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What is CNC Machining, Definition, Processes, types,Materials cost and Application?

What is CNC Machining, Definition, Processes, types,Materials cost and Application CNC machining definition is that it is a subtractive manufacturing process that typically employs computerized controls and machine tools to remove layers of material from a stock piece—known as the blank or workpiece—and produces a custom-designed part. This process is suitable for a wide range of materials, including metals, plastics, wood, glass, foam, and composites, and finds application in a variety of industries, such as large CNC machining, machining of parts and prototypes for telecommunications, and CNC machining aerospace parts, which require tighter tolerances than other industries. Note there is a difference between the CNC machining definition and the CNC machine definition—one is a process and the other is a machine.

A CNC machine (sometimes incorrectly referred to as a C and C machine) is a programmable machine that is capable of autonomously performing the operations of CNC machining.

CNC machining as a manufacturing process and service is available worldwide. You can readily find CNC machining services in Europe, as well as in Asia, North America, and elsewhere around the globe.

Subtractive manufacturing processes, such as CNC machining, are often presented in contrast to additive manufacturing processes, such as 3D printing, or formative manufacturing processes, such as liquid injection molding. While subtractive processes remove layers of material from the workpiece to produce custom shapes and designs, additive processes assemble layers of material to produce the desired form and formative processes deform and displace stock material into the desired shape. The automated nature of CNC machining enables the production of high precision and high accuracy, simple parts and cost-effectiveness when fulfilling one-off and medium-volume production runs. However, while CNC machining demonstrates certain advantages over other manufacturing processes, the degree of complexity and intricacy attainable for part design and the cost-effectiveness of producing complex parts is limited.

While each type of manufacturing process has its advantages and disadvantages, this article focuses on the CNC machining process, outlining the basics of the process, and the various components and tooling of the CNC machine. Additionally, this article explores various mechanical CNC machining operations and presents alternatives to the CNC machining process.

At a glance, this guide will cover:

Overview of CNC Machining Process
Types of CNC Machining Operations
CNC Machining Equipment and Components
CNC Machining Materials
CNC Size Considerations
Alternatives to Using a CNC Machine
History of CNC Machining
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Overview of CNC Machining Process
Evolving from the numerical control (NC) machining process which utilized punched tape cards, CNC machining is a manufacturing process which utilizes computerized controls to operate and manipulate machine and cutting tools to shape stock material—e.g., metal, plastic, wood, foam, composite, etc.—into custom parts and designs. While the CNC machining process offers various capabilities and operations, the fundamental principles of the process remain largely the same throughout all of them. The basic CNC machining process includes the following stages:

Designing the CAD model
Converting the CAD file to a CNC program
Preparing the CNC machine
Executing the machining operation
CAD Model Design
The CNC machining process begins with the creation of a 2D vector or 3D solid part CAD design either in-house or by a CAD/CAM design service company. Computer-aided design (CAD) software allows designers and manufacturers to produce a model or rendering of their parts and products along with the necessary technical specifications, such as dimensions and geometries, for producing the part or product.

Designs for CNC machined parts are restricted by the capabilities (or inabilities) of the CNC machine and tooling. For example, most CNC machine tooling is cylindrical therefore the part geometries possible via the CNC machining process are limited as the tooling creates curved corner sections. Additionally, the properties of the material being machined, tooling design, and workholding capabilities of the machine further restrict the design possibilities, such as the minimum part thicknesses, maximum part size, and inclusion and complexity of internal cavities and features.

Once the CAD design is completed, the designer exports it to a CNC-compatible file format, such as STEP or IGES.

CNC Machining Tolerances Tables

When specifying parts to a machine shop, it’s important to include any necessary tolerances. Though CNC machines are very accurate, they still leave some slight variation between duplicates of the same part, generally around + or – .005 in (.127 mm), which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. To save on costs, buyers should only specify tolerances in areas of the part that will need to be especially accurate because they will come into contact with other parts. While there are standard tolerances for different levels of machining (as shown in the tables below), not all tolerances are equal. If, for example, a part absolutely cannot be larger than the measurement, it might have a specified tolerance of +0.0/-0.5 to show it can be slightly smaller, but no larger in that area.

Table 1: Linear Tolerances in CNC Machining

Dimension Range (mm) Fine (F) +/- Medium (M) +/- Coarse (C) +/- Very Coarse (V) +/-
.5-3 .05 .1 .2 —
3-6 .05 .1 .3 .5
6-30 .1 .2 .5 1.0
30-120 .15 .3 .8 1.5
120-400 .2 .5 1.2 2.5
400-1000 .3 .8 2.0 4.0
1000-2000 .5 1.2 3.0 6.0
2000-4000 — 2.0 4.0 8.0
Table 2: Angle Tolerances in CNC Machining

Dimension Range (mm) Fine (F) +/- Medium (M) +/- Coarse (C) +/- Very Coarse (V) +/-
0-10 1o 1o 1o 30’ 3o
10-50 0 o 30’ 0 o 30’ 1o 2o
50-120 0 o 20’ 0 o 20’ 0 o 30’ 1o
120-400 0 o 10’ 0 o 10’ 0 o 15’ 0 o 30’
400 0 o 5’ 0 o 5’ 0 o 10’ 0 o 20’
Table 3: Radius and Chamfer Tolerances in CNC Machining

Dimension Range (mm) Fine (F) +/- Medium (M) +/- Coarse (C) +/- Very Coarse (V) +/-
.5-3 .2 .2 .4 .4
3-6 .5 .5 1 1
6 1 1 2 2
CAD File Conversion
The formatted CAD design file runs through a program, typically computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software, to extract the part geometry and generates the digital programming code which will control the CNC machine and manipulate the tooling to produce the custom-designed part.

