Modern manufacturers must be able to produce a range of complex components from materials like wood, metal and plastic in a very short period of time. These components can be used in anything from automobiles to advanced electronics. One tool that has helped to make this type of advanced manufacturing possible is known as a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. This is a complex hardware and software system that can convert a block of raw material into a complex part for a larger machine. Exactly how one of these machines works starts with the software.
Every CNC machine requires some type of software in order to operate. The software is what sends signals to the equipment to move the cutting head or the raw material. Originally, patterns for CNC cutting were made up of just simple numbers. Modern machines use complex computer aided drafting applications that allow engineers and product designers to create elaborate three-dimensional plans that can then be carved from a block of metal or wood. One interesting feature is that the software patterns that are created for CNC cutting can be easily transferred to any machine. This means that several manufacturers can all be creating exactly the same pieces regardless of equipment types and location.
The heart of any CNC machine is the cutting head and the material bed. Most modern machines that are designed to work with metals actually have this area enclosed so that operators can work safely nearby. CNC cutting occurs when the cutting head is placed against the surface of a material. The head can then be moved so that it begins to shape the material into the programmed design. Alternately, the head can remain static and the bed will move so the material is cut according to the pattern. This process requires that the material and the cutting head be aligned properly before starting. The amount of time that it takes for the cutting head to sculpt a material into a finished part can range from anywhere between 15 minutes to several days.
There are several variations on the concept of CNC manufacturing. Some machines only work in two dimensions. The cutting head can contain a solid bit or it can be replaced with a welding torch when dealing with sheets of metal. It is common to see lathe and woodworking CNC equipment that creates parts for consumer products like tables or stair rails. The entire CNC concept has help manufacturers to keep up with consumer demand for increasingly complex products.