The manufacturing industry and machining world have seen a huge range of technological advancements over the last couple of centuries, beginning with the Industrial Revolution of the 1820s. Manual labor has been revolutionized by machine work, and society has been forever altered by the introduction of the assembly line in 1913.
Fast forward to 2018, over a century later, and we have computer-aided, or computer numerical control (CNC) machines that are taking over the production process entirely. One such machine is the CNC lathe, which quickly replaced traditional multi-spindle lathes to become one of the most versatile, popular tools in use today.
A Brief Introduction to CNC Lathes
Computer controlled lathe machines are essentially a modern take on a century-old tool — the manual lathe. The lathe spins the raw material along one axis (vertical or horizontal), while the cutting tool attached to it gives the material the desired shape.
- Sizes available — Like mills, CNC lathes can be found in multiple sizes and shapes, from tiny machines to full-form lathes that take up an entire room. Miniature, handheld versions are often used by watchmakers and jewelers, while the bulkier versions are a staple in CNC machine shops.
- Materials used — CNC lathes can be used for a wide variety of materials. With the right material, you can achieve any kind of intricate design or shape. Below are a few commonly worked materials.
- Wax for creating prototypes — Machinable wax, plain paraffin, and beeswax
- Wood — Lathed wood has a beautiful look and feel
- Plastics — Delrin®, acrylics, and Teflon™
- Metal — Aluminum, brass, and stainless steel
Types of Lathes
- Engine lathe — A popular type of lathe suitable for low-power operations; reliable and versatile; works on a wide range of speeds and feeds
- Centre lathe — Involves levers and gears that manage spindle speed; not an especially popular option
- Gap bed lathe — Can easily accommodate larger workpieces due to a removable bed section that forms the base of this machine
- Speed lathe — Faster, lighter version of modern CNC lathes, only including a headstock, tailstock, and tool turret
- Bench lathe — Another lighter, smaller variety; can be perched on a workbench for small jobs
- Toolroom lathe — Highly versatile; provides the best finishing
- Turret lathe — Ideal for quick and sequential workings
- Special-purpose lathe — Used to perform heavy-duty, specific tasks
Benefits of CNC Lathes Vs. Conventional Lathes
CNC lathes offer many advantages over conventional machines. Five key benefits are outlined below.
1. No need for highly skilled operators
In the past, working with lathes required two highly skilled operators — one handling the lathe and the other controlling the material. It was a tough job. But now, with the introduction of computers and automation, lathe tasks are a lot less daunting. You need just one operator — someone skilled enough to enter the dimensions onto the machine, adjust the feeds and the speeds, and let the computer (and the machine) do the rest.
2. Full automation, allowing for easier, quicker work
Producing hundreds, even millions, of similar dimensions is easier than ever, thanks to modern CNC lathes. Today, machine-controlled systems enable CNC lathes to produce perfect pieces easier and quicker than ever before. Whether you need simple parts, intricate parts with tight tolerances, or unique, intricate shapes, CNC lathes can handle the job.
3. Highly versatile, allowing for use in the creation of all kinds of products and parts
Unlike manual lathes, CNC lathes are versatile enough to produce nearly any kind of product or part — from sturdy furniture pieces and car parts to delicate lamps and crockery. Shaping cylinders or spheres is easy with CNC lathes, which can even be used to produce replacements parts for other machines.
4. 99.99% accuracy
As less manual labor is involved, the chances of achieving optimal accuracy are pretty high with CNC lathes. This makes these machines a top choice in industries requiring high precision — such as the aerospace, health care, and hospitality sectors. Plus, CNC lathes work with almost every type of material. That said, one can never eliminate all errors, manually or otherwise. That’s why we’ve kept that 0.01% aside.
5. Cost efficiency
While CNC lathes are a lot costlier than manual lathes, CNC models still offer a range of financial benefits, including:
- Low setup costs — Setup costs are a one-time expenditure when working with CNC lathes.
- Machining costs — With CNC machines, you recoup every investment by being able to produce 20x more parts than manual lathes allow in a given time frame.
- Labor costs — Fewer operators are required with CNC lathe work, and they don’t need to be tied to the machines 24/7. This frees up your labor budget for other essential operations.
- Material waste — Less human error means less material waste.
Working With CNC Lathes
Like other types of CNC machines, CNC lathes have found a solid niche in the machining sphere over the last several years, effectively replacing manual and conventional models thanks to the versatility, accuracy, cost efficiency, and easy automation offered.
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