Computer Numerical Control. That is the name of the technology that is revolutionizing projects in maker spaces across the world. In fact, I’m willing to bet that your school, particularly if it’s a rather large one with a good CTE program, has some sort of CNC mill. I know mine does.
CNC milling is a form of manufacturing known as subtractive manufacturing, in which a part or product is made by removing material from a piece of that material. Whereas previously, we had things such as saws and drills for this purpose, CNC technology has allowed immense advancements in the precision of products made of materials such as wood. In essence, CNC itself is a form of Cartesian coordinates translated into numerical code that can be read by computers within the machine. These coordinates direct a drill within a said machine, which then whittles away at the block or unit of raw material, sometimes in a process involving several passes, each pass refining the shape of the final product further and further.
Different machines have different capabilities, as one might imagine, and the primary distinction between many of these machines is the number of axes the drill can be moved in. Most machines, particularly the less expensive ones, can support two or three axes, the standard coordinates of x, y, and z. However, some more advanced systems support four or even five, allowing for greater versatility in milling and greater potential for the intricacy and shape of final products. The fourth and fifth axes themselves are not a completely separate path, so to speak, through which the drill can travel, but rather incorporate the rotation of the drill assembly itself in one or two axes.
As one might imagine, with the first C in CNC standing for “computer”, computer-aided design(CAD) is a must in order for a CNC mill to be able to operate and create the desired product. The machine can’t read paper blueprints, after all! Once the initial 3D model is completed inside a software such as Autodesk Inventor or SketchUp, the design is converted by CAM software into a CNC-compatible file format and is then ready to be created.
CNC mills work well with a wide variety of materials, including but not limited to; wood, aluminum, plastics, PVC, nylon, ceramics, glass, bronze, titanium, and steel. The primary application of this technology, as one would imagine, is in manufacturing – many large systems and products such as automobile and aerospace parts require quick, efficient production of components in order to fulfill the demand for the larger product. Were the productions of such components not computerized, products reliant on modern CNC technology would certainly be more costly to produce and purchase, not to mention more time consuming to make. In addition, as briefly mentioned in the introduction to this post, CNC mills are a boon to students and hobbyists who wish to complete some sort of CAD-related project and have a maker space of some sort available to them.
Author at STEMTalksNC