CNC machines are the electro-mechanical devices that manipulate machine shop tools using computer programming inputs.
Many people wonder whether the CNC machining industry grows with the times.
Others say, wait a minute; What the heck is CNC Machining?
In this article, I want us to have a little fun with what this technology is, and the cool technologies that are emerging of late.
Let’s dive right in;
Some Basic Facts About CNC Machining
Machine automation has been with us for centuries.
It is through automation that man has been able to create complex equipment, tools and machines through intricate cutting, milling, molding, printing, engraving and marking techniques for all sorts of industries.
According to the Metalworking World Magazine, the CNC Machine global market will hit the $93.45 billion mark by 2024.
Innovations in this field have brought various technologies that together combine to increase functionality, while also aiming at reducing installation, operation and maintenance costs.
What this article is all about
In here, we will see the different types of CNC machining methods, have a feel of the market, and outline five recent amazing technologies we have discovered in the field.
The current innovations we will talk about make this complex industry not just about creating even more complex machines like ships, planes and vehicles, but also about improving our daily lives through beauty and art.
The main factor driving the growing adoption of CNC machines in almost every facet of human life is their capability of reducing human errors and producing elements efficiently, reproducibly and sustainably.
Short history of CNC Machining
The first numerical control machines were built in the periods before and after the second world war.
They were improvements of the existing tools that used motors to move the controls and follow points fed into the machining system on punched tape.
These early mechanisms were soon improved with computers, creating the modern CNC machine tools that are now ever evolving in thousands of use cases.
Traditional CNC Machining Techniques
This industry has been around for a long time. Traditional methods included the following processes;
Milling has a lot of similarities to drilling, but is more complex. This is because a CNC Milling machine is capable of cutting and drilling in different directions according to production needs.
These machines use a cylindrical cutting tool that can be programmed to rotate in various directions, across multiple axes, producing such.
Milling has evolved to enable the production of complex rotating components for engines, often creating a complex integrated part that used to be an assembly of hundreds of pieces on an engine, e.g. the manufacture of gas turbine blisks.
CNC lathes cut work pieces while they are rotated.
The machines make fast, high precision cuts, using computer guided tools to produce complicated designs that are impossible with manual lathes.
Multi Spindle Machines
This is the type of screw machine used in mass production of parts. It has high efficiency as a result of automation of processes, and can cut materials into small parts while simultaneously using diversified tooling to achieve amazing results.
The spindles are mounted on a drum that rotates in a vertical axis, containing a drill head bearing various types of spindles that are mounted on ball bearings and driven by gears.
The tools on the drill heads can either be fixed or rotating depending on the requirement of the machining operation.
10 Emerging Technologies in CNC Machining
As earlier indicated, CNC machinery is very important across many industries, and it is developing rapidly.
Some of the technologies that have emerged recently are a must-have for users and manufacturers alike in some industries.
It is therefore important to highlight some of them in order to demonstrate how they are impacting the fourth industrial revolution.
Here are some quick checkpoints of some well advanced modern applications;
1. Plasma cutting
A plasma cutter can be an amazing addition to your toolbox especially if you are in plumbing or refrigeration.
Not only do these machines reduce the strain of cutting through metal, but they reduce the cutting time with very little heat affected zones, giving your fittings a great finish.
These Machines are mainly cutters, executing a cutting operation by means of a plasma cutting torch.
The process involves the blowing of gas (e.g. compressed air) at very high velocity and pressure through a nozzle; and at the same time forming an electrical arc through the gas from the nozzle to the work surface, thus turning some of that gas to plasma.
This plasma is sufficiently hot to melt the material being cut and moves sufficiently fast to blow molten metal away from the cut before unintended surfaces can be affected.
They are used for cutting steel and other metals, but can also be used for other materials.
2. CNC Laser Cutting
This technology is so versatile that anyone from engineers to dummies use it for a staggering number of use cases.
If you are in machining, decorative marking, part traceability or any other DIY cutting and marking on almost any type of service, laser cutting has come a long way.
The integration of computer control on laser technologies has brought a very flexible option in cutting technologies for a wide variety of materials, including metal, wood, plastics, glass, stones and many other materials.
Complex patterns like artwork, barcodes, traceability labels and serial numbers can be imprinted or engraved on all these materials using CNC laser technology.
