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What Is CNC Machining? The Complete Basics to Get Started

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    whitepaper cnc machining 1

    Ultimate Guide to CNC Machining

    The comprehensive guide provides you with the basics, design considerations, materials, surface finish, cost, and more about CNC machining to help you create quality machined parts with aesthetic appearance.

    Wondering about CNC machining and why it’s a big deal in the manufacturing world? You’re not alone. Computer Numeric Control (CNC) Machining is a key player in modern manufacturing, using advanced technology to cut, shape, and create parts with precision.

    This article breaks down the basics of how CNC machines work and their role in making everything from car parts to tech gadgets. We’ll also look at the many industries that rely on this technology and why it’s so important.

    Overview of CNC Machining

    CNC machining, controlled by computers, produces high-precision parts and components. In this process, a computer program controls the movement of the cutting tools, which the CNC programming controls to remove material from a workpiece to create a finished part.

    5 axis cnc machining process

    CNC technology produces an array of parts and components, including those made from metal, plastic, and other materials. The process can also produce parts with complex geometries and high levels of precision, making it a popular choice for applications in numerous industries, including aerospace, automotive, medical devices, and consumer products.

    It offers several advantages over traditional machining methods, including improved accuracy, consistency, and speed, as well as the ability to produce complex geometries and intricate details. It also allows for the use of advanced cutting tools and techniques, such as multi-axis machining centers and high-speed machining, which can further improve the efficiency and quality of the process.

    The History of CNC Machining

    Its history can be traced back to the 1940s when the first numerical control (NC) machines were developed. Over time, these machines became more widespread and sophisticated. This gave them the capability to fulfill the requirements of a variety of industries including aerospace, automotive, and defense.

    cnc machining in process

    However, older NC machines still needed manual input and had limited capabilities.

    The transformation of manufacturing began in the 1970s with the introduction of computers, leading to a breakthrough: the first CNC machines. These advanced machines, equipped with computer controls, could process data with unprecedented speed and accuracy. This innovation allowed CNC operators to input commands directly into the machine, which then automatically executed the necessary operations, significantly streamlining the manufacturing process.

    This was only the beginning of CNC machines as the technology continued to advance over the years. The development of more advanced software and hardware along with the introduction of new material and tooling options meant more possibilities for manufacturing units.

    Today, CNC machinery is common in multiple industries and is capable of producing a diverse range of products with high levels of accuracy and precision.

    How CNC Machining Works?

    Contemporary CNC systems focus on minimizing human intervention as much as possible. This ensures consistent and continuous performance, which facilitates smart manufacturing and delivers excellent results.

    However, CNC manufacturing requires careful consideration from the initial design to the final manufacturing. The entire process works in three different steps:

    1 – Design

    The first crucial step in CNC machining involves software applications like CAD, CAM, and CAE. Engineers and designers rely on these tools to design parts and products, and then assess their manufacturability. This assessment, known as Design for Manufacturing (DFM), is vital. It ensures that the design is optimized to maximize efficiency and reduce costs, all while working within the constraints of existing technology.

    In most cases, the CAD tools available in the market come with an internal CAM tool, which facilitates the pre-processing and programming.

    After finalizing the CAD design, the designer converts it into a CNC-compatible file format, typically STEP or IGES.

    cnc machining design drawings

    2 – Pre-processing and Programming

    CNC machine programming primarily involves using G-codes and M-codes to communicate with machines. These codes, generated by CAM packages, act as a guide for the cutting tool’s path in CNC operations.

    Usually, if a design adheres to DFM (Design for Manufacturing) standards, CNC machinists don’t need to intervene in the pre-processing or operational stages. However, if the design doesn’t meet these standards, some level of manual intervention may be required to guarantee optimal performance.

    cnc programming

    Pre-processing is a standard step in CNC machining, and its duration depends on the design’s quality. Programming the G-Codes or M-Codes typically takes just a few minutes. However, the success of CNC programming hinges on the design’s adherence to DFM conventions. Accurate designs produce correct codes and satisfactory results, while design flaws lead to erroneous codes and poor outcomes.  

