Numerical control (NC) (also computer numerical control (CNC)) is the automated control of machining tools (drills, boring tools, lathes) and 3D printers by means of a computer. An NC machine alters a blank piece of material (metal, plastic, wood, ceramic, or composite) to meet precise specifications by following programmed instructions and without a manual operator.
NC machines combine a motorized maneuverable tool and often a motorized maneuverable platform, which are both controlled by a computer core, according to specific input instructions. Instructions are delivered to an NC machine in the form of graphical computer-aided design (CAD) files, which are transformed into a sequential program of machine control instructions such as G-code, and then executed. In the case of 3D Printers, the part to be printed is "sliced", before the instructions (or the program) is generated.
NC is a major advance in machining, and is a vast improvement over non-computer type machining that requires manual control, by hand wheels or levers, or mechanical control by fabricated pattern guides (cams). In modern CNC systems, the design of a mechanical part and its manufacturing program is highly automated. The part's mechanical dimensions are defined using CAD software, and then translated into manufacturing directives by computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software. The resulting directives are transformed (by "post processor" software) into the specific commands necessary for a particular machine to produce the component, and then are loaded into the CNC machine.
Since any particular component might require the use of a number of different tools – drills, saws, etc. – modern machines often combine multiple tools into a single "cell". In other installations, a number of different machines are used with an external controller and human or robotic operators that move the component from machine to machine. In either case, the series of steps needed to produce any part is highly automated and produces a part that closely matches the original CAD.
Motion is controlled along multiple axes, normally at least two (X and Y), and a tool spindle that moves in the Z (depth). The position of the tool is driven by direct-drive stepper motors or servo motors in order to provide highly accurate movements, or in older designs, motors through a series of step-down gears. Open-loop control works as long as the forces are kept small enough and speeds are not too great. On commercial metalworking machines, closed loop controls are standard and required in order to provide the accuracy, speed, and repeatability demanded.
As the controller hardware evolved, the mills themselves also evolved. One change has been to enclose the entire mechanism in a large box as a safety measure, often with additional safety interlocks to ensure the operator is far enough from the working piece for safe operation. Most new CNC systems built today are 100% electronically controlled.
CNC-like systems are now used for any process that can be described as a series of movements and operations. These include laser cutting, welding, friction stir welding, ultrasonic welding, flame and plasma cutting, bending, spinning, hole-punching, pinning, gluing, fabric cutting, sewing, tape and fiber placement, routing, picking and placing, and sawing.
Translates programs consisting of specific numbers and letters to move the spindle (or workpiece) to various locations and depths. Many use G-code. Functions include: face milling, shoulder milling, tapping, drilling and some even offer turning. Today, CNC mills can have 3 to 6 axes. Most CNC mills require placing your workpiece on or in them and must be at least as big as your workpiece, but new 3-axis machines are being produced that you can put on your workpiece, and can be much smaller.
Cuts workpieces while they are rotated. Makes fast, precision cuts, generally using indexable tools and drills. Effective for complicated programs designed to make parts that would be infeasible to make on manual lathes. Similar control specifications to CNC mills and can often read G-code. Generally have two axes (X and Z), but newer models have more axes, allowing for more advanced jobs to be machined.
Involves cutting a material using a plasma torch. Commonly used to cut steel and other metals, but can be used on a variety of materials. In this process, gas (such as compressed air) is blown at high speed out of a nozzle; at the same time, an electrical arc is formed through that gas from the nozzle to the surface being cut, turning some of that gas to plasma. The plasma is sufficiently hot to melt the material being cut and moves sufficiently fast to blow molten metal away from the cut.
Electric discharge machining
(EDM), also known as spark machining, spark eroding, burning, die sinking, or wire erosion, is a manufacturing process in which a desired shape is obtained using electrical discharges (sparks). Material is removed from the workpiece by a series of rapidly recurring current discharges between two electrodes, separated by a dielectric fluid and subject to an electric voltage. One of the electrodes is called the tool electrode, or simply the "tool" or "electrode," while the other is called the workpiece electrode, or "workpiece."
Multi spindle machine
Type of screw machine used in mass production. Considered to be highly efficient by increasing productivity through automation. Can efficiently cut materials into small pieces while simultaneously utilizing a diversified set of tooling. Multi-spindle machines have multiple spindles on a drum that rotates on a horizontal or vertical axis. The drum contains a drill head which consists of a number of spindles that are mounted on ball bearings and driven by gears. There are two types of attachments for these drill heads, fixed or adjustable, depending on whether the centre distance of the drilling spindle needs to be varied.
