Motion is controlled along multiple axes, normally at least two (X and Y), and a tool spindle that moves in the Z (depth). The position of the tool is driven by direct-drive stepper motor or servo motors in order to provide highly accurate movements, or in older designs, motors through a series of step down gears. Open-loop control works as long as the forces are kept small enough and speeds are not too great. On commercial metalworking machines, closed loop controls are standard and required in order to provide the accuracy, speed, and repeatability demanded.
As the controller hardware evolved, the mills themselves also evolved. One change has been to enclose the entire mechanism in a large box as a safety measure, often with additional safety interlocks to ensure the operator is far enough from the working piece for safe operation. Most new CNC systems built today are 100% electronically controlled.
CNC-like systems are now used for any process that can be described as a series of movements and operations. These include laser cutting, welding, friction stir welding, ultrasonic welding, flame and plasma cutting, bending, spinning, hole-punching, pinning, gluing, fabric cutting, sewing, tape and fiber placement, routing, picking and placing, and sawing.
Computer numerical control (CNC) is the automation of machine tools by means of computers executing pre-programmed sequences of machine control commands. This is in contrast to machines that are manually controlled by hand wheels or levers, or mechanically automated by cams alone.
In modern CNC systems, the design of a mechanical part and its manufacturing program is highly automated. The part’s mechanical dimensions are defined using computer-aided design (CAD) software, and then translated into manufacturing directives by computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software. The resulting directives are transformed (by “post processor” software) into the specific commands necessary for a particular machine to produce the component, and then loaded into the CNC machine.
Since any particular component might require the use of a number of different tools – drills, saws, etc. – modern machines often combine multiple tools into a single “cell”. In other installations, a number of different machines are used with an external controller and human or robotic operators that move the component from machine to machine. In either case, the series of steps needed to produce any part is highly automated and produces a part that closely matches the original CAD.