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NC (Numerical Control) machines were first pioneered in 1949 for the aircraft industry because engineers wanted to manufacture aircraft parts faster while maintaining accuracy.  An NC is the automated control of machining tools using a computer.  Did you know that in 1952, a team of researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) enhanced this by inventing the first CNC Machine?  Through this article, I will explain the difference between NC and CNC machines, how they work, and the many applications they are used in today.

Before NC machines, manufacturing machines used manual controls, which had to be adjusted to tell the device where to act, such as a cut, punch, etc.   Mr. John T. Parsons was the father of NC (numerical control) machines, even though the idea had been around for a while before he invented it.  John imagined and designed this with Mr. Frank L. Stuten, son of a Michigan manufacturer.  Parson started working as an assembler in his father’s factory at age 14. 

Existing manufacturing machines were altered by adding motors to adjust the settings for the desired output and were controlled by a punch tape fed into the system.  Some manufacturing machines configured to use NC were but were not limited to metal cutting, engraving, and mass production on a vast dichotomy of parts for distribution.  Some of the specific actions that were controlled by these were NC systems, including but not limited to drilling, milling, turning, finishing, welding, sheet-metal working, and even riveting.

Did you know NC machines can have machining tolerances as small as 0.005mm.?  NC machines were excellent at delivering constant working conditions for all parts in a batch. Did you know NC machines allowed reliable, consistent deliverables and decreased non-machining time?  Understand that NC is not a manufacturing process, but a way of controlling a machine’s tool via data points it reads from a tape.  NC Machines use a program that is comprised of alphanumeric characters or symbols called a block.

NC Machines use this data in blocks to tell the machine things like tool position, job position, cutting speed, and feed rate.  Some code blocks may ask a machine to open/close a door, change a tool, or activate coolant flow.  Thanks to NC technology, many manufacturers were now able to enjoy the benefits of higher precision, better quality, increased productivity, multi-operational machining, minimal operator training,

However, NC Machines gave production lines many challenges, including tapes wearing out or becoming dirty and causing errors in reading.  Each time a new part was produced, the NC tape or card had to be reloaded again.  If operators noticed issues in the final product, the tape or card could not be edited; thus, costs accrued for new programs and lead times.

Since there were many shortcomings to NC, research began at MIT around 1949, and in 1952, a dedicated team of engineers released the first CNC machine, patented in 1958.  With the birth of CNC (Computer Numeric Control), machining could support many applications such as aerospace, health, consumer electronics, and many others.  High-precision manufacturing became a requirement for many industries, including the Aviation industry, because their product's reliability and construction affect an individual's life.  Rapid direct was introduced as a method allowing tolerances of 0.00002mm, where the previous was only 0.005mm.

Today, there are many differences between NC and CNS, one being that CNC machines are more costly but have a much stricter tolerance.  NC machines do not have any onboard memory to store programs, whereas CNC machines do.  Maintenance is much less on an NC machine; however, the tradeoff is that there needs to be a skilled operator running the machine, and CNC does not.  CNC machines are robust enough to execute tasks in less time and can run for 24, whereas NC machines take more time to run programs and often break down when overworked.  Furthermore, changes may be made to the running machine parameters in CNC, whereas in NC machines, this is not possible.

CNC machines also have given us G codes and N codes to allow us to be more precise on the machine and specific tool head locations. An N code is the program line number; the G code tells the device when to start and stop.  X, Y, & Z allow the programmers to specify locations:  X:  horizontal, Y: vertical, and Z:  feed speed. Now that you understand what the machine is for, I will give you an example to illustrate a device's possible actions.  Using the G-code (R-274) Language:  G00 will move the machine rapidly to a specific location, G01 will execute a linear feed, and G02/G03 will implement a clockwise or counterclockwise meal. Here is a formal example:  “G00G58X-120.Y.-5.” we know that G00 will execute a rapid move, and the G58 initializes work conditions as it is expected to have several blank work pallets on a machine.  The X-120 tells the device to go to position -120mm on the X axis, which we learned before is horizontal.  The Y-5 instructs the machine to move in the Y Plane, which is vertical -5mm.

All CNC machines also use M-Code, which is the specific program code that tells the machine when to stop:  M00, rotate the spindle:  M03, M08:  Flood Coolant On, and Flood Collant off, respectively. Other common M-codes CNC machines use are F:  Feed Rate, T:  Tool Number, H:  Tool length offset, and custom letters to link to specific programs to open/close doors, enable/disable conveyors, etc.

CNC machines' power has made manufacturing parts more efficient and profitable and gave way to more called DNC.  DNC or Distributed Numeric Control is an environment with an application server, and each NC program is managed via a database, allowing multiple machines to be part of a manufacturing process operation.  DNC is vital to production because it provides traceability for all parts produced by logging all communication between the programs and each machine.  DNC also allows machining supports PLM (Product Life Cycle) compliance for a secure, continuous process chain in process control management

After many decades of research, engineering manufacturing machines have come a long way, but now they are advancing even more when we add AI to these systems.  AI support allows CNC machines to learn from the data captured from jobs previously run.  Robot arms may be deployed in a factory to insert and remove parts to a CNC machine and be programmed to operate seamlessly.  CNC machines in the future with AI will be able to scan parts and generate the code for this particular factory’s equipment.

CNC & DNC machines are making incredible time-saving manufacturing production to our world.  Before I sign off on this new letter, I want to share some of the latest revolutionary accomplishments in the industry today.  Kimla Cutter is a CNC laser cutter that is phenomenal at cutting many materials, including fiberglass, into specific shapes, including the size & depth of the cuts guided by a computer. Usually, a task is hazardous because fiberglass particles may irritate skin, eyes, nose, and throat and affect breathing. 

The next time you say come in or open your door, you will be glad the Elecnc 1025 exists. This machine makes precise door lock holes.  Elecnc 1024 doesn’t just make the holes for the handle and or knob but also the small holes required to fasten hinges or decorative hardware. 

Acrylic Laser Cutter is a CNC machine that uses a laser bear to apply heat until the material melts and then vaporizes to create a clean cut.  This machine is used by many electronic and medical manufacturers that want to deliver a high-quality cover for their equipment and storage cabinets.

A 5-axis Wood Cutting Lathe is a CNC machine that allows the precision cutting of wood using 5 axes of motion, enabling it to create complex shapes and contours.  It is designed with a rotating spindle that holds the wood stock while a computer guides tools such as chisels and gauzes.  The 5-axis allows various cutting angles and orientations to produce intricate designs and shapes with a typical lathe.

AirFoils are cut with HotWire shapes out of foam or similar shapes, which starts but heating the wire till it's hot and then guiding it through the material to make a precise cut.  The Independent axis control feature also allows it to cut multiple Airfoils in a single pass, which approves efficiency and costs.  There is also an automatic material feeding, a positioning system, high-speed cutting, and a dust extraction system.

Backlit Trade Show Table Panel Milling system, a CNC machine that creates custom panels for trade show displays that are backlit with LED lighting.  The process starts by milling a design into a material such as aluminum composite with a custom pattern, design, or logo.  Then, the panel is backlit with LED lights, illuminating the design and drawing attention to the booth from the eye-catching light emitted.  After the design is milled into the panel, an LED set of light strips and a diffuser light is fitted to create a uniform light distribution across the entire panel.

I hope you will appreciate all the time and work that goes into making a prototype and the production process with today's modern CNC and DNC machine shops.  Did you know that having a CNC machine in your company would be like paying an employee $5.00 an hour to work continuously without breaks?   We must remember to thank the father of NC, Mr. John T. Parsons, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology for their impressive innovations, or we would not be where we are today!

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