CNC Machines – Evolution, Not Revolution

Martin Price, Operations Director at the Engineering Technology Group, explores the evolution of CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining and technology. He explains that whilst some of the founding principles remain the same, the future now lies in a desire to be ‘connected’.

The CNC machine shop floor of the 21st century is a far-removed environment from 15 years ago. It is even more different from the CNC machine shops that had just emerged in the days of World War II.

Rows and rows of CNC machinery and automation now stand across the remarkably clean floors of our production facilities. Our machinery reminds us of where the CNC manufacturing industry came from. But, more importantly, it also reminds us of where the industry is heading.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has experienced a steady rise lately, granting us effortless access to real-time data. It’s becoming clear to all of us that data is king.

However, while the state-of-the-art exteriors of the Nakamuras, the Quasers, the Hardinge, Bridgeports and Chiron Group machines reflect modern-day life, some of the cornerstone technology behind CNC machines remains unchanged.

Despite the emergence of futuristic technologies and the adoption of Just-in-Time principles, CNC machines remain unchanged.

From the bare-bone concepts of the early days to the advanced systems of today, all automated, motion-control CNC machines require three primary components:

  • A command function
  • A drive/motion system
  • A feedback system

 

The Evolution of Manufacturing CNC Machines

Back then, in the 1940s, I wonder whether or not John T. Parsons expected the founding principles of his invention, numerical machine tool controls (NC), to have such a profound effect on modern-day manufacturing.

Numerical machine tool controls are the forerunner of today’s CNC machines.

As Parsons has since explained, when he was brainstorming solutions for aircraft parts, necessity was the mother of his invention.

This breakthrough innovation led to the birth of CNC machining, transforming the manufacturing industry by enabling precise, repeatable, and automated processes.

In essence, efficient metal cutting is valuable across all sectors. We produce and supply these machines to various industries, including aerospace, electronics, nuclear, healthcare, and medical.

Over the past twenty years, there have been many changes and advancements. The 1970s were significant for the introduction of CAD/CAM and CNC machines. Since then, digital technology has become prevalent. In recent years, automation has improved production processes, enabling faster and more efficient manufacturing of complex components.

However, this story is only just beginning

CNC Manufacturing Today 

Smart machining, connected factories, additive manufacturing, and ‘lights-out’ operations used to be buzzwords of the past. Now they are playing out their true meaning in companies of all sizes.

The world and our manufacturing plants are now digitally transformed, with complex CNC machine tools constantly connected to automation. Many machines integrate MRP systems and measurement probes. Our partnership with Blum-Novotest is a prime example of this.

Interconnecting multiple CNC machines brings challenges, including communication breakdowns. These disruptions are costly, halting production, compromising quality and eliminating spare capacity.

The solution lies in closer collaboration among software providers, machine tool builders, and robot suppliers. Strong relationships allow proactive issue resolution, avoiding setbacks in the manufacturing process.

These partnerships will offer sub-contractors reliable integrated solutions, eliminating the need for ‘pick and mix’. This is crucial as CNC machine purchasers often struggle to piece together the perfect package.

4 Main Types of CNC Machines

CNC Milling Machines:

  • CNC milling machines use rotating cutting tools to remove material from the workpiece, creating flat surfaces, slots, and complex geometries. Those machines are ideal for producing prismatic parts, moulds, and prototypes in metalworking and other industries. They can also deliver 3-axis and multi-axis machining, enabling versatility and high precision.

 

CNC Turning Machines:

  • CNC lathes or turning machines rotate the workpiece while the cutting tool remains stationary to remove material and shape cylindrical parts. This type of CNC machining is used to create symmetrical parts like shafts, pins, and threaded components, they are also a very efficient type for mass production of cylindrical parts, reducing cycle times and waste.

