If you are working on a project and are wondering “what does a CNC machine do compared to other metalworking processes,” we are here to help you understand. The difference is important to know before you begin the design of your component. 

CNC stands for computer numerical control. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a system used in manufacturing, in which computers operate the tools and machines.” These highly efficient machines are used globally in manufacturing, and the demand is expected to reach 2.8 million units in 2030. 

Today’s CNC machines are advanced multi-axis systems that use a subtractive manufacturing technology to remove material from the workpiece. This differs from additive technology, like 3D printing, or formative technology, like molding. 

A Short History of CNC Machines

People have been using machines to make work easier for centuries. For example, the first lathe is traced back to 1300 BC in ancient Egypt. CNC machines evolved from numeric control (NC), which used punch cards and then tapes. In the 1940s, John Parson used a coordinate position system to perform a machining operation with the help of a punch card, allowing it to move in small increments to generate the desired finish. This led to the development of NC-controlled machines. With NC-controlled machines, the tape had to be remade every time a program changed. In the late 1960s, the idea of computer-controlled machining began to circulate, adding the “C” to NC. CNC technology advanced in the 1970s as computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided machining (CAM) made significant advancements. By 1989 CNC machines were industry standard.

How CNC Machines Work

CNC machining creates parts by removing material from a solid block or sheet of metal, called the blank or workpiece. 

A CNC machine produces highly accurate parts directly from a CAD file. In simple terms, an engineer creates the CAD or CAM file, the file is turned into a CNC program, and the CNC machine executes the program, creating the part. There are countless CNC machines available that serve various functions and may have from 2- to 6-axis movements, allowing some machines to machine highly complex geometries. A 2-axis machine operates on the X and Y plane; a 3-axis adds the Z plane. 4-axis adds a rotational plane around the X-axis, known as the A-axis. 5 and 6 axes add rotational planes around the Y and Z axes, called the B- and C axes, respectively. 

Types of CNC Machines

Some of the most common CNC machines are:

Lathe – A CNC lathe rotates the workpiece against the cutting tools to make a shape. The rotating motion of the workpiece makes this process ideal for symmetrical objects like spheres, cylinders, or cones. They also create features such as drill holes, bores, and threads.

Mill – A mill is similar to a lathe, but the cutting tools rotate around the workpiece. A five-axis mill can create very complex shapes. Tapping, drilling, turning, and face and shoulder milling are common functions performed by a CNC mill. 

Router – CNC routers feature a 3-axis spindle. A router operates at a higher speed than a mill but is primarily used to cut softer materials. A router’s work envelope size can be quite large and often not enclosed.   

CNC Waterjet – Water cutters use a high-pressure stream of water to cut through the metal, providing a high level of accuracy and an excellent surface finish since there are no heat-effected edges. CNC waterjets are typically used to cut sheet metal.  

Look to the Professionals for Your CNC Needs

When you need CNC machining, turn to Cameron manufacturing and design. We offer CNC machining, turning, milling, and water jet cutting. From thorough planning to on-time project execution, we keep cost, quality, and time under control. 

In addition to machining, we offer metal fabrication, engineering, welding, and installation services, making us a preferred metal fabricator for many across a wide range of industries.  

Contact us today to learn more about our services or request a quote.