computer numerical control
Also found in: Acronyms.
computer numerical control[kəm′pyüd·ər nü′mer·i·kəl kən′trōl]
Computer numerical control
The method of controlling machines by the application of digital electronic computers and circuitry. Machine movements that are controlled by cams, gears, levers, or screws in conventional machines are directed by computers and digital circuitry in computer numerical control (CNC) machines.
Computer numerical control provides very flexible and versatile control over machine tools. Most machining operations require that a cutting tool be fed at some speed against a workpiece. In a conventional machine such as a turret lathe, the turning tool is mounted on a slide with hand-operated infeed and crossfeed slides. The operator manually turns a crank that feeds the cutting tool into the workpiece (infeed) to the desired diameter. Another crank then moves the turning tool along the longitudinal axis of the machine and produces a cylindrical cut along the workpiece. The feed rate of the turning tool is sometimes controlled by selecting feed gears. These gears move the axis slide at the desired feed. A CNC machine replaces the hand cranks and feed gears with servomotor systems. See Servomechanism
Computer numerical controls allow the desired cut depths and feed rates to be “dialed in” rather than controlled by cranks, cams, and gears. This provides precise, repeatable machine movements that can be programmed for optimal speeds, feeds, and machine cycles. All cutting-tool applications, whether on a lathe, drill press, or machining center, have optimum speeds and feeds, which are determined by carefully weighing the economics of tool life, required production rates, and operator attentiveness. With computer numerical control these parameters are set once, and then they are repeated precisely for each subsequent machine cycle.
In computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), computers are used to assist in programming CNC machines. In sophisticated CNC manufacturing operations, machined parts are first designed on computer-aided-design (CAD) equipment. The same electronic drawing is then used to create the CNC part program automatically. A less advanced version of CAM is the use of high-level part programming languages to write part programs. See Computer-aided design and manufacturing
Computer numerical control machines are used mainly when flexibility is required or variable and complex part geometries must be created. They are used to produce parts in lot sizes of a few pieces to several thousand. Extremely large manufacturing lot sizes frequently call for more product-specific machines, which can be optimized for large production runs.