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The History of CNC Machining

Learn about the origins of this versatile manufacturing process.

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
October 3, 2022
 8 min read
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CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining refers to the process of manufacturing a part by the removal of material with a cutting tool that is under automated control as opposed to manual control by a machinist. This cutting tool can either be held stationary, with the part moving, or the tool can be rotated and moved into a piece of stationary material. CNC machining is often performed on metals but can also be employed with plastics and composites. 

CNC machining has revolutionized the manufacturing industry since it was first introduced in 1952 in the form of the Cincinnati Milacron Hydrotel. Since then, advanced robotics systems have been incorporated into the machines to dramatically improve productivity and ultimately reduce the labor requirements for the manufacturer of components.

This article will cover CNC machining's history, how CNC machining works, and some of the more common use cases for this process.

What Is CNC Machining?

CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining refers to a type of subtractive manufacturing that is designed for manufacturing a part automatically by either advancing a spinning cutting tool mounted on a spindle into the work material (CNC mill) or by mounting the raw stock onto a spindle and moving it into a stationary tool (CNC lathe). The main function of a spindle in a CNC machine is to provide rotational motion to allow for the cutting of material.

An operator is required to set up the part to be machined by generating a list of instructions that tell the machine where to move the tool, at what speed, and how deep to cut the material per pass. This code was originally written by hand but is now handled by advanced software systems. Once the program instructions have been entered into the machine controller, the operator places the raw material into its starting position and initiates the machining sequence. The CNC machine then performs the planned manufacturing process steps. CNC machines have varying degrees of automation. Fully automatic machines can even load raw material and unload finished parts by means of a robot arm, as shown in Figure 1 below:

Slide 1 of 1
robotic hand
robotic hand
robotic hand

Robotic hand machine tool.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/asharkyu

When Was CNC Machining Invented?

The first CNC machine was developed in 1952 by a team of researchers working at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). This advancement followed the development of the first NC (Numerical Control) machine in 1949. CNC machines were patented in 1958.

Who Invented CNC Machining?

John T. Parsons was the first person to invent and build an NC (Numerical Control) machine. The NC machine was designed to operate directly off a set of punch cards that tell the machine where to move. This concept laid the groundwork for the further development of the CNC machine. A team of researchers working at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), led by J.F. Reintjes, developed the first prototype CNC milling machine. Richard Kregg then collaborated with MIT to develop the Cincinnati Milacron Hydrotel, the first commercially available CNC machine. Cincinnati Milacron became one of the first manufacturers of CNC machines.

Where Was CNC Machining Created?

The first CNC machine prototype was developed in the USA at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The first commercial CNC machine was developed in Cincinnati in collaboration with MIT. 

Why Was CNC Machining Created?

The CNC machine was created to allow for the machining of complex shapes that could not be manufactured with traditional manual milling techniques. CNC machining allowed for mathematically developed profiles that trace out a complex non-linear curve to be machined, which would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish with manual machining. 

What Is the Main Objective of CNC Machining?

The objective of CNC machining is to produce precise parts in a repeatable manner with as little human intervention as possible. This ultimately results in lower cost per part while maintaining high levels of quality.

What Existed Before the CNC Machine?

NC (Numerical Control) machines were developed before CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines. NC machines were programmed with punch cards and later by magnetic tape. Ultimately, no computer is used, and the principal is similar to old automatic pianos that used punch card rolls to play music. These instructions were read by the machine, which then manufactured the part. 

What Was the Earliest Use of CNC Machining?

The first use of the CNC machine was to machine helicopter blades using mathematically developed aerofoil shapes in 1949.

What Industry Uses CNC Machining?

Almost every industry makes use of CNC machining in some form. However, the primary users of CNC machining are listed below:

  1. Automotive: Combustion engines require exact tolerances to operate efficiently. For example, the cylinder head and gearbox are typically manufactured using CNC machining.
  2. Aerospace: The aerospace industry uses CNC machining extensively due to the requirements for repeatable and precise machining. Some typical applications include turbine blades, rocket combustion chambers, and hydraulic manifolds.  
  3. Medical: The medical industry often requires components that have complex geometries with small tolerances to fit up to and align with human limbs and joints.  This is a perfect use case for CNC machining, and some typical components include hip joints, surgical tools, and prosthetic limbs.
  4. Electronics: Electronic components require extreme precision. For that reason, CNC machining is used extensively in this industry. Some typical applications include consumer product enclosures to protect sensitive electronics, heat sinks, and wafer chucks and wafer carriers for electronic components like semiconductors.

Summary

The article reviewed the origins and history of CMC machining and its evolution from NC machining. To learn more about CNC machining and how you can use it for your projects, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including 3D printing and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

Disclaimer

The content appearing on this webpage is for informational purposes only. Xometry makes no representation or warranty of any kind, be it expressed or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of the information. Any performance parameters, geometric tolerances, specific design features, quality and types of materials, or processes should not be inferred to represent what will be delivered by third-party suppliers or manufacturers through Xometry’s network. Buyers seeking quotes for parts are responsible for defining the specific requirements for those parts. Please refer to our terms and conditions for more information.

Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.