Computer numerical control (CNC) machining, a subtractive manufacturing process that employs computerized controls and machine tools to remove layers of material and produce a desired part, is one of the most commonly used manufacturing techniques. However, it’s actually based on technology that was developed in the 18th century.
The beginning of industrialization in the mid-eighteenth century saw the technological precursors of CNC machining. However, it wasn’t until the Cold War that the technology was automated and the CNC machining method was fully realized. Finally, in 1952, Richard Kegg developed the “Cincinnati Milacron Hydrotel,” considered the first modern CNC milling machine.
CNC milling technology continues to evolve and find new applications each year alongside rapidly-developing computer and manufacturing technology. And amidst disruptions including the boom of “smart” technology and the COVID-19 pandemic (and its ongoing impacts on consumer behaviors), manufacturers increasingly seek ways to improve productivity and flexibility while cutting costs.
This challenge requires the widespread adoption of new technologies, some of which are likely to take hold industry-wide in the coming year. These five trends are on the horizon — and almost certain to shape the direction of CNC machining in 2021.
1. More axes for greater cost-savings
Traditional CNC machines feature linear motion in three axes. While many machines now include a moving bed, a 3-axis milling center remains still as the cutter itself moves. Typically, with a 3-axis machine, the bed moves linearly along two axes while the spindle translates up and down along the third axis. 4-axis machines enable more detailed cutting by incorporating a rotational axis.
Typically, a fourth-axis rotary is mounted to the machine table, and the part is mounted to the face of the fourth-axis rotary. This makes 4-axis machines well-suited for manufacturing medical devices and parts with complex geometries.
Finally, 5-axis machines represent the pinnacle of milling ability. These machines enable micromachining, and are capable of producing extremely detailed cuts at unmatched speeds. They consist of three linear axes and two rotational degrees of freedom. While 4- and 5-axis CNC machines have been commercially available for a number of years, they have only recently become financially accessible to many manufacturers.
What’s more, legacy CNC machines can be retrofitted to include more axes; by adding a trunnion that allows for greater tilt and rotation, a 3-axis machine can easily become a 5-axis machine. This increases the capabilities of the machine, allowing for more operations with fewer setups.
Considering that each setup requires additional operations, materials, time, and potential for error, fewer setups translate directly into cost-savings. At the same time, the proliferation of multi-axis machines is lowering prices across the board for smaller CNC machines, making the practice of milling more accessible to small operations and hobbyists.
2. Universal solutions for tooling
Vacuum fixtures or vacuum plates, which are used to hold projects in place that are difficult to secure or might easily deform, have traditionally been custom-made for each project. As a result, they have been quite costly, and most manufacturing teams tend to avoid using them unless strictly necessary.
However, the introduction of universal bases like the Pierson SmartVac and the Blue Photon UV workholding system have made it possible to custom-configure a single part for multiple operations. As a turnkey alternative to custom fixtures, these tools make it possible to create certain parts at a fraction of what it would have previously cost.
Matrix Innovations created a similar solution in the form of universal soft jaws, which can also be customized and used for repeated operations. Together, vacuum tables and reusable soft jaws make it far more affordable to complete complex CNC machining projects.
3. Increased use of robotics
While robots have long been used in CNC machining, it’s only recently that collaborative robots, or “cobots,” have seen widespread adoption. Cobots, unlike industrial robots, are designed to work closely alongside human workers. They’re programmed to work intuitively, and can even be taught their intended operation with manual movements.
Cobot adoption is accelerating rapidly due to advances in robot vision systems. Just like a Tesla car has vision systems that can recognize cars and pedestrians, vision systems can be attached to cobots, teaching it to see, recognize, pick, and place parts in a machine shop.
Because these robots have minimal programming and training needs, they are incredibly versatile and rarely require significant time investment up-front. It’s expected that this technology will help make workers more productive while also reducing costs in the long-run by reducing the likelihood of human error. Further, as machine learning capabilities are increasingly built into robotic systems, some experts predict that cobots will become even more effective workplace collaborators in the near future.
4. Advances in workforce training
Equipment manufacturers are increasingly installing 3D CAD viewers into their standard machine platforms. This screen acts as the primary visual guide for operation setup and progression, and can even be configured to include troubleshooting videos.
The integration of this software in CNC machining equipment will help manufacturers not only improve workforce training but also increase the effectiveness and efficiency of existing employees. What’s more, though this technology comes at a high upfront cost, it is likely to increase cost-savings in the long run by reducing operator error.
5. Advances in CAD/CAM software
In just the last five to 10 years, CAD/CAM has become increasingly democratized. The software, which was once prohibitively expensive, is now not only more affordable but also more accessible, intuitive, user-friendly, and powerful. This upgraded CAD/CAM software enables increased efficiency and accuracy — as well as even more innovative workflows.
What’s more, CAD/CAM software offers countless integrations with machine platforms, model-based definition (MBD) software, 3D viewing systems, and more. These integrations reduce the chances of user error and increase the accessibility of CAD/CAM software.
The future of CNC machining
These developments in CNC machining promise to make the technology both more accessible and more reliable in 2021 and beyond. What’s more, as these trends make it easier and less costly to complete custom projects quickly, CNC machining will provide greater agility than ever before — a key competitive advantage as ever-growing consumer expectations fuel the rise of on-demand manufacturing.
For product teams looking to take advantage of the latest developments in CNC machining, or to improve their existing CNC machining operations, there’s no better partner than Fast Radius. At Fast Radius, it’s our goal to help customers achieve consistently excellent results, and our team of skillful engineers and designers work with every customer to deliver unmatched support during every stage of the product development process. We guarantee that every customer is satisfied with the quality, cost, and production time of their parts. Contact us today to learn more.
You can learn more about CNC machining, injection molding, and our other service offerings at the Fast Radius resource center. There, you’ll also find profiles of various manufacturing materials and processes.