CNC machines used several programming languages, including G-code and M-code. The most well-known of the CNC programming languages, general or geometric code, referred to as G-code, controls when, where, and how the machine tools move—e.g., when to turn on or off, how fast to travel to a particular location, what paths to take, etc.—across the workpiece. Miscellaneous function code, referred to as M-code, controls the auxiliary functions of the machine, such as automating the removal and replacement of the machine cover at the start and end of production, respectively.

Once the CNC program is generated, the operator loads it to the CNC machine.

Machine Setup
Before the operator runs the CNC program, they must prepare the CNC machine for operation. These preparations include affixing the workpiece directly into the machine, onto machinery spindles, or into machine vises or similar workholding devices, and attaching the required tooling, such as drill bits and end mills, to the proper machine components.

Once the machine is fully set up, the operator can run the CNC program.

Machining Operation Execution
The CNC program acts as instructions for the CNC machine; it submits machine commands dictating the tooling’s actions and movements to the machine’s integrated computer, which operates and manipulates the machine tooling. Initiating the program prompts the CNC machine to begin the CNC machining process, and the program guides the machine throughout the process as it executes the necessary machine operations to produce a custom-designed part or product.

CNC machining processes can be performed in-house—if the company invests in obtaining and maintaining their own CNC equipment—or outsourced to dedicated CNC machining service providers.

Types of CNC Machining Operations

CNC machining is a manufacturing process suitable for a wide variety of industries, including automotive, aerospace, construction, and agriculture, and able to produce a range of products, such as automobile frames, surgical equipment, airplane engines, gears, and hand and garden tools. The process encompasses several different computer-controlled machining operations—including mechanical, chemical, electrical, and thermal processes—which remove the necessary material from the workpiece to produce a custom-designed part or product. While chemical, electrical, and thermal machining processes are covered in a later section, this section explores some of the most common mechanical CNC machining operations including:

CNC Drilling
Drilling is a machining process which employs multi-point drill bits to produce cylindrical holes in the workpiece. In CNC drilling, typically the CNC machine feeds the rotating drill bit perpendicularly to the plane of the workpiece’s surface, which produces vertically-aligned holes with diameters equal to the diameter of the drill bit employed for the drilling operation. However, angular drilling operations can also be performed through the use of specialized machine configurations and workholding devices. Operational capabilities of the drilling process include counterboring, countersinking, reaming, and tapping.

CNC Milling
Milling is a machining process which employs rotating multi-point cutting tools to remove material from the workpiece. In CNC milling, the CNC machine typically feeds the workpiece to the cutting tool in the same direction as the cutting tool’s rotation, whereas in manual milling the machine feeds the workpiece in the opposite direction to the cutting tool’s rotation. Operational capabilities of the milling process include face milling—cutting shallow, flat surfaces and flat-bottomed cavities into the workpiece—and peripheral milling—cutting deep cavities, such as slots and threads, into the workpiece.

CNC Turning

CNC Turning and Multi-Spindle Machining

Turning is a machining process which employs single-point cutting tools to remove material from the rotating workpiece. In CNC turning, the machine—typically a CNC lathe machine—feeds the cutting tool in a linear motion along the surface of the rotating workpiece, removing material around the circumference until the desired diameter is achieved, to produce cylindrical parts with external and internal features, such as slots, tapers, and threads. Operational capabilities of the turning process include boring, facing, grooving, and thread cutting. When it comes down to a CNC mill vs. lathe, milling, with its rotating cutting tools, works better for more complex parts. However, lathes, with rotating workpieces and stationary cutting tools, work best for faster, more accurate creation of round parts.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of CNC machining?

While CNC machining is a viable and even ideal manufacturing process for many applications spanning prototyping to the medium-scale production of end-use parts, it’s not without its flaws. In this section, we cover the benefits and limitations of this subtractive machining process.

CNC machining offers excellent accuracy and repeatability. Both milling and turning can produce parts with very tight tolerances, which makes CNC ideal for high-end applications such as in the aerospace, aviation and automotive industries. Most materials used in CNC machining have excellent and fully-isotropic physical properties and are suitable for most engineering applications.

In general, CNC machining is the most cost-effective manufacturing process for producing low-to-medium numbers of metal parts. This means you can use CNC for single prototypes or to produce up to 1,000 units.

While these benefits make CNC machining an attractive option for engineers, the subtractive nature of the technology renders certain more complex geometries very costly or even impossible to manufacture.

Speaking from a financial perspective, the startup cost of CNC machining is much higher than it is for 3D printing. If you’re looking to produce low-cost prototypes from plastic, then 3D printing may be a better option where set-up is concerned.

Lead times for CNC machining tend to be longer than for 3D printing as well, as the average lead time for CNC is 10 days compared to the much lower 2-5 days for 3D printing. CNC machines are not as widely available as 3D printers, as they require more expert knowledge to operate effectively.

What are Protolabs Network’s rules of thumb for CNC machining?
Let’s break down the key parameters to consider for CNC machining both metal and plastic custom parts.

Key CNC parameter What Protolabs Network says

Dimensional accuracy Typical: ± 0.125 mm (.005’’) Maximum: ± 0.02 mm (.0008’’)
Minimum wall thickness Metals: 0.75 mm (0.030″) Plastics: 1.5 mm (0.060″)
Maximum build size Milling: 2000 x 800 x 100 mm (78’’ x 32’’ x 40’’) Turning: Ø 500 mm (Ø 20’’)try


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