Numerical control (NC) is the automation of machine tools that are operated by precisely programmed commands encoded on a storage medium, as opposed to controlled manually via hand wheels or levers, or mechanically automated via cams alone. Most NC today is computer (or computerized) numerical control (CNC), in which computers play an integral part of the control.
In modern CNC systems, end-to-end component design is highly automated using computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs. The programs produce a computer file that is interpreted to extract the commands needed to operate a particular machine via a post processor, and then loaded into the CNC machines for production. Since any particular component might require the use of a number of different tools – drills, saws, etc., modern machines often combine multiple tools into a single “cell”. In other installations, a number of different machines are used with an external controller and human or robotic operators that move the component from machine to machine. In either case, the series of steps needed to produce any part is highly automated and produces a part that closely matches the original CAD design.
The first NC machines were built in the 1940s and 1950s, based on existing tools that were modified with motors that moved the controls to follow points fed into the system on punched tape. These early servomechanisms were rapidly augmented with analog and digital computers, creating the modern CNC machine tools that have revolutionized the machining processes.
Motion is controlled along multiple axes, normally at least two (X and Y), and a tool spindle that moves in the Z (depth). The position of the tool is driven by motors through a series of step down gears in order to provide highly accurate movements, or in modern designs, direct-drive stepper motor or servo motors. Open-loop control works as long as the forces are kept small enough and speeds are not too great. On commercial metalworking machines closed loop controls are standard and required in order to provide the accuracy, speed, and repeatability demanded.
As the controller hardware evolved, the mills themselves also evolved. One change has been to enclose the entire mechanism in a large box as a safety measure, often with additional safety interlocks to ensure the operator is far enough from the working piece for safe operation. Most new CNC systems built today are completely electronically controlled.
CNC-like systems are now used for any process that can be described as a series of movements and operations. These include laser cutting, welding, friction stir welding, ultrasonic welding, flame and plasma cutting, bending, spinning, hole-punching, pinning, gluing, fabric cutting, sewing, tape and fiber placement, routing, picking and placing (PnP), and sawing.
Examples of CNC machines
CNC mills use computer controls to cut different materials. They are able to translate programs consisting of specific number and letters to move the spindle to various locations and depths. Many use G-code, which is a standardized programming language that many CNC machines understand, while others use proprietary languages created by their manufacturers. These proprietary languages while often simpler than G-code are not transferable to other machines. CNC mills have many functions including face milling, shoulder milling, tapping, drilling and some even offer turning. Standard CNC mills have 3 axes (X,Y and Z) but others may also have one or more rotational axes.
Lathes are machines that cut workpieces while they are rotated. CNC lathes are able to make fast, precision cuts, generally using indexable tools and drills. They are particularly effective for complicated programs to make parts that would be more difficult to make on manual lathes. CNC lathes have similar control specifications to CNC mills and can often read G-code as well as the manufacturer’s proprietary programming language. CNC lathes generally have 2 axes (X and Z), but newer models have more axes allowing for more advanced jobs to be machined.
Plasma cutting involves cutting a material using a plasma torch. It is commonly used to cut steel and other metals, but can be used on a variety of materials. In this process, gas (such as compressed air) is blown at high speed out of a nozzle; at the same time an electrical arc is formed through that gas from the nozzle to the surface being cut, turning some of that gas to plasma. The plasma is sufficiently hot to melt the material being cut and moves sufficiently fast to blow molten metal away from the cut.
Electric discharge machining
Electric discharge machining (EDM), sometimes colloquially also referred to as spark machining, spark eroding, burning, die sinking, or wire erosion, is a manufacturing process in which a desired shape is obtained using electrical discharges (sparks). Material is removed from the workpiece by a series of rapidly recurring current discharges between two electrodes, separated by a dielectric fluid and subject to an electric voltage. One of the electrodes is called the tool-electrode, or simply the “tool” or “electrode,” while the other is called the workpiece-electrode, or “workpiece.”
When the distance between the two electrodes is reduced, the intensity of the electric field in the space between the electrodes becomes greater than the strength of the dielectric (at least in some point(s)), which breaks, allowing current to flow between the two electrodes. This phenomenon is the same as the breakdown of a capacitor. As a result, material is removed from both the electrodes. Once the current flow stops (or it is stopped – depending on the type of generator), new liquid dielectric is usually conveyed into the inter-electrode volume enabling the solid particles (debris) to be carried away and the insulating properties of the dielectric to be restored. Adding new liquid dielectric in the inter-electrode volume is commonly referred to as flushing. Also, after a current flow, a difference of potential between the two electrodes is restored to what it was before the breakdown, so that a new liquid dielectric breakdown can occur.
Also known as wire cutting EDM, wire burning EDM, or traveling wire EDM, this process uses spark erosion to machine or remove material with a traveling wire electrode from any electrically conductive material. The wire electrode usually consists of brass or zinc-coated brass material.
Sinker EDM, also called cavity type EDM or volume EDM, consists of an electrode and workpiece submerged in an insulating liquid—often oil but sometimes other dielectric fluids. The electrode and workpiece are connected to a suitable power supply, which generates an electrical potential between the two parts. As the electrode approaches the workpiece, dielectric breakdown occurs in the fluid forming a plasma channel) and a small spark jumps.
Water jet cutters
A water jet cutter, also known as a waterjet, is a tool capable of slicing into metal or other materials (such as granite) by using a jet of water at high velocity and pressure, or a mixture of water and an abrasive substance, such as sand. It is often used during fabrication or manufacture of parts for machinery and other devices. Waterjet is the preferred method when the materials being cut are sensitive to the high temperatures generated by other methods. It has found applications in a diverse number of industries from mining to aerospace where it is used for operations such as cutting, shaping, carving, and reaming.
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