Also known as wire cutting EDM, wire burning EDM, or traveling wire EDM, this process uses spark erosion to machine or remove material from any electrically conductive material, using a traveling wire electrode. The wire electrode usually consists of brass- or zinc-coated brass material. Wire EDM allows for near 90 degree corners and applies very little pressure on the material.Since the wire is eroded in this process, a wire EDM machine feeds fresh wire from a spool while chopping up the used wire and leaving it in a bin for recycling.
Also called cavity type EDM or volume EDM, a sinker EDM consists of an electrode and workpiece submerged in oil or another dielectric fluid. The electrode and workpiece are connected to a suitable power supply, which generates an electrical potential between the two parts. As the electrode approaches the workpiece, dielectric breakdown occurs in the fluid forming a plasma channel and small spark jumps. Production dies and moulds are often made with sinker EDM. Some materials, such as soft ferrite materials and epoxy-rich bonded magnetic materials are not compatible with sinker EDM as they are not electrically conductive.
Water jet cutter
Also known as a "waterjet", is a tool capable of slicing into metal or other materials (such as granite) by using a jet of water at high velocity and pressure, or a mixture of water and an abrasive substance, such as sand. It is often used during fabrication or manufacture of parts for machinery and other devices. Waterjet is the preferred method when the materials being cut are sensitive to the high temperatures generated by other methods. It has found applications in a diverse number of industries from mining to aerospace where it is used for operations such as cutting, shaping, carving, and reaming.
In CNC, a "crash" occurs when the machine moves in such a way that is harmful to the machine, tools, or parts being machined, sometimes resulting in bending or breakage of cutting tools, accessory clamps, vises, and fixtures, or causing damage to the machine itself by bending guide rails, breaking drive screws, or causing structural components to crack or deform under strain. A mild crash may not damage the machine or tools, but may damage the part being machined so that it must be scrapped.
Many CNC tools have no inherent sense of the absolute position of the table or tools when turned on. They must be manually "homed" or "zeroed" to have any reference to work from, and these limits are just for figuring out the location of the part to work with it, and aren't really any sort of hard motion limit on the mechanism. It is often possible to drive the machine outside the physical bounds of its drive mechanism, resulting in a collision with itself or damage to the drive mechanism. Many machines implement control parameters limiting axis motion past a certain limit in addition to physical limit switches. However, these parameters can often be changed by the operator.
Many CNC tools also don't know anything about their working environment. Machines may have load sensing systems on spindle and axis drives, but some do not. They blindly follow the machining code provided and it is up to an operator to detect if a crash is either occurring or about to occur, and for the operator to manually abort the active process. Machines equipped with load sensors can stop axis or spindle movement in response to an overload condition, but this does not prevent a crash from occurring. It may only limit the damage resulting from the crash. Some crashes may not ever overload any axis or spindle drives.
If the drive system is weaker than the machine structural integrity, then the drive system simply pushes against the obstruction and the drive motors "slip in place". The machine tool may not detect the collision or the slipping, so for example the tool should now be at 210 mm on the X axis, but is, in fact, at 32mm where it hit the obstruction and kept slipping. All of the next tool motions will be off by −178mm on the X axis, and all future motions are now invalid, which may result in further collisions with clamps, vises, or the machine itself. This is common in open loop stepper systems, but is not possible in closed loop systems unless mechanical slippage between the motor and drive mechanism has occurred. Instead, in a closed loop system, the machine will continue to attempt to move against the load until either the drive motor goes into an overcurrent condition or a servo following error alarm is generated.
Collision detection and avoidance is possible, through the use of absolute position sensors (optical encoder strips or disks) to verify that motion occurred, or torque sensors or power-draw sensors on the drive system to detect abnormal strain when the machine should just be moving and not cutting, but these are not a common component of most hobby CNC tools.
Instead, most hobby CNC tools simply rely on the assumed accuracy of stepper motors that rotate a specific number of degrees in response to magnetic field changes. It is often assumed the stepper is perfectly accurate and never missteps, so tool position monitoring simply involves counting the number of pulses sent to the stepper over time. An alternate means of stepper position monitoring is usually not available, so crash or slip detection is not possible.
Commercial CNC metalworking machines use closed loop feedback controls for axis movement. In a closed loop system, the controller monitors the actual position of each axis with an absolute or incremental encoder. With proper control programming, this will reduce the possibility of a crash, but it is still up to the operator and programmer to ensure that the machine is operated in a safe manner. However, during the 2000s and 2010s, the software for machining simulation has been maturing rapidly, and it is no longer uncommon for the entire machine tool envelope (including all axes, spindles, chucks, turrets, tool holders, tailstocks, fixtures, clamps, and stock) to be modeled accurately with 3D solid models, which allows the simulation software to predict fairly accurately whether a cycle will involve a crash. Although such simulation is not new, its accuracy and market penetration are changing considerably because of computing advancements.