A Brief History of CNC Machining

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Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining is the most widely used form of automated production in modern manufacturing installations around the world. The precision and reliability of computer-controlled commands have convinced manufacturers everywhere to purchase CNC equipment and modelling software for their production lines. Even though CNC machining is employed in nearly every industry in the manufacturing sector, it is a relatively recent development in means of production. Before the 1950s, machine tooling most commonly required an operator. The last 70 years have been affected by the world-changing transition from manual operation to CNC machining. This article will examine the origins of CNC machining as well as this very transition.

Early mechanisms

Humanity has come a long way since when shaping matter meant using a chisel or a hammer. The first step towards modern CNC machining was taken during the First Industrial Revolution with the appearance of machine tooling. In 1775, John Wilkinson, an English industrialist, invented the world’s first boring machine. It allowed operators to precisely shape circular objects for the first time. In 1805, Joseph Marie Jacquard, a French merchant, developed the first method to automate textile looms. He would use punch cards with pre-recorded entries and use them sequentially to standardize operation. His loom was a success and was adopted throughout France, thus marking the first commercialization of an automatic machine. The reduced costs and easy operation of this textile loom drove others to progressively apply punch cards to a variety of applications, from moving levers to telegraphy. In 1889, Herman Hollerith, an American inventor, patented the tabulating machine able to read and summarize data using punch cards. This was the first time data and automatic commands could be stored on a larger scale. Following these innovations, many new applications used punch cards throughout the first half of the 20th century to automate basic tasks.

Numerical control

The 1940s gave way to the first Numerical Control (NC) machine, the precursor to CNC machining. NC machines used commands that were manually entered onto punch cards and fed into the machines to direct them to accomplish specific production tasks. By using servomechanisms to sense the tool’s position in space, NC machines were able to produce goods more precisely. The Second World War’s military needs pushed companies supplying the U.S. Air Force to seek more and more efficient methods of NC to produce standardized airplanes and weapons with unparalleled precision. Up until the mid-1950s, NC technology was adopted by several industrial outfits beyond the military suppliers. Because of the perceived economic benefits of automating machine tooling, NC was quickly hailed as the innovation of the decade in manufacturing, allowing companies to cut workforce costs and improve quality.

Full-blown CNC

Manual programming was more efficient than no programming at all, but it still required very select expertise for the specific machine being programmed. The widespread use of NC machining led engineers and industrialists to seek out a standardized programming language. In 1956, the first blueprint for the Automated Programmed Tool (APT) language was created, mandated by the U.S. Air Force. From this point on, computers with a standardized programming language were used for machining. The price of computers was greatly reduced with technological advances during the 1960s and 1970s, which led CNC machining to become more affordable to smaller-scale industrial installations. Thus, the popularization of CNC machining allowed all types of products to be produced with greater consistency and quality. The 1990s saw the democratization of 3D modelling software, which gave product designers an easy way to modify commands and requirements. Today, CNC machining software has multitudes more capabilities, including maintenance and reliability applications.

What’s next?

Without a doubt, CNC machining radically changed manufacturing, business model as much as product design. Many observers in the manufacturing sector have let it be known that the next transition in machining will be as radical, if not more radical, than the transition from manual machining to CNC machining. Data analytics of failure modes and quality are already commonplace. However, the advent of artificial intelligence applied to CNC machining may prove itself to be a game-changer. In a near future, the “control” in CNC may no longer be permanently relying on a human stakeholder. Machines could continuously improve their processes by using the collected data. Costs and quality could once again be bettered, leading to another revolution in automation.

Article by Thomas Stringer for Axya Manufacturing. Originally published on Medium.

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A Brief History of CNC Machining