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    Evolving from the numerical control (NC) machining process which utilized punched tape cards, CNC machiningis a manufacturing process which utilizes computerized controls to operate and manipulate machine and cutting tools to shape stock material—e.g., metal, plastic, wood, foam, composite, etc.—into custom parts and designs. While the CNC machining process offers various capabilities and operations, the fundamental principles of the process remain largely the same throughout all of them. The basic CNC machining process includes the following stages:

    Designing the CAD model

    Converting the CAD file to a CNC program

    Preparing the CNC machine

    Executing the machining operation

    CAD Model Design

    The CNC machining process begins with the creation of a 2D vector or 3D solid part CAD design either in-house or by a CAD/CAM design service company. Computer-aided design (CAD) software allows designers and manufacturers to produce a model or rendering of their parts and products along with the necessary technical specifications, such as dimensions and geometries, for producing the part or product.

    Designs for CNC machined parts are restricted by the capabilities (or inabilities) of the CNC machine and tooling. For example, most custom CNC machine parts tooling is cylindrical therefore the part geometries possible via the CNC machining process are limited as the tooling creates curved corner sections. Additionally, the properties of the material being machined, tooling design, and workholding capabilities of the machine further restrict the design possibilities, such as the minimum part thicknesses, maximum part size, and inclusion and complexity of internal cavities and features.

    Once the CAD design is completed, the designer exports it to a CNC-compatible file format, such as STEP or IGES.

    CNC Machining Tolerances Tables

    When specifying parts to a machine shop, it's important to include any necessary tolerances. Though CNC machines are very accurate, they still leave some slight variation between duplicates of the same part, generally around + or – .005 in (.127 mm), which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. To save on costs, buyers should only specify tolerances in areas of the part that will need to be especially accurate because they will come into contact with other parts. While there are standard tolerances for different levels of machining (as shown in the tables below), not all tolerances are equal.

    CAD File Conversion

    The formatted CAD design file runs through a program, typically computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software, to extract the part geometry and generates the digital programming code which will control the CNC machine and manipulate the tooling to produce the custom-designed part.

    CNC machines used several programming languages, including G-code and M-code. The most well-known of the CNC programming languages, general or geometric code, referred to as G-code, controls when, where, and how the machine tools move—e.g., when to turn on or off, how fast to travel to a particular location, what paths to take, etc.—across the workpiece. Miscellaneous function code, referred to as M-code, controls the auxiliary functions of the machine, such as automating the removal and replacement of the machine cover at the start and end of production, respectively.

    Once the CNC program is generated, the operator loads it to the CNC machine.

    Machine Setup

    Before the operator runs the CNC program, they must prepare the CNC machine for operation. These preparations include affixing the workpiece directly into the machine, onto machinery spindles, or into machine vises or similar workholding devices, and attaching the required tooling, such as drill bits and end mills, to the proper machine components.

    Once the machine is fully set up, the operator can run the CNC program.

    Machining Operation Execution

    The CNC program acts as instructions for the CNC machine; it submits machine commands dictating the tooling’s actions and movements to the machine’s integrated computer, which operates and manipulates the machine tooling. Initiating the program prompts the CNC machine to begin the CNC machining process, and the program guides the machine throughout the process as it executes the necessary machine operations to produce a custom-designed part or product.

    CNC machining processes can be performed in-house—if the company invests in obtaining and maintaining their own CNC equipment—or out-sourced to dedicated CNC machining service providers.

    Types of CNC Machining Operations

    CNC machining is a manufacturing process suitable for a wide variety of industries, including automotive, aerospace, construction, and agriculture, and able to produce a range of products, such as automobile frames, surgical equipment, airplane engines, gears, and hand and garden tools. The process encompasses several different computer-controlled machining operations—including mechanical, chemical, electrical, and thermal processes—which remove the necessary material from the workpiece to produce a custom-designed part or product. While chemical, electrical, and thermal machining processes are covered in a later section, this section explores some of the most common mechanical CNC machining operations including:

    Drilling

    Milling

    Turning

    CNC Drilling

    Drilling is a machining process which employs multi-point drill bits to produce cylindrical holes in the workpiece. In CNC drilling, typically the CNC machine feeds the rotating drill bit perpendicularly to the plane of the workpiece’s surface, which produces vertically-aligned holes with diameters equal to the diameter of the drill bit employed for the drilling operation. However, angular drilling operations can also be performed through the use of specialized machine configurations and workholding devices. Operational capabilities of the drilling process include counterboring, countersinking, reaming, and tapping.