 

CNC Laser Cutting Machines:

  • CNC laser cutters use a focused laser beam to melt or vaporise material, producing clean and precise cuts. These machines are commonly used for intricate cutting of sheet metal, plastics, and other materials, boasting high accuracy, minimal material wastage, and the ability to cut complex shapes.

 

CNC Routers:

  • CNC routers use rotating cutting tools to remove material from the workpiece like CNC milling machines, but they are typically used for softer materials like wood, plastic, and composites. These machines are widely used in woodworking, sign-making, and prototyping industries for cutting and engraving 2D and 3D designs. CNC Routers are versatile for creative and artistic applications, perfect for curved and irregular surfaces.

Our 5-Axis CNC Machines

Lately, there has also been a higher demand for 5-axis CNC machines.

A 5-Axis CNC machine is a machine which can move a part or cutting tool along five different axes simultaneously, enabling the machining of complex parts, as often seen in aerospace and F1. 5-axis CNC machines can also create parts in the automotive industry, where car designs are becoming more diverse and advanced.

There are other factors driving the CNC machine purchasing trend, including:

  • Single set-up machining
  • Improved tool life
  • Increased cycle times though achieving optimum cutting positions

From conversing with our Regional Sales Managers, we noted another anecdotal trend:

We discovered that over the last few years, machined part suppliers are searching for reduced set-up times, so they can complete jobs quicker and meet customer demand.

Speed is one element. However, there is also an increasing number of part design changes which need to be accommodated in CNC machines. Thankfully, controls for CNC machines have improved to meet this desire.

Modern CNC machines have advanced computing capabilities similar to the latest personal computers (PCs). PCs have become an essential part of CNC machines, improving their performance and functionality.

CNC software has also progressed alongside hardware, allowing for effective handling of complex future CNC machines.

The ongoing evolution and optimization of both hardware and software are propelling the industry forward, enabling manufacturers to meet the growing demands for precision, efficiency, and adaptability in today’s rapidly changing landscape.

CNC Machines in the Future

Advanced CNC technology can help a business remain competitive and win new products. Furthermore, advanced CNC machinery reduces costs and work with an ever-increasing arsenal of materials. We have proven this in one of our recent case studies.

However, progress will not stop there. Machine builders are continually challenging the status quo of performance. The Industry 4.0 movement is helping to push these boundaries. Smarter, more connected, data-driven machines are inevitable.

CNC machines are learning on their own and will gradually require less human interaction and dependency.

Manufacturers will be able to achieve greater insight into their CNC machines and processes. This will, in turn, provide opportunities for them to plan more effective maintenance, reduce material waste and achieve better quality.

There will no longer be a need for ‘trial on error’ on parts, as design softwares to process 3D models of parts.

CNC machining is here to stay and will continue to be a bedrock of the manufacturing world. The CNC machines will just be progressively sleeker, smarter, faster and more likely to talk to each other.

If you have any queries related to CNC machines or software, feel free to contact us.

Find out more about the advantages of CNC machines in this article. 

Sectors

CNC Machines for Aerospace

In aerospace, CNC machining has revolutionised the production of complex components, enabling intricate designs and reducing weight while maintaining structural integrity.

Find out more here. 

 

CNC Machines for Automotive

The automotive industry has witnessed a surge in efficiency and precision, as CNC machines have streamlined the manufacturing of engine parts, chassis components, and intricate car body designs.

Find out more here. 

 

CNC Machines for Motorsport

CNC machining has been a game-changer in the motorsport industry, leading to lighter and more aerodynamically efficient race cars. CNC technology has also allowed teams to rapidly prototype and test new designs, giving them a competitive edge in the fast-paced world of motorsport.

Find out more here. 

 

CNC Machines for Defence

The defence industry heavily relies on CNC machines to manufacture critical components in military equipment, vehicles, and weaponry. CNC technology facilitates the production of complex components for advanced military aircraft, naval vessels, and ground vehicles, enhancing their capabilities.

Find out more here. 

