If you’re into woodworking or metalsmithing, you’ve probably heard of CNC machines. You may be wondering whether it’s time to hop on the bandwagon and invest in one for your shop. Whether you’re a hobbyist or a small business owner, a CNC machine can transform your operations by improving productivity and accuracy.
What Does CNC Stand For?
CNC stands for “computer numerical control.” CNC machines help automate or streamline the manufacturing process. These machines are controlled by pre-programmed software. Coding controls the movement of the cutting tools.
New and modern CNC machines are highly automated. The part’s dimensions are defined using CAD software, and those drawings are converted into a programming language called G-Code using CAM software.
When Was CNC First Introduced?
CNC machines use a machining technique that dates back to the 18th century. The first “turning machine” was created in 1751, and this machine was part of the spark that ignited industrialization.
It wasn’t until the Cold War that automation was introduced. The Navy commissioned Parsons Works to increase the production of helicopter blades. Parsons began motorizing the axes that made the blades.
Parsons would eventually team up with IBM to start controlling the machines using a computer. And so, the idea of CNC machining was born.
In the early 1950s, Richard Kegg worked with MIT to create the first CNC milling machine. In 1958, Kegg applied for a patent for a “Motor Controlled Apparatus for Positioning Machine Tool.”
This patent marked the start of the commercialization of CNC machines and led to the models we have today.
What Can a CNC Machine Do?
CNC machines can create a number of things and are used in a wide range of industries. A variety of models are available and new technologies have made these machines more accessible to hobbyists and small businesses.
Some of the most common items created with CNC machines include:
- Wooden chairs, signs and home decor
- Metal plaques, decorations or ornaments
- Auto parts
- Aviation parts
- Aerospace parts
- Plastic parts
The possibilities are virtually unlimited.
The precision offered by CNC machines means that they can be used for virtually any project where wood or metal is involved. But some CNC machines can also work with other materials, like plastic and foam. You have to remember to use the right bit for each material and share some between other machines (router for example).
If you’re interested in the mechanics of a CNC machine, I wrote about how a CNC machine works.
What is CNC Programming?
You know that CNC machines are controlled by pre-programmed software. CNC programming is how the machine receives its directions from the software.
Those skilled in CNC programming write code, or instructions, for CNC machines. The machine then uses the code to cut and shape the material with precision to bring your design to life.
CNC programmers evaluate specifications for parts and make calculations based on several factors:
- The materials used
- Feed speeds
- Placement of fabrications and holes
Programmers then take that information and convert it into code that the CNC machine can use to produce the specified part.
CNC programmers often go through specialized training through apprenticeship programs to learn and hone their craft. However, it is possible to learn how to program on your own by taking a private course or using a book. I got over all options to lean CNC in a guide.
Today, there are “wizards” or software programs that make it easy to learn CNC programming and get started with minimal or no experience. In other words, you don’t have to be a tech whiz to operate a CNC machine.
Are CNC Machines Expensive?
They can be, but there are so many options today that CNC machines are more accessible than ever.
Industrial-level CNC machines are expensive. Some models can cost $500,000 or more. Machines designed for small businesses and hobbyists are far more affordable. Prices vary greatly depending on the type of CNC machine and other factors, but professional can snag a machine for $10,000 or less. Hobbyists can find a machine that suits their needs for just a few thousand dollars.
I listed all you need to get started with CNC.
Speed, power and size are three of the main factors that will determine the cost of the machine.
Like with anything else, the more features and the more advanced the machine, the higher the cost. But you don’t necessarily have to break the bank just to get into CNC machining. You can start with a smaller and more basic machine, and upgrade to a larger and more complex machine (if necessary) once your business or hobby grows.
What are the Benefits of CNC Machines?
You know that CNC machines are actually pretty affordable and that they can create a wide range of things. But what are the benefits of adding one to your shop? Why should you invest in a CNC machine?
Consistency and Accuracy
One of the main benefits of using a CNC machine over its manual counterpart is the consistency and accuracy that it offers.
CNC machine movements and cuts are controlled by computer software, which makes them highly precise and consistent. Manual machining simply cannot compare to the level of consistency and accuracy that a CNC machine can provide. The machine will carry out the process the same way every time, so there’s no need to worry about inconsistencies that can affect the quality of your parts.
CNC machines are controlled by computers. The movements and cuts are automated, which saves you time and increased productivity. Unlike humans, machines don’t get tired.
While they do require maintenance and care, a CNC machine will likely boost your productivity significantly.
Another great advantage of a CNC machine is safety. Manual machining can be very dangerous due to the hands-on nature of the process.
With a CNC machine, there’s no need to be near the machine or its moving parts. You can sit safely at a desk while the machine does the hard work for you.
Whether you’re a hobbyist or a small business owner, a CNC machine can expand your capabilities. The precision of these machines and the automated nature allows you to produce parts and products that may not have been possible with a manual machine.
CNC machines are a great addition to any shop. With so many types, sizes and features available, you’re sure to find one that meets your needs and budget.