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CNC Lathe: Everything You Need to Know

CNC Lathe: Everything You Need to Know

CNC Lathe: Everything You Need to Know

A computer numerical control (CNC) lathe is a versatile machine that can be used to make different parts from metals using operations such as turning, facing, and grooving.

It is one of the most widely used machine tools in subtractive manufacturing.

The primary function of a CNC lathe is to turn axisymmetrical parts with high accuracy. You can also use it for cutting threads, drilling holes, and milling shapes.

Although traditional lathes can perform similar functions, CNC lathes outperform them in terms of quality, repeatability, and speed.

So what are the elements that set a CNC lathe apart from a traditional lathe? And what are the steps involved in operating a CNC lathe?

This article provides a detailed guide to CNC lathes while explaining their workflow and shedding some light on their practical applications.

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What is a CNC Lathe? Explained

Basic components of a CNC system.
Basic elements of a CNC lathe system

CNC lathe is a modification in which a traditional lathe is integrated with a computer system. In this machine, the workpiece rotates at high speed, and a computer-controlled cutting tool machines the workpiece to produce axisymmetric parts with high accuracy. It can be used for machining various metals and non-metals.

When comparing CNC lathes to manual lathes, CNC lathes require software such as CAD, CAM, and control to operate the lathe.

Mainly they are available in horizontal or vertical configurations. Both can have a varying axis setup.

Modern CNC lathes have 3, 4, 5, or more axes systems, making them the perfect choice for machining complex geometries within a short cycle time.

They perform CNC turning operations on materials and are used for various manufacturing applications, ranging from high-precision airplane parts to regular kitchen utensils.

Depending on their configurations, CNC Lathes can be used for various operations like cutting, drilling, shaping, and turning.

Some popular CNC-type lathes are turret latheSwiss lathe, turning centers, combination lathes, etc.

Components of a CNC turning machine
Components of a CNC turning machine

Workflow of a CNC Lathe: 4 Steps

Working of a CNC lathe is significantly different from working of a wood lathe, which uses a handheld cutting tool.

CNC lathes require programming software to automate the process, eliminating the need for human interaction during the execution process.

However, it provides career options like CNC programming with responsibilities like understanding the requirement, interpreting the blueprint, verifying the design, and processing the design file for final execution.

From preparing your design to finally manufacturing it on a lathe, the following is the workflow in most CNC lathes.

CAD Phase (Plan to Design)

Preparing a 3D design in CATIA for turning operation on CNC lathe
Preparing a 3D design in CATIA for turning operation on a CNC lathe

The very first step in operating a CNC lathe is to prepare a design that exactly replicates the final product.

There are various CAD software like Blender, Catia, Autodesk Fusion 360, etc., which can be used for making 3D STL designs for turning operations.

Although all CAD file formats can be used for machining, they might need some post-processing to make them compatible with a CNC lathe.

Generally, IGES file format is used with CNC lathes, and therefore all the design files should be converted to IGES to execute the turning process.

Once the design is ready, you have to decide on the machine's configuration that you will use to cut the material.

CAM Phase (Design to Code)

Visual Studio Code interface
Visual Studio Code interface

Preparing CAD design for CNC Lathe is a process that involves converting the design into G-codes, a format that the machine can read.

There are many different types of CNC lathe machines, and each has specific requirements depending on the number of axes.

In the CAM phase, the design is converted into code using dedicated software or manual programming.

Some of the popular CAM software programs used by many machinists are CamBam, MeshCAM, EstlCAM, Mach3, etc.

Whereas manual programming requires a good understanding of part drawing and the corresponding G-codes.

There are various G-code editors that can be used for writing the code or modifying an existing code.

These program codes are like ordered commands that tell the CNC machine what to do and how to do it.

CNC Programming is usually performed by a skilled CNC machinist, an engineer, or a designer with experience in working with these machines.

Preparing the design for turning is a process involving many different steps. The first step is to determine the desired material, usually wood or metal.

Depending on the stock material and size, you will program the lathe with customized G-codes and M-codes.

G-codes contain offset-based settings that are used to control the lathe's movements. This includes G0s, rapid, G1, speed, etc.

M-codes control optional machine settings like coolant on/off, unclamping the chuck, bringing up the part catcher, etc.

Important Parameters for Programming a CNC Lathe

Note that a CNC lathe will identify the location and size of the workpiece based on the coordinates assigned in the program.

Following are some important lathe-specific program codes that are commonly used while programming a lathe.

