Types of CNC Machines

By Kinnek Knowledge Team  |  September 06, 2019

In order to determine which machine shop is best for you, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the types of CNC machining equipment that are available.  Not only can it help you communicate with your machinist, but it can also give you a better idea of the production process, what geometries are possible to machine, and how much your part may cost to produce. 

Read on for a short primer on the most common CNC machines.


CNC Mills

CNC mills are excellent for horizontal or vertical machining and hole punching.  CNC mills are very versatile, but they are usually used for machining metal and other hard materials that are more difficult to cut.  CNC mills are also often used for cutting smaller parts rather than large pieces. 

You may see two broad categories of CNC mills. In the first, the workpiece moves back and forth while the cutting tool rotates in place.  In the second, the cutter will move back and forth while the part is held in place.


CNC Routers

CNC routers are similar to CNC mills, but they have distinct mechanisms.  CNC mills cut using torque, while routers cut using rotational speed. That means that while CNC mills can cut harder materials and are more accurate than routers, they require a heavier structure and aren’t ideal for machining large parts. This makes CNC routers ideal for cutting sheet metal and other large scale products made of wood or plastic. 


CNC Lathes

CNC lathes or turning centers are designed to manufacture cylindrical, conic, and spherical geometries.  In CNC turning, the workpiece is rotated while the cutting tool remains stationary, similar to a pottery wheel.  CNC lathes have fewer moving parts than other machines, so they can often produce larger volumes of material at a lower cost.


CNC Plasma Cutters

Plasma cutters use a plasma torch mounted on a gantry to cut sheet metal and other hard substances.  Plasma is the fourth state of matter and is able to reach very hot temperatures, allowing the machinist to cut through a wide variety of materials. This is done by compressing gas and then ionizing it using an electrode. The pressurized, ionized gas then produces a stream of plasma that is used to cut the part.  Typically, plasma cutters are used to cut sheet metal and most metal fabrication shops will have one.


EDM Machines

Electrical discharge machining, also known as die sinking and spark machining, is capable of extremely tiny and precise machining, including drilling tiny, deep holes into very hard materials such as tungsten carbide that would be otherwise impossible with a drill bit.  EDM machining is possible on any substance that is conductive. An EDM machine has two electrodes between which a current discharges at a rapid rate. Each time the current discharges, it vaporizes or melts a bit of the material that is being machined.  The debris is then flushed away using a liquid dielectric. Because of its precision and accuracy, EDM machining is often used for manufacturing medical parts, jet engine parts, and other parts that require very exact machining. 


Water Jet Cutters

Water jet cutters function by blasting high-pressure water, often mixed with sand, garnet or another physical abrasive at the material in order to cut.  Water jet cutters are used for a wide variety of functions, from manufacturing factory machine parts to food processing (such as cutting chicken, cheesecake, and more).


Now that you have an overview of the different CNC machines you might find at a machine shop, you can see that the type of machines you should look for vary depending on the part that you're making. If you need to cut sheet metal, you should look for metal fab shops that can offer a plasma cutter or CNC router.  If you are producing small, precise mechanical parts, you might look for metal fab shops with CNC mills or shops that offer spark machining services. Getting to know a few of the common machines available at machine shops, such as CNC mills, routers, lathes, plasma cutters and more, will help you choose the best shop for you and plan your production process more efficiently.

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