Computer numerical controlled (CNC) lathes are rapidly replacing the older production lathes (multispindle, etc.) due to their ease of setting, operation, repeatability and accuracy. They are designed to use modern carbide tooling and fully use modern processes. The part may be designed and the tool paths programmed by the CAD/CAM process or manually by the programmer, and the resulting file uploaded to the machine, and once set and trialled the machine will continue to turn out parts under the occasional supervision of an operator.
The machine is controlled electronically via a computer menu style interface, the program may be modified and displayed at the machine, along with a simulated view of the process. The setter/operator needs a high level of skill to perform the process, however the knowledge base is broader compared to the older production machines where intimate knowledge of each machine was considered essential. These machines are often set and operated by the same person, where the operator will supervise a small number of machines (cell).
The design of a CNC lathe varies with different manufacturers, but they all have some common elements. The turret holds the tool holders and indexes them as needed, the spindle holds the workpiece and there are slides that let the turret move in multiple axis simultaneously. The machines are often totally enclosed, due in large part to occupational health and safety (OH&S) issues.
With rapid growth in this industry, different CNC lathe manufacturers use different user interfaces which sometimes makes it difficult for operators as they have to be acquainted with them. With the advent of cheap computers, free operating systems such as Linux, and open source CNC software, the entry price of CNC machines has plummeted.
A Swiss-style lathe is a specific design of lathe providing extreme accuracy (sometimes holding tolerances as small as a few tenths of a thousandth of an inch—a few micrometers). A Swiss-style lathe holds the workpiece with both a collet and a guide bushing. The collet sits behind the guide bushing, and the tools sit in front of the guide bushing, holding stationary on the Z axis. To cut lengthwise along the part, the tools will move in and the material itself will move back and forth along the Z axis. This allows all the work to be done on the material near the guide bushing where it is more rigid, making them ideal for working on slender workpieces as the part is held firmly with little chance of deflection or vibration occurring. This style of lathe is commonly used under CNC control.
Most CNC Swiss-style lathes today use one or two main spindles plus one or two back spindles (secondary spindles). The main spindle is used with the guide bushing for the main machining operations. The secondary spindle is located behind the part, aligned on the Z axis. In simple operation it picks up the part as it is cut off, and accepts it for second operations, then ejects it into a bin, eliminating the need to have an operator manually change each part, as is often the case with standard CNC turning centers. This makes them very efficient, as these machines are capable of fast cycle times, producing simple parts in one cycle (i.e., no need for a second machine to finish the part with second operations), in as little as 10–15 seconds. This makes them ideal for large production runs of small-diameter parts.
Additionally, as many Swiss lathes incorporate a secondary spindle, or ‘sub-spindle’, they also incorporate ‘live tooling’. Live tools are rotary cutting tools that are powered by a small motor independently of the spindle motor(s). Live tools increase the intricacy of components that can be manufactured by the Swiss lathe. For instance, automatically producing a part with a hole drilled perpendicular to the main axis (the axis of rotation of the spindles) is very economical with live tooling, and similarly uneconomical if done as a secondary operation after machining by the Swiss lathe is complete. A ‘secondary operation’ is a machining operation requiring a partially completed part to be secured in a second machine to complete the manufacturing process. Generally, advanced CAD/CAM software uses live tools in addition to the main spindles so that most parts that can be drawn by a CAD system can actually be manufactured by the machines that the CAD/CAM software support
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