Each era of manufacturing has had its own revolutionary tools that changed the industry. From the steam engine to the oxygen furnace to the automated assembly line, embracing and harnessing these tools has always been a key part of success in the manufacturing sector.
Computer numerical control (CNC) machining is one such technology rapidly proving itself essential in today’s manufacturing landscape. CNC machining puts laser cutters, milling machines and other machining tools under the control of a computer which reads a diagram and performs all cuts automatically. Manufacturers can now use CNC machining to customize anything from heavy equipment parts to electronics enclosures.
What are the major advantages of CNC machining, and how is it pushing the manufacturing industry forward? In the following analysis, we’ll see what CNC has to offer today’s manufacturer and how these advantages can foster innovation in manufacturing.
While there’s certainly something to be said for handmade manufacturing, it can’t match automation in terms of consistency. Given two identical projects, even an extremely skilled machine operator will often produce work with minor differences. CNC machining, in contrast, creates a level of consistency no human operator can match.
Of course, consistency in machining doesn’t mean much if it’s not accompanied by accuracy. But CNC machining excels here, too. Many CNC machining services today offer tolerances as tight as +/- 0.005 inches. With such incredibly accurate tools, manufacturers can be sure their most important components will perform at the level they require. Another way to ensure that is through a CNC enclosure as well.
CNC machining is noted for its ability to vastly reduce the material waste associated with the machining process. A properly programmed and maintained CNC machining tool will not make mistakes, and fewer mistakes means fewer projects that have to be scrapped. A CNC tool can also be programmed to use highly efficient processes a human may not be able to execute.
But it’s not just materials CNC machining uses less of—it can create substantial savings in labor, as well. That’s because CNC machines are much less labor intensive to operate. In many shops, a single CNC operator can run multiple machines at once. On top of that, many CNC machine shops can run their machines 24/7, or close to it. That greatly reduces the turnaround time for even relatively complex orders.
For a manual machine shop, scale is a constant concern. Many non-CNC machining processes require large minimum order quantities due to the effort required to develop tooling and machining processes for a new project. But because of the higher resource deployment required for human-led machining, large orders can also be taxing to fill.
CNC machining provides advantages both for large and small orders. For large orders, the speed and efficiency of CNC fabrication far outstrips that of human machinists, meaning large orders often take only a fraction of the time they once did. This is great news for businesses that might be required to scale their production quickly on short notice in order to seize an opportunity.
For small orders, the efficiency of the process means the expenditure of resources is minimal. That can mean, for example, an electronics hobbyist can order a single custom electronic project box without running up against the high minimum order quantities machine shops have traditionally required.
The prototyping process often involves iterative design processes that require multiple prototypes to be designed, tested and then analyzed for flaws. That’s why it’s so important prototyping fabrication processes that once took days, weeks or even months can often be completed in a few hours by using CNC machining.
The time required to create a succession of mock-ups and prototypes has often been a key bottleneck in the prototyping process. With CNC machining, the turnaround from a CAD drawing to a finished prototype can be substantially shorter. Faster manufacturing turnaround leads to more efficient prototyping processes that have an easier time executing design changes and rooting out problems.
These effects create a virtuous cycle that benefits everyone. Manufacturers are able to test products more thoroughly before they go to market, but they can also often get to market faster due to the greater efficiency of their processes. That’s a win-win for everyone, from the manufacturers who get more room to maneuver in their markets to the end user who has a greater choice of innovative products.
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Thanks to the factors we’ve discussed here, CNC machining tends to reduce both the material and labor costs of machining custom parts. Keeping machining costs down is a crucial part of success in the manufacturing sector, where just a few cents’ difference in the per unit cost can produce substantial cost savings.
This is particularly true for advanced manufacturing sectors, where input costs tend to be relatively high. It helps small manufacturers maintain their ability to compete in increasingly crowded markets, and it helps drive prices down for end users. In particular, it helps U.S. manufacturers keep up with offshore competitors by providing access to high quality machined parts at a low cost.
Finally, the reduction in costs means high performance machining technology is more accessible than ever to hobbyists, students and other people who may not have access to the resources required for large-scale fabrication. Often, these are the passionate innovators who plant the seeds of great discoveries, and putting more technical power in their hands has been the genesis of many new technologies throughout history.
Along with 3D printing, CNC machining is one of the technologies at the forefront of 21st century manufacturing. Businesses that haven’t yet investigated the benefits of CNC machining for their custom parts should learn about how these technologies can meet their fabrication needs.