    3 – Machining

    The final stage is the machining process, which uses the provided codes from the previous step to remove excess material from a block.

    machining process

    Precision in machine tooling is crucial, yet it’s often challenging to replicate the exact dimensions of a CAD model. This is why machinists typically apply standard ISO 2768 tolerances, which vary based on industry requirements. It’s a widely accepted principle that tighter tolerances lead to increased manufacturing costs.

    Common CNC Operations Across the Industry

    CNC machining is a versatile process with operations varying based on specific requirements. Simple designs might be achieved through a single operation, such as milling. However, more complex designs typically require a greater variety of operations.

    Below are some key CNC machining equipment widely used in the industry.

    CNC Milling

    CNC milling is a highly precise and versatile machining process used to remove material from a solid block to create a specific shape or design. It involves the use of a CNC system to manipulate a multi-point cutting tool, typically a milling cutter, with extreme accuracy. During this process, the workpiece is securely mounted on a table, and the milling cutter is rotated at high speeds to systematically chip away at the material. This method is particularly effective for generating flat surfaces, but its capabilities extend far beyond simple shapes.

    One of the key features of CNC mills is its ability to perform intermittent cutting with multiple machine steps, allowing for the efficient creation of complex geometries. The technology has evolved to include 3, 4, and 5-axis milling machines:

    • 3-Axis Milling: Movements along the X, Y, and Z axes enable basic operations like drilling and planing. Ideal for straightforward projects requiring simple shapes, this method is popular for its simplicity. However, it’s limited in creating complex geometries, making it best suited for less intricate designs.
    • 4-Axis Milling: Adding a rotational axis, it allows for more complex operations than 3-axis milling. This method is ideal for angular cuts and more intricate shapes, expanding the capabilities of CNC machining. It’s particularly useful for parts requiring additional precision that 3-axis milling machines can’t provide.
    • 5-Axis Milling: The pinnacle of CNC milling, this type of machining method moves along five axes simultaneously, allowing for extreme precision and complexity. It’s invaluable in high-precision industries for creating complex shapes with tight tolerances. This method streamlines production by reducing the need for multiple setups, ensuring efficiency and accuracy.

    CNC Turning

    CNC turning is a highly efficient machining process predominantly used for shaping cylindrical workpieces, although it can also handle square or hexagonal-shaped raw materials. At its core, CNC turning involves the use of a computer-controlled lathe that rotates the workpiece against various cutting tools. These tools trim and shape the material into the desired cylindrical form.

    The uniqueness of turning machine lies in its versatility and precision, governed by different spindles and speed capabilities. This process can be performed on both vertical and horizontal setups, each catering to specific types of workpieces and machining requirements.

    There are two main types of machines:

    • CNC Lathes: It excels in precision turning operations, ideal for crafting cylindrical parts with high accuracy. It operates by rotating the workpiece against a stationary tool, making it perfect for simple to moderately complex shapes, commonly used in automotive and aerospace industries.
    • CNC Turning Centers: It combines turning with additional functions like milling and drilling. This multi-tasking capability allows for producing complex parts in a single setup, enhancing efficiency and accuracy. It’s essential in industries requiring intricate, multifaceted components, such as advanced manufacturing.

    CNC Drilling

    Drilling is an important manufacturing process that creates different-sized thread holes in a workpiece. The process is completely automated because of the involvement of a computer that precisely controls the movement and speed of the drill bit.

    CNC drilling is quite common in many industries including printed circuit boards, metal parts, and plastics. The process offers several advantages over traditional manual drilling, including increased accuracy, repeatability, and efficiency.

    CNC Routing

    The crude operations of CNC routers are the same as milling machines. Routers generally deal with softer materials like wood while milling is common for tougher metals. Just like any CNC operation, routers also deliver excellent consistency, efficiency, and accuracy.