3. Wire Spark Erosion
Ever seen very hard materials like stainless steel with very intricate and precise incisions and wonder how that was achieved?
Well, this is spark erosion for you.
This technology is a relatively new machining method also known as Electrical Discharge machining (EDM).
It is a manufacturing process which achieves a desired shape using electrical sparks. Material is removed from the work piece by a series of rapidly recurring current discharges between two electrodes, separated by a dielectric fluid and subjected to electric voltage. One electrode is the wire doing the cutting, and the other is a conductive stock part.
It is a very flexible through-and-through cutting technology that is used to cut hard conductive materials while achieving complex designs and a good surface finish.
It has been used in various applications.
Racing car companies in Formula 1 teams are manufacturing gear parts designed to suit the terrains of each race circuit.
With this technique, race car engineers can use the practice sessions to test the gear formations, and produce overnight modifications, hence quickly impacting the competitiveness of their vehicles with this Just-in-Time technique.
4. Sinker EDMs
Not unlike a wire EDM in terms of the technique used, this type of CNC machining is also called cavity type EDM or volume EDM. The machine consists of an electrode and work piece submerged into a dielectric fluid like oil or de-ionized water.
It uses a dielectric breakdown on a conductive work piece, occasioned by an approaching electrode, forming a plasma channel and small spark jumps.
Production dies and molds are often made with sinker EDM.
5. Waterjet Cutters
These CNC tools are capable of slicing into metal or other materials (even as hard as granite) by using a high velocity and pressure water jet. The water can be loaded with an abrasive substance like sand or filings. This technique is used to fabricate or manufacture parts for machinery and other devices.
This technique is ideal for materials that are sensitive to the high temperatures involved with other methods.
Waterjet machining has found applications in a diverse number of industries from mining to aerospace. It is used for applications such as cutting, shaping, and carving, and reaming.、
6. Dot Peen Marking
An interesting variant of CNC machining is dot peen marking.
While all the other techniques discussed here involve the subtractive processes that turn a stock material into a desired piece or part, dot peen marking is mainly used to mark indentations on surfaces for purposes of traceability and identification.
This is mainly done using a carbide or diamond stylus assembly that electro-mechanically or pneumatically driven strikes to print a predefined computer controlled design or text on the surface by use of a succession of dots.
The marking is accomplished through the use of either an electrically powered pin to stamp (or peen) very small, closely spaced and high precision dots to form straight or curved lines as programmed, or through the use of high pressure compressed air to deliver the strike power.
We discovered a CNC based dot pin marker developed by a company known as Pryor.
This little beast has a very impressive variety of features;
It works well within your existing CNC machines, hence making it possible to create in-process traceability part marking.
It is capable of pin stamping serialized codes, while working on surfaces of different shapes and sizes, which is ideal for marking different parts of the same machine e.g. for vehicles.
It can mark serial numbers, alphanumeric text, text logos and 2D Data Matrix codes.
It has a battery powering option offering a removable battery, and it uses an easy to operate window-based interface which loads marking layouts to the tool via a wi-fi connection
7. IoT-based mobile phone machine status alerts
If you have been wondering when Internet of Things will encroach on CNC machining, then wonder no more.
If your machines are idle, then they are not making you money. But problems can happen. Take the case of where you leave a machine with enough workload to last the whole night.
It definitely can get very frustrating if in the morning you come to find out that it experienced a very small hitch and has been idling from 8.00 pm last night!
If you sometimes want to know the status of your machine even when you’re away, one possible solution to this issue comes from CNC machine manufacturer Haas Automation.
These guys have recently unveiled their new HaasConnect feature.
It is designed to notify you via mobile or email on the status of the machine at any given time.
You can connect your mobile to as many machines as you wish. The feature will now come built into all Haas machines as standard. It is part of their new Next Generation Control software.
They have even thrown in a more user-friendly interface, plus a Visual Programming System which allows you to create G-code programs for basic part features.
8. BoXZY, the Hybrid of Laser, CNC and 3D printing
While CNC machining is a subtractive process, 3D printing is an additive process. Both of these techniques can be used to create intricate designs of different parts.
The technologies are fundamentally different, with different pros and cons. While CNC machining is faster, it is far more wasteful than 3D printing, and the two techniques can be very complementary in some instances.
So it actually is amazing to see a machine that does both!
BoXZY is a pretty new addition to the market, but it’s a machine that has already been making some serious waves.