G-CodeFunction
X0Center of the part
Z0The face of the part
Anything you reduce from the part will be Z- (negative)
G50Used to limit spindle speed
G96Automated speed adjustment depending on stock size
G97Turns at a constant speed set by the operator
G71Rough turning canned cycle
G70Finish turning canned cycle
UIncremental for X
WIncremental for Z

Lathe specific G-codes

Control Phase (Code to Part)

Turning operation on lathe
Turning operation on lathe

The control phase of a CNC lathe is one of the most important elements of its workflow because it determines the quality and accuracy of the final product.

Here we control both the machine and its cutting tools. Lathe cutting tools include various types of tools with specific geometries ideal for a particular machining process.

Although manual and CNC lathes use similar tools, there are some CNC lathe tools that are specifically used for CNC machining, such as face drills and polygon turning tools.

Following is the step-by-step process involved in setting up your CNC lathe for the job:

  1. Once you turn on the CNC lathe, the first thing to do is position the tool to zero. Here the cutting tool is brought back to its origin point along the XY axes.
  2. Then install the workpiece on the spindle. The stock material you use should be longer and wider than the part you plan to make.
  3. Tighten the chuck and lock it in place. You can set tooling next.
  4. There are many different cutting tools for lathes. The type of cutting tool you need will depend on the material, its hardness, and the application.
    1. The most common types of cutting tools are High-Speed Steel (HSS), Tungsten Carbide (TCT), Cobalt, and Molybdenum Disulfide (MoS2).
    2. The selection of tools will also depend on the machining operations you want to perform.
  5. Once the workpiece and tools are in place, you can load the program file to the controller of the machine.
  6. You can use the inbuilt file explorer in your CNC lathe to select the program from a local directory or send it from a computer.
  7. Once the program is imported, you must set up the work and tool offsets.
    1. You can accurately set up the Z-axis by manually facing the workpiece using the lathe and recording the coordinates.
    2. To set the X-axis, you can manually turn the outer diameter of the workpiece and record the final coordinates.
    3. Now you have the zero position of the workpiece.
  8. Once all the above steps are completed, you can run the job. However, it is important to monitor the process to avoid accidents.

Post-processing the Part

The post-processing of lathe machined parts consists of a roughing operation, followed by a finishing operation.

Roughing operations are only required if the part has any excess material that could not be removed during the turning operation.

You can either use a lathe to perform this roughing operation manually or by using a grinder wheel.

The finishing operation is performed to enhance the surface finish of metal parts to produce a smoother and shinier workpiece.

You can polish it in one of three ways: by using emery paper, abrasive paste, or polishing compounds.

Once you complete these processes, the part will be ready to use or for further paint jobs.

Types of CNC Lathes

CNC Lathes can be mainly classified as horizontal and vertical lathes.

In vertical lathes, the workpiece and cutting tools lie vertically, but in a horizontal lathe, they are in a horizontal position.

Vertical CNC turning centers are used to work on heavy parts and will also have live tooling for milling on the workpiece.

Horizontal CNC lathes are used for almost all generic applications. They are the most employed lathes and have a simple operation.

Apart from the orientation, CNC lathes can also be classified based on their size as mini lathes, midi lathes, and full-size lathes.

Parts of a CNC Lathe

Parts of a CNC lathe
Parts of a CNC lathe

The main parts of a CNC lathe consist of a controller unit, bed, headstock, tailstock, tool holder, work holder, etc.

Headstock

Mostly the headstock on a lathe is located on the left side of the machine.

The spindle is the main component in a headstock. It turns the workpiece with the help of a powerful spindle drive.

Normally, on CNC lathes, servo motors are used to drive the spindle.

Tailstock

The tailstock is used in a CNC lathe to support the workpiece axially.

It provides extra support for working on long workpieces.

Work-holding Device

On CNC lathes, 3-jaw hydraulic chucks are normally used to hold the workpieces.

They can hold hollow and solid workpieces with the help of OD (outer diameter) and ID (inner diameter) clamping jaws.

Other work-holding devices like a 4-jaw chuck, collet, faceplate, etc., are also used, depending on the shape of the workpiece.

Apart form that, CNC lathes also support accessories like bar feeder that provide automatic feeding of the workpiece to the lathe for continuous operation without the need for human involvement.

Tool Turret

The turret is the tool carrying part in a CNC lathe. It can store multiple tools that you can use for various operations.

It can be loaded with tools for turning, grooving, threading, etc., and also with internal tools like boring bar, drills, etc.

Machine Bed

The machine bed on a lathe is a solid metal structure supporting other moving components like the tool post, tailstock, and headstock.

It is mostly made of strong, sturdy materials like cast iron.

