Rapid advances in computer technology have led to the invention and application of the CNC lathe. Making a variety of sophisticated metal parts is now easy because of the speed and versatility of modern CNC lathes. Lathes are machines that cut raw material that is spinning rapidly in a jaw through the use of tool blocks, drills and boring bars to shape parts. The tool inserts travel down the outer dimension of the raw material to shape it, and drills and boring inserts make holes in the center of the material when needed.
Lathes have existed since biblical times, but the first metal-working lathe was invented around 1800 by Henry Maudslay. It was a simple design that included a spindle that held the workpiece and hand cranks that moved the cutting tool. CNC, or computer-numerical control, machines were pioneered in the late 1940s by John T. Parsons to machine helicopter rotor blades and included a rudimentary, early IBM computer to guide the cutting tools along paths programmed into their memory banks.
CNC lathes come in many sizes and are made by manufacturers who specialize in making sophisticated machinery. The most common CNC lathe has a tool turret that holds tooling, including insert cutters, drill and reamers and a spindle with a chuck jaw that can hold different types of metal. The spindle turns the part and the tool turret moves in two axes, X and Z. Z is a left to right movement and X is front to back.
CNC lathes can perform many different types of operations, but turning is the most common. Turning is when a tool block with a removable insert is used to cut away material while the workpiece turns at speeds up to 10,000 RPM. Lathes can also use drills and reamers to make centered holes in material. Some advanced lathes offer live tooling, which is a process in which a lathe can perform milling operations in a lathe while the spindle is stopped, which combines the two processes in one machine. Holes can be cut off center on a part in this manner, where previously this type of operation could only be done in a milling machine.
Although some parts can be made in a manual lathe, a CNC lathe allows for cylindrical dimensions impossible to machine by hand. These complicated moves can be programmed into the machine and carried out quickly with no chance of error.
The speed and accuracy that is seen in parts-making is unmatched with a CNC lathe. Although more experienced lathe machinists can make simple parts quickly and accurately, a CNC lathe is the most consistent way to make a cylindrical part as a properly programmed operation with multiple tools. The CNC lathe can cut time since manual lathes require each tool to be inserted and retaught every time a new tool is introduced.
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