    In the routing process, the workpiece remains completely stationary while the spindle moves in different directions. Since the routing process is for softer materials, the overall rotating speed of the spindle can be quite low. There are numerous CNC routing machines, including benchtop routers, gantry routers, and moving gantry routers. The choice of machine and cutting tool will depend on the specific requirements of the workpiece and the desired end product.

    Electric Discharge Machining

    An electric discharge machine (EDM) is a manufacturing process that utilizes electrical spark discharges to erode away material and produce complex shapes and geometries.

    The process works by creating a spark between an electrode and the workpiece. The machinists submerge the workpiece in a dielectric fluid, which isolates the electrical energy and allows for the precise control of the spark. The spark discharge vaporizes the workpiece and removes access material to obtain the required shape.

    There are two main EDM types: sinker EDM and wire EDM. Sinker EDM uses a consumable electrode to create the spark. Contrarily, wire EDM uses a thin wire that moves to and fro to create the spark.

    CNC Plasma Cutting

    CNC plasma cutting is a dynamic manufacturing process widely used in large-scale industrial settings, renowned for its ability to make high-speed and precise cuts in electronically conductive materials like  steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass and copper. This method involves a plasma torch that creates a powerful plasma arc between an electrode and the workpiece, effectively melting and vaporizing the material at the point of contact. A critical component of this process is the high-pressure stream of gas, such as air or nitrogen, which expels the molten material from the cut area, resulting in a clean, precise edge with minimal deformation or discoloration.

    This technique stands out for its versatility, seamlessly cutting both thin and thick materials, which broadens its industrial applications. Moreover, plasma cutting is cost-effective, offering lower operational costs compared to other methods. Its integration of speed, precision, and affordability makes it an essential tool in modern manufacturing, particularly in industries where efficiency and accuracy are crucial.

    CNC Laser Cutting

    CNC laser cutting, a staple in industrial manufacturing, is celebrated for its precision and speed. It employs advanced lasers, including CO2, Nd, and Nd:YAG types, to effectively vaporize materials, ensuring clean and precise cuts. This technology is versatile enough to handle a wide range of materials, contributing to its widespread use across various industries.

    The technology’s precision is not just limited to single operations; it excels in repeatability, which is essential for mass production. This consistent accuracy is particularly beneficial in sectors like aerospace and automotive, where exactness is crucial. CNC laser cutting is also known for its efficiency, resulting in minimal material wastage and superior precision. Furthermore, the process simplifies work holding and reduces workpiece contamination, enhancing overall productivity. With its ability to create finely detailed cuts and maintain strict tolerances, it stands as an indispensable tool in contemporary manufacturing.

    Types of CNC Machines

    The capabilities of CNC machines vary widely, influenced by factors like their complexity and cost. Some machines are versatile, performing a range of operations, while others are specialized, designed for specific tasks.

    Let’s delve into the most common types of CNC machines prevalent in the industry:

    Common CNC Materials and Surface Finishes

    Here’s a brief list of common CNC materials:

    • Stainless Steel
    • Aluminum
    • Titanium
    • Copper
    • Brass
    • Other Steel Alloys
    • Plastics

    Here’s a list of ommon CNC surface finishes:

    • As machined
    • Bead blasting
    • Powder coating
    • Anodizing
    • Painting

    Common Applications of CNC Machined Parts

    Machining processes, known for their precision in fabricating CNC parts, are utilized in various capacities across numerous fields. The industries that benefit most significantly from the capabilities of CNC machining include:

    Aerospace Ammunition, and other similar items.
    AutomotiveEngine parts, transmission components, and suspension components.
    Medical DevicesImplants, prosthetics, and surgical instruments.
    Consumer ProductsElectronics, toys, and common household items.
    Machinery and EquipmentPumps, valves, and gears.
    Prototyping and R&DProduce prototypes and test parts for research and development purposes.
    Jewelry ProductionIntricate jewelry requires precision and repeatability
    Molds and DiesMolds and dies necessary for producing plastic and metal products.
    cnc machined components