 

CNC Machines for Education 

CNC machines have transformed education by providing hands-on training in advanced manufacturing and engineering. Educational institutions now use CNC equipment to teach students vital skills in programming, CAD/CAM (Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing), and machining.

Find out more here. 

 

CNC Machines for Medical 

CNC technology has empowered the creation of customised implants and prosthetics, enhancing patient outcomes and recovery. It also enables the quick production of essential medical tools and components, to exact standards, whenever needed.

Find out more here. 

 

CNC Machines for Construction

CNC machines are used to fabricate precast concrete elements with precise shapes and sizes, streamlining the assembly of complex structures. Additionally, CNC routers are employed to cut, carve, and engrave materials used in interior and exterior design, leading to stunning architectural features and detailed finishes.-

Find out more here. 

Frequently Asked Question 

 

How do CNC machines work?

CNC machining is a manufacturing process that shapes materials by removing material from a workpiece. It involves designing the part with CAD software, generating toolpaths with CAM software, setting up the workpiece, and using a CNC machine to cut the material with precision and automation.

CNC Machining, typically follows these steps:

  • Design: A digital design of the desired part is made using CAD software.
  • Programming: CAM Software generates toolpaths and instructions (G-code).
  • Setup: The workpiece is mounted on the CNC machine’s worktable.
  • Tool Selection: The appropriate cutting tool is chosen for the design and material.
  • CNC Machine Operation: The G-programme is loaded into the machine, ready for cutting.
  • Automated Machining: The CNC machine automatically performs the cutting process, adjusting speed and orientation.
  • Quality Control: Sensors monitor the process to ensure precision and detect issues.

When completed, the finished part is removed from the machine. The process ensures high accuracy and is used to create a wide range of products and components in different industries.

 

Which CNC machine should I buy?

When selecting a CNC machine for your business or project, you need to consider several key factors:

  • Identify Your Needs: Determine the specific tasks you need the CNC machine to perform. Consider the materials you’ll work with, the design complexity, and the required production volume.
  • Type of CNC Machine: Choose the type of CNC machine that suits your needs. Contact us to discuss your requirements and our experts will help you make an informed decision.
  • Machine Size and Capacity: Ensure the CNC machine can accommodate the size of your workpieces. Evaluate its load-bearing capacity and spindle power for efficient operations.
  • Accuracy and Precision: Check the machine’s accuracy and repeatability ratings, as this will directly impact the quality of your finished products.
  • Software Compatibility: Ensure the CNC machine is compatible with your preferred CAD/CAM software, as seamless integration simplifies the programming process.
  • Budget Considerations: Set a budget and explore machines that offer the best value for your investment. Balance the machine’s capabilities with its cost.
  • Customer Support and Training: Check the manufacturer’s reputation for customer support, training, and after-sales service. Proper training is essential for maximising the machine’s potential.

At ETG, we provide industry-leading operator and programming courses for our CNC machines.

Furthermore, we provide CNC maintenance and software support for all our CNC machines.

Introducing the new ETG Machine Tool Configurator (Box-Out)

ETG’s custom-built CNC Machine Tool Configurator echoes our complete equipment offering, including the latest models from Bavius, Chiron,  Hardinge Bridgeport,

Nakamura, Quaser and Stama, not to mention Halter Automation Solutions and software suppliers Camplete, Cimco and Mastercam.

This is a new way of ‘purchasing’ and enables clients to easily configure machines to their desired specifications online, whilst browsing the wide array of turnkey solutions available.

Other benefits of this new approach:

  • Quotation time reduced from six weeks to just fifteen minutes
  • Easy-to-print quotation document (PDF) automatically generated
  • Simple navigation through a huge range of specifications and accessories
  • Advantages using certain machines/manufacturers clearly outlined
  • Engineering training courses built into the configurator

Our CNC Machines Tool Associates include:

Chiron, Nakamura-Tome, Bridgeport Hardinge, Quaser, Stama, Bavius and Pietro Carnaghi.