Machine Control Unit (MCU)

The MCU in a CNC lathe includes a controller, screen, input switches, etc. The controller is the processing unit of any CNC machine.

The MCU system works with software. Common software systems used with CNC lathes are FANUC, Hass, Siemens, Hydro-Dyne, and Mitsubishi.

MCU can be linked to a computer or used independently, depending on their capabilities.

Foot Switches

Foot pedals or foot switches are controls that CNC machine operators can use with their feet.

Generally, these controls allow you to quickly activate and deactivate the work holding and tailstock support.

Things You Should Know Before Buying A CNC Lathe Machine

Before purchasing a CNC lathe machine, you should consider the following things:

The Intended Use of the Machine

Consider the materials and tools you plan to work with. It will depend on the operations you want to perform and the parts you want to make.

For example, if you want to tap holes in the turned parts, you'll need a CNC lathe with live tools.

The Work Area

The work area is an important factor to consider as it greatly affects the things you can make.

Note that as the work area increases, the machine's footprint also becomes larger. So make sure you have enough room for the machine.

Can you Operate a CNC Lathe?

The operation of CNC lathes is significantly different from traditional lathes.

These lathes consist of computer programming that controls the various actions of the machine.

Therefore, to operate a CNC lathe, you need to be familiar with the workflow and software involved in its operation.

You can either learn from the resources manufacturers provide or get help from tutorials curated by professionals.

Belt Drive or Direct-Drive Spindle?

If you are looking for a short work cycle, go with a lathe having a direct-drive spindle. It allows you to change the spindle RPM with a rotary switch.

Belt-drive spindles need manually switching the belt between different pulleys to change the spindle speed.

A belt-driven spindle will do the job if your application only requires a stable RPM throughout the machining process.

Speed, Power, and Torque

The speed, power, and torque required for a CNC lathe depend on the workpiece diameter.

Generally, workpieces with larger diameters are turned at low speed and high torque configuration.

Your Budget

The price of the machine is also an important factor. Generally, desktop and benchtop lathes are priced lower than large industrial-grade lathes.

You should also consider additional costs that will be incurred in the form of accessories, tooling, software, maintenance, etc.

Support

Verify with the manufacturer what type of support you can expect from them. Most manufacturers will provide after-sales support with a standard warranty.

Choose one with a large and active community as you can also get help from others using similar machines.

Some of the best CNC machine brands that manufacture CNC lathe are: TaigTools and Grizzly Industrial.

Applications of CNC Lathes

Baseball bats
CNC lathes are widely used for producing baseball bats (Source: The Wood Bat Factory)

A lathe with a CNC capability allows you to turn cylindrical and non-cylindrical geometries like slots, keyways, hex shapes, etc.

They are primarily employed in woodturning and metal turning applications.

With the addition of live tooling on a CNC lathe, you can even mill and drill holes on the machined parts.

CNC lathes can be used to create various items such as crankshafts, screws, gun barrels, spindles, table legs, baseball bats, workshop tools, and other similar items.

The major advantage that CNC lathes offer over other machines is their high-quality and quick cycle time for machining axisymmetric parts.

This makes them ideal for mass-production applications where high output volume with quick cycle time is desirable.

Final Thoughts

CNC lathes are the most commonly used machine for metal turning. They can process many different metals and are capable of performing a variety of operations on them.

They have excellent accuracy and require less operator input than other machines, which reduces training time and lowers the cost per part.

Though they are good at turning parts, it is also important to consider their limitations.

Lathes, in general, are limited to turning items that can be held between centers. This means they cannot cut out shapes from flat stock or turn irregular shapes.

They are also not very well suited for deep hole drilling or tapping, but they excel at making shallow cuts in round stock.

Manual wood and metal lathes are ideal for simple machining applications where high repeatability is not required, whereas CNC lathes provide high repeatability even for the most complex shapes.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is the difference between CNC lathe and CNC turning centers?

The difference between CNC lathes and CNC turning centers is that CNC lathes can only turn and shape cylindrical workpieces. At the same time, you can use CNC turning centers for turning and milling operations.

How is a CNC lathe different from a manual lathe?

CNC lathes are computer-controlled machines that use a program to control the cutting process. They can work with metal and other materials with a high rate of repeatability as they can be programmed to follow a specific pattern. Manual lathes are controlled by the operator using hand tools. They are not as precise or powerful as CNC lathes, but they are more flexible because they can perform different operations without the need for programming.

What are the best CNC lathes?

Some of the best CNC lathes are Tormach 8L, Proxxon PD 400, Sherline 17″, APSX-NANO, Grizzly Industrial G0884, etc.

About John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com

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John

Hey I'm John. I talk about CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com

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