beneficial in manufacturing. Any factory or plant may have to create hundreds of shapes and designs using a wide range of materials. There are CNC machines available to work with almost all of them, from plastic casings to printed circuit boards. CNC machining represents a true innovation in precision manufacturing.

2. CNC Machines in Medicine

When hospitals prescribe the use of a prosthetic limb, the prosthetic must be custom designed for the patient. Prosthetists often use a CNC machine to shape the individual parts of a prosthetic limb based on measurements taken from the patient.

But prosthetics are not the only medical part that needs customization. Implants, such as hip replacements, stents or even dental veneers, require individual shaping, or medical professionals risk causing complications. CNC machines can create these implants quickly and accurately.

3. CNC Machines In The Automotive Industry

There are approximately 30,000 parts in the average car, from the engine block to the screws holding it in place. Any irregularity in any of those pieces can result in a vehicle that isn't functional or falls apart. The CNC machining process offers the reliability, accuracy and precision that automotive manufacturers need to create components for the millions of vehicles built annually.

4. CNC Machines in Aerospace

If we need accuracy to keep the cars on the road from falling apart, how much more do we need it for aircraft flying 7 miles above the earth? And given that an airplane consists of a mixture of metal and lightweight, high-performance plastics, creating parts requires precision and flexibility.

Aerospace is one industry in which you can utilize almost every CNC machine type: milling machines for the metal components, routers for the plastic parts, lathes for pistons and drive shafts, and drills to keep different elements together.

5. CNC Machines and Home Decor

After building cars, planes and prosthetics, it can seem almost silly to use CNC machining operations for something like home decor. But CNC machines can engrave nearly any design on a wide range of materials, so they're well-suited to create a broad array of decorative items, such as:

  • Signs
  • Sculptures
  • Woodwork
  • Doorposts
  • Light fixtures

Purchase Your CNC Machining Components from Industrial Automation Co.

A CNC machine is truly a marvel in our modern world. At Industrial Automation Co., we want to ensure your machinery works at full capacity, whether you're making anything from airplanes to cell phones. Our collection of industrial electronics parts is sure to have the CNC machining components you need. Start shopping today.

CNC machine uses