    Main Pros and Cons of CNC Machining

    Here are the main advantages and disadvantages that CNC machining offers:

    It allows for precise control of the cutting tool, resulting in parts with tight tolerances and excellent repeatability.CNC machines are quite expensive. Moreover, there are many types of them and most of their operations are not interchangeable. Thereby making capital requirements significant for small and medium businesses.
    It can operate at high speeds, allowing for faster production of parts.Trained operators needed: Unlike traditional machines, CNC operators require significant training before they can start working. Which means they are more in demand and have higher wage requirements.
    It ensures consistent quality, which is excellent for a consumer product or large-volume production.While efficient, some CNC operations may waste more material compared to the manual process. However, the precision, repeatability, and efficiency they offer may offset this con in many cases.  
    It offers the flexibility to create a wide array of parts, ranging from simple to intricate designs, with effective programming and the right machining approach. 
    It ensures consistent quality, which is excellent for a consumer or large-volume production. 
    It is cost-effective for large production runs, leveraging economies of scale to lower the cost per piece, meeting industry demands for efficiency and affordability. 
    It offers enhanced safety compared to manual methods, as operators control the machines remotely, reducing exposure to hazards like shards, heat, and other threats. 
    Since most of the processes are automatic, they are optimized to perform consistently without any intervention. Thereby lowering the overall maintenance requirements. 

    RapidDirect: The Right Manufacturing Partner for Every CNC Project

    Meeting CNC manufacturing needs, especially for small or medium-sized businesses, can be resource-intensive, necessitating expertise in machining parts and CNC certification. To address these challenges, partnering with specialized CNC machining providers like RapidDirect has become a prevalent industrial practice.

    RapidDirect stands out as an ideal manufacturing partner, offering top-tier CNC machining services. Operating from China, a global manufacturing hub, the company has a proven track record of excellence. Their expert team is capable of achieving tolerances as precise as 0.01mm, encompassing a range of services from CNC turning and milling to plasma cutting and laser cutting.

    Moreover, RapidDirect is not only ISO 9001 certified but also boasts a state-of-the-art quality control process, ensuring the highest standards of customer satisfaction with every project. This combination of expertise and quality assurance makes them a reliable choice for addressing diverse CNC machining requirements.

    cnc machining in process

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    Bonus: What’s It Like to be a CNC Machinist?

    Being a CNC machining is not easy. It’s a tough and demanding job requiring a lot of creativity, dexterity, and quick thinking. Moreover, CNC machining is evolving and it’s the machinist’s job to keep up with the new updates and deliver the best the current technology has to offer.

    cnc operator

    Here are the few expectations that come with the role of a CNC operator:

    • Hands-on knowledge: It’s important to understand the inner working of the machines and perform basic diagnostics. CNC machinists spend a lot of time with different cutting tools and need excellent hand-eye coordination.
    • Technical skills: A basic level of understanding of machine tools, fixtures, and design philosophies is critical.  
    • Problem-solving: CNC operations are automated but may encounter any issues as well. The operator must know enough basics to deal with the problem and rectify basic issues easily.
    • Programming skills: The only way to communicate with a CNC machine is through the program. So, it’s necessary to have the necessary programming knowledge.
    • Attention to detail: Precision is a basic requirement for any machining project and any operator must have the right attention to detail for the best performance.


    CNC machining stands as a cornerstone in modern industry, sparking curiosity among those outside the field. It’s a key driver of the industrial age and is poised to play a significant role in the future.

    The rise of SMART factories and Industry 4.0 hinges on the capabilities of CNC machining. This technology bridges manual machining with digital control, ensuring unparalleled precision and consistency. While the manufacturing technique has some limitations, its benefits far outweigh these challenges. As the technology evolves, it’s expected that current issues will be resolved, further enhancing its impact.

    Interested in experiencing top-notch CNC machined outcomes? Reach out to RapidDirect today and discover the excellence of advanced CNC solutions!


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