There are few products that we use in everyday life that have not had CNC machining take some part in their production. Cars, planes, household machines and appliances, medical parts and toys all get to visit the CNC machine at some point in their production.
CNC or Computer Numerically Controlled machining has become more versatile then ever over the years. The number of axis has increased and the types of machine available now mean that increasingly smaller and more intricate parts can be manufactured using CNC machining.

Accuracy and efficiency has increased, waste has reduced and ultimately that leads to savings or reductions in cost. However, with the increased capabilities of the machines, comes a need for operators to also increase their knowledge. More automation and computer control does not necessarily mean less of a need for the human being. Far from it, the end product from the machine is only as good as the data input and ultimate control of the project by the operator. Specifications, tooling set ups, cutting conditions and an awareness of the capabilities of the materials they are using are all things that require operator input. And when all is said and done, it’s the operator that will look at the final version of whatever is being manufactured and decide whether that finished product really does meet the product specification and requirements.

Maintaining the machine is also something the operator needs to know about. An experienced and knowledgeable operator will be able to tell if something doesn’t look or sound right; hopefully spotting a problem and resolving it before it becomes a more costly exercise. Small faults in an end product can be a clear sign of a potential problem with a machine. Maintaining your machines is a key part of your manufacturing efficiency and if it forms part of your regular processes should ensure that major downtime, and so the potential for lost business or increased costs is avoided.

Further advances like laser and waterjet cutting combined with CNC makes for an extremely versatile manufacturing machine with the ability to cut complex designs into almost any material.

The costs of these large manufacturing machines is not small so you may be forgiven for thinking that it’s only big businesses that use them. But you’d be wrong. In the same way that 3D printers reduced in size and cost and are now in situ in many classrooms, CNC machines are also seeing the reduction in size to accommodate a wider usage. Smaller craft businesses and hobbyists are now seeing that more complex machinery is beginning to fall within their price range, although there is still a huge variance in the machines and pricing available. A desktop CNC machine can range anywhere between £1500 and £15000.

Last month also saw the announcement of the first desk top waterjet cutting machine to be produced so things tend to move on much more quickly than they used to.

Obviously smaller, desktop machines can’t produce the quantities of the large manufacturers but they do open up opportunities for the smaller craft businesses to produce more complex products and designs to enhance their offerings, which can only be good for business.

Have you used a desktop CNC machine? How easy did you find it to programme and use?

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