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Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines enable complex shaped components to be made that would be extremely difficult to make using manual machining. They produce precise parts with as little human intervention as possible, in a repeatable fashion. This article looks at the different types of CNC machine and how you benefit from them.

The history of CNC machining

First invented in 1952 at MIT, the first CNC machined parts were helicopter blades. Through the 60s and 70s CNC machining became more and more popular. By the 90s, it was considered the standard for large-volume manufacturing and production.

How you benefit from CNC machining


CNC machining means that every component part produces is exactly the same. When you need components to fit, and sometimes move, together, you need to be confident they are all the same. CNC delivers this.


CNC machines are semi-autonomous. They don’t need human intervention whilst the component is being produced. As time is always the biggest factor when it comes to calculating component costs, the more you can remove from the equation, the more the unit costs come down.
Whilst there may be costs for jigs as well as set up fees, when spread across hundreds, if not thousands of units, these costs are reduced to only a small percentage of the unit price.

The different types of CNC machine

1. CNC Milling Machines

CNC milling machines use cutting tools to remove material from a workpiece and shape it accurately and to the required specifications. The workpiece is usually fixed in location while the high-speed rotating cutting tool removes material from it.
CNC mills can have a wide range of cutting tools, each having a different purpose. Some typical cutting tools are end mills, reamers, face mills, taps, and drills. These machines come in both vertical and horizontal versions.

2. CNC Router Machines

A CNC router cuts various shapes and designs on flat surfaces of any material. They carve, engrave and remove material, usually at lower speeds, to produce the component you are looking for.

3. CNC Plasma Cutters

A CNC plasma cutting machine delivers a highly accurate cut. It uses an electrical discharge arc (like a plasma torch) to ionize the air and melt the material where the electrical arc strikes. Since it works through an electrical arc, the process only applies to electrically conductive materials. These are frequently used to cut components from flat metal sheets.

4. CNC Electrical Discharge Machines

Similar to plasma machines, an electrical arc is used to remove material precisely. A fast method of creating 2D cuts in metal sheets.

5. CNC Lathes and Turning Machines

CNC lathes work by revolving the workpiece material around a central axis. Cutting tools are then applied to the workpiece to remove material and shape it into the required. They can produce a finished product much faster, and with more precision, than manual lathes.
CNC lathe machines are ideal for various processes, like cutting, sanding, facing, drilling, turning, knurling, etc. In CNC turning, a non-rotary tool moves linearly on a rotating workpiece to create a helical/spiral cutting path.

6. CNC Laser Cutters

CNC laser cutters use a highly focused laser beam to cut sheets of any material. A CNC laser cutter machine produces cuts with even greater precision than plasma cutting. CNC laser cutters are not limited to conductive materials, as solid-state lasers can cut any material.

7. CNC Waterjet Cutting Machines

Using a very think jet of water, CNC water jet cutting works with any material. These are high-precision CNC machines that work without generating excessive heat. Adding an abrasive substance, such as aluminium oxide, allows these machines to cut through hard materials.
The water, when it leaves the cutting head is moving at up to 2500mph!

8. CNC Grinding Machines

CNC surface grinders, used for the CNC grinding process, use rotating ceramic-blend grinding wheels to remove workpiece material for sanding, finishing, or polishing purposes. Diamond grinding wheels can provide exceptionally high-quality secondary finishing touches.

9. CNC Drilling Machines

The CNC drilling machine is one of the most common types of CNC machine found in workshops. It is ideal for drilling holes in any material for screws, secondary assembly, or aesthetic requirements.

Changing tools

An Automatic Tool Changer (ATC) is a variant of all common types of CNC machines. This ability allows for automated changing of the machine’s cutting tool, leading to faster production and less downtime.
ATC is used to switch the type of cutting tool in a CNC machine or to replace a broken or worn-out tool. It increases the degree of automation in the manufacturing process. Change of tooling is one of the major bottlenecks in most CNC machines, so ATC improves the capability of any CNC equipment. The latest Brother Speedio CNC machines available to our clients can accommodate up to 28 different tools!

As you’ve read, CNC machines can vary considerably. Each designed to do something different or with different materials. The good news is that you don’t need to make the decision as to which machines are used to produced your component parts – that’s our job. The choice of CNC machine will be determined by:

  • The materials being used
  • The complexity and tolerances of the component
  • How many are produced in each batch

Give us a call on +44 020 8855 0991, or click here, to discuss your component needs and the type of cnc machine will be just one part of the conversation.