CNC Lathes - Why They Make Such A Difference - ScientiaWeb

CNC Lathes – Why They Make Such A Difference


A computer that reads machine code instructions in order to control a machine tool is known as a Computer Numerical Controller. Computer Numerically Controlled, (CNC), Machine tools are generally used for machining raw material supplies into finished designs by executing a series of these instructions. CNC Lathes are probably the most widely known application of this kind of technology. They rotate a piece of material so that it can be cut, sanded, drilled or finished, with the end result being a completed three-dimensional item. In essence, CNC lathes are basically the same as a conventional turret lathe, but running under computer control.


The invention and proliferation of electric motors in the early twentieth century inevitably led to traditional types of lathes becoming electric powered. This was the first phase in automating the milling or turning process, It continued rapidly through the 20th century as producers and industrialists increasingly sought to improve efficiency and reduce production costs.

Constituent Parts / Components

Today’s CNC lathes combine a computer with a lathe machine and a controller to convert each digital program instruction into the desired action at the cutting tip. Before this the instructions have to be written using specialist software to encode the required actions. The work piece is next fitted on the chuck and rotated at slow or high speeds depending on the material and the type of cut or centering required. The computer then controls the lathe through the cutting action until the finished product is produced. The latest lathes can have up to four spindles to perform multiple jobs simultaneously, which reduces production time and improves productivity accordingly.

CNC lathes are usually fitted with three jaw hydraulic chucks. Work holding is accomplished with hard jaws or bored soft jaws. Lathes may also have a collet chuck. This allows for variable size and precision holding without the need for soft jaw boring. When equipping a lathe with a collet chuck, it may be necessary to modify or change the draw bar connecting the actuator to the chuck.

The tool pieces that are required to cut through steel are usually made of titanium carbide, tungsten carbide, and other hard alloys depending on the material that needs to be cut. The tool bits are utilized until the tolerance levels are maintained after which they are either sharpened where possible, or replaced with a new bit.

Despite their precision, CNC lathes generally require a good operator to oversee the mechanised process. In the past this would have required one or two operators for the actual physical work, so there is still a saving in both time and manpower. Development of the programming code is one cost that was not previously needed, but this is an up front cost which is recouped in the efficiecies of producing multiple items on the lathe.

Programming a CNC lathe firstly requires a blueprint of the item to be created. After the blueprint is analysed, the programming of the cutting tools required for making each part can then be started. Every move in three dimensions is programmed, in extremely fine detail. Great care is obviously required at this stage to ensure that no mistakes are made, as errors in live production could be very costly.

Practical Applications of CNC Lathes

CNC lathes are often used on hard materials such as metal, that require the material to be processed, usually through turning at high speed. They are also frequently used for boring precise holes into such hard materials. Modern lathes are also often used on other materials such as plastic and wood. They are commonly used in light, medium and heavy engineering shops for creating many of the objects we see in everyday use. Manual lathes are still used by smaller scale craftsmen, where mass production is not an issue, and where the craftsman’s skill is a key part of the production process.

Advantages / Benefits

As a percentage of the market share, CNC lathes have quickly established their dominance. They ensure consistency in quality control and design tolerances, and provide a more rapid turn-round time for complex one-off parts. They are very much leading edge technology in engineering circles and embody the latest processes and design principles. Three of the key benefits are reduced production time, reduced inventory and reduced set up times. With the continuing rise in demand for engineered parts, CNC lathes ultimately give higher production volumes, with greater precision and fewer errors.


CNC lathes bring real benefits to the general population and are a perfect example of man’s technological achievements being put to practical use. Due to their extensive use these days, goods can be produced faster, more accurately and at a cheaper cost than previously.

Phil Marston is the editor of Please feel free to contact him for more info.

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