A Brief History of CNC Machining

Close up of a CNC machine part

Although there had been dabblings with automating and controlling machines with minimal human involvement since the Industrial Revolution, it wasn't until the 1940s, that the earliest CNC machines were officially documented.

CNC machining has come a long way since, and in any modern-day workshop, you'll no doubt find some machines that are iterative of those early models. 

But how did the original CNC machine come about, and how have they evolved into the high-tech robotic versions that we see today?

In this article, we give you a brief history of CNC machines and how they came to be. Keep reading to find out more...

What is CNC?

You may be wondering, what is a CNC machine? The letter CNC is an acronym for Computer Numeric Controlled. It's a way of automating the operation of a machine through the use of a computer program.

CNC has a multitude of uses and can be used as part of an integrated system for various tools. Some of the most common machines you'll see utilising CNC are drills, lathes and milling tools.

These different tools can be stand-alone machines or built into a single multi-purpose machine with different cells where the machine can select a function and use it. 

Simple CNC machines move on just one or two axes, these are often referred to as the X or Y axis. More complex machines will also feature a third axis or the Z axis. Other machines are also capable of rotating, and flipping components meaning that items can be cut without the need for human intervention. 

Uses for CNC

Normally, CNC machines are used to produce intricate and three-dimensional parts, but in reality, CNC machines can be used to produce pretty much anything that a human could machine on a mill, lathe, or drill. 

CNC machining can be used in a wide range of industries, and the possibilities are nearly limitless. Here are just a few uses:

  • The aerospace industry uses CNC to machine metal aircraft components at the highest level of precision
  • The automotive industry uses CNC for prototyping and production as well as for dashboard panels and gauges
  • The consumer electronics industry uses CNC machining to create PCBs, components, and casings
  • The healthcare sector uses CNC to create one-off custom parts such as joint and limb replacements
CNC machining in progress

History of CNC Machining

So, now you know a little more about CNC machines, it's time to discover the CNC machine's history. How did it come about? Who invented it and how did it evolve into the multi-functional tool we use today?

The Early Days of CNC

Although others had dabbled with the idea of CNC, it wasn't until 1949 that the first Numerical Controlled machine was realised. John T. Parsons was a pioneer in early computing technology. He developed an experimental milling machine as part of a research project funded by the Air Force. 

The early machine was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the institute's Servomechanisms Laboratory. 

The main purpose of this early machine was to use a motorized axis to help produce stiffer skins and helicopter blades. 

Parsons went on to use an IBM 602A multiplier to help calculate airfoil coordinates. This model of his device was the precursor to modern-day CNC machine programming.

Development of CNC

Parsons's early idea was further developed in early 1952 by Richard Kegg who introduced the Cincinnati Hydro-Tel. This 28-inch vertical-spindle milling machine. The machine was operated using a tape reader and eight-column paper tape. It worked via a vacuum-tube electronic control system. 

The early models of CNC machines that were developed during the 1940s and 50s made use of punched tape. This technology was common in the telecommunications industry at the time. Over time, this was replaced by early analog computing technologies.

Between the 1960s and 70s, the production process became more automated thanks to the influx of digital technologies emerging. This helps to make the process more efficient. In 1969, Parsons gained the title of The Father of the Second Industrial Revolution. as a tribute to his early work.

As computers became more sophisticated in the 80s, so did the use of CNC.  

The Evolution of the Modern-Day CNC Machine

Although modern-day CNC machines are a far cry from those early developments, they are still based on three primary components of the earlies models. 

These are a command function, a drive, and feedback. 

  • Command function - This can be a digital or analog system such as a cam follower or activation handle
  • A drive / motion system - For example a mortar, valve, or cylinder system to create movement
  • A feedback system - This could be anything that indicates information or feedback like an encoder

Modern-day CNC machines are electronically controlled which gives more predictability as well as a higher degree of accuracy. 

Machines and tools have been developed to cut just about any type of material including plastics, metal, wood, fibreglass and foam. 

Other Developments From CNC

Based on the same concept that CNC was built on, other technologies have developed. This includes Photochemical Machining, Electron Beam Machining, and Electrical Discharge Machining as well as laser, plasma, water-jet and oxyfuel cutting machines.

How Are You Going to Use CNC Machining?

Do you have a CNC machining project you want to get started on, but are not sure where to start? Then get in touch with us! We specialise in 2D and 3D CNC routing, for all types of tasks.

With over 15 years of experience in the industry, we've worked with a wide range of clients and companies. We pride ourselves on delivering a dedicated service driven by our high level and unrivalled customer service. Contact us today to discuss your next project!