It’s easy to see why this machine has piqued the interest of so many;
It is a 3D printer, a CNC mill and a laser engraver all in one.
Yes, it also provides laser engraving. That is a three in one for the price of one!
You can use this little hybrid of a wonder to create amazing DIY household tools and appliances like book shelves, artwork, geometric planting and flower vases, sculptures, sorting trays, wood decorations and many more.
9. DIY Hand-held flexible pin markers
CNC marking machines have traditionally been expensive due to the heavy duty design of most types of industrial machining.
However, with the advent of requirements for pin marking on a much reduced scale, companies like HeatSign have come up with a series of handheld, portable and pneumatically driven low marking speed dot peen markers.
Though they require air pressure from a compressor to provide the marking power, this series of machines are generally cheaper than other forms of pin marking systems.
They are suitable for DIY pin stamping, and small scale operations that require low marking speed and less complicated market processes.
10. The Thinking CNC Machine
We cannot talk about technology without exploring what the potential of the fourth industrial revolution technologies have in store for us.
In CNC machining, it is common knowledge that machine down-times are sometimes a major cost of production, accounting for up to 20% of overall costs in extreme cases. Other problems arise with machine operation parameter variability, which in turn affects the marking process, and hence the quality of marked parts.
Enter Artificial intelligence, and we are immediately ushered into an era where machines can be able to self-diagnose for faults that have occurred, or even do predictive and preventive maintenance by checking parameters that go wrong before an eventual breakdown.
Artificial intelligence has many sub-sectors, but we can look at machine learning, deep learning, robotics and augmented reality for real use cases in this sector.
Klancnik et. Al, from the University of Maribor, have suggested an automated CNC machine using artificial intelligence to optimize machining time through machine learning by selecting the best tool paths that provide high efficiency and lowest tool wear ratios.
The Market Leaders
Now let us get a feel of the market.
According to Transparency Market Research, the top 5 producers of CNC machines control nearly 60% of the whole business.
Let us check them out;
FANUC has been in the industry since 1956, it used to manufacture the SERVO mechanism machines in Japan.
The company is involved in three different fields, namely CNC machining, Robotics and Field systems that use the Internet of Things to deliver automation to a wide array of machines.
Haas Automation is an American machine tool builder based in Oxnard, California.
The company designs and manufactures precision machine tools and specialized accessory tooling. These tools are mostly computer numerically controlled (CNC), such as vertical and horizontal machining centers, lathes/turning centers, rotary tables and indexers.
The company is the largest machine tool builder in the western world.
Dr. Johannes Heidenhain GmbH is a privately owned enterprise located in Traunreut, Germany. It manufactures numerical controls for machine tools, as well as mechatronic measuring devices for length and angles.
Heidenheimer has been around from the early 1800s, producing high precision measurement and motion control solutions that are used by most machines that we use today.
With their products, companies achieve better manufacturing processes and our hospitals are equipped with safer measuring devices that deliver reliable diagnostic readings.
Siemens AG is also a German based company based in Munich. It has specialized in the energy and manufacturing technology sector. The company was formed in 1966 through a merger between three companies.
It is currently operating in over 200 countries and regions, it engaging in a wide range of manufacturing and services in areas such as power generation and transmission, telecommunications systems, and medical engineering.
It invests heavily in research and development and ranks among the largest patent holders in the world.
Mitsubishi electronics have distinguished themselves as the world leading force in the production and sale of electric and electronic products. It is a Japanese company that was founded in 1921.
Their product range is immense, spanning energy and electric systems which is their mainstay, industrial automation systems, home appliances and communication systems.
The CNC Machining industry is huge, and other companies making CNC machines and machine tools are found all over the world.
The Chinese manufacturers are currently making waves in innovation and production of cost-effective solutions in CNC machining.
Companies like Noble, DEK Tooling, HeatSign, and SDSK are all important players in this industry and are taking the lead in creating new technologies that relate with the masses.
CNC Machining is not just an old manufacturing process.
The fact that it is a computer controlled manufacturing automation process gives it the ability to develop with technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, Cloud computing, big data analytics, robotics and others.
And the technology need not only be thought of as belonging to huge factories where sensitive components are manufactured. It can be used for everyday items like sculpted ice cubes, artworks, home appliances and gardening.
The market is huge, and is constantly changing, with the introduction of more players and users.