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What is a CNC machine?

CNC machineA computer numerical control (CNC) machine enables machines tools to function automatically by utilising pre determined computerised programs. Early models were first developed in the 1940s and since then have become highly specialised and have enabled great leaps forward to be made in the manufacturing industries. CNC negates the need for a human to manually operate the machinery during the manufacturing process. Tools that can be controlled using CNC include grinders, lathes, mills and routers.

How does CNC work?

A CNC machine will organise the results of 2 previous computer programs to ensure that that the manufacturing of a part will meet the design specifications. In the first instance, the measurements of the part to be made are defined by CAD (computer aided design). This is then developed into manufacturing instructions by CAM (computer aided manufacturing) software. Further advanced software (called a “post processor”) is then used to provide specific commands for a machine to build a component and it is these instructions that are ultimately loaded into a CNC machine. The information uploaded into a CNC machine is called the G code. The G code will provide information to the machine part such as position, velocity and speed. Motion of the machine will be controlled along several axis, commonly left and right (x and y) and depth (z).

Common examples and uses of CNC machines

Router: One of the most common forms of CNC machines. Can machine wood, metal and plastic.

Plasma: Uses a plasma torch to cut 2 dimensional metal and wood. Most commonly used to cut steel.

Laser: Similar to a plasma but will use a laser to cut through the material. Can also cut through plastic and be used to cut 3 do dimensional shapes.

Pick and Place: Commonly used in the manufacture of mobile phones and tablets. Consists of several nozzles that will pick up electrical components and place them elsewhere.

Which industries are CNC machines most commonly used in?

Due to the versatility of CNC machines, their application is becoming more widespread. Of all the industries, it is manufacturing that receives the greatest benefit from using CNC machines. Within this industry, CNC can be used to work with a wide range of materials, including metal, plastic and wood. Some of the most common uses of CNC machines in the manufacturing industry include metal fabrication, metal removal and making components for the electrical industry. Due to its widespread application, CNC machines can be useful in both small scale companies (such as a maker of wood furniture) and multi-national industries.

Why use CNC?

CNC enables repetitive processes to be carried out both quicker and at a more precise level than manually controlled machines. Human error is reduced and parts can be manufactured at a much quicker rate. Due to the high level of precision that can be achieved with CNC machines, it can often allow the production of shapes that would be too complex for a manually operated piece of machinery.

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