CNC machining is one of the most common processes used in manufacturing today. It is such an institution in the field that it can seem like it’s been around forever. In fact, the underpinnings of CNC machining have only been around for less than a century, with the more recognizable version of the technology — similar to the method still used today — coming in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of CNC machines, and how they got to where they are today.
Early Days: Numerical Control (NC)
Like so many innovations, the history of CNC technology has its origins in military applications. In the late 1940s, the Air Force needed a standardized, highly precise way of manufacturing the intricate components that are critical to high-performance aircraft — in this case, curved rotor blades for helicopters. In Traverse City, Michigan, John Parsons — considered the father of CNC machines — worked and researched to develop a consistent methodology of assigning a numerical coordinate for every point of a manufactured piece, ensuring close adherence to a design. Thus, “numerical control” was born. Although automation was involved in this process, the “computer” part was yet to come.
Numerical control (NC) coordinates for the geometry of a piece — known as “g-code” — were fed into a machine with punch tape, in an analog process. Each punch pattern corresponded to a numerical coordinate, “telling” the servomotor-controlled cutting tool where to move. Although the implementation has changed vastly, this principle of CNC machining remains the same today.
The 1960s and 1970s: Incorporation of Computers
As technology and innovation grew at an exponential pace and computers became more and more commonplace in industry, manufacturing was no exception. As the relative size of processors shrunk and their accessibility grew, computers were incorporated into the numerical control process, and CNC machining was born. Rather than punch tape, coordinates could now be programmed into a computer terminal and used in that way to control the cutting tool. With even greater automation, control and accuracy, geometries could now be formed along three axes, creating a high-speed, accurate, efficient way of producing high-quality parts at scale, from a broad cross-section of materials. So momentous was this advance in technology that it is largely similar to what is still used today.
Today and Tomorrow: The Present and Future of CNC Machining
As mentioned above, CNC machining today is functionally very similar to the technology introduced all those years ago. That doesn’t mean innovations haven’t occurred, however. The development of five-axis machining has allowed for even more complex parts with the same efficiency and quality. Ever-increasing computing power is continuously improving productivity. Further, innovative ways of incorporating automation into processes, along with AI and increased connectivity, have us amid a “4th Industrial Revolution.”
What does this mean for the future of manufacturing and machining? For one thing, the powerful tools and technology now at our disposal are operated by highly trained and talented programming professionals to maximize innovation and efficiency, and this is always on the rise. Yet so powerful and versatile is the core CNC machining process that it remains an integral part of all manufacturing, no matter how technologically advanced. In the course of barely 80 years, CNC machining has grown from an innovation into a true institution.