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Educational CNC Machines: Our Favorite Machines for STEM Classes

Unsurprisingly, computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools have become an essential part of our educational system. After all, a future in the ever-growing field of modern manufacturing depends on training programs in the classroom and hands-on experience with the latest educational CNC machines.

Whether learning to operate a versatile CNC milling machine, CNC router, or CNC lathe, becoming comfortable with user-friendly CAD/CAM software, or understanding G-Code and tool paths, CNC programs will prepare today’s high school students to become tomorrow’s CNC machinists.

CNC machines are a natural fit for the classroom, filling two critical roles: they are educational, introducing the next generation of high school or college students to the CNC technologies supporting today’s manufacturing and vocational, training CNC operators to fill the demand for CNC technicians in machine shops, fabrication facilities, woodshops, or wherever high-speed manufacturing and automation are changing the face of modern manufacturing.

However, decision-makers and leaders in vocational schools, high schools, secondary centers, and fab labs must determine which educational CNC machine tools make the most sense for their machining programs.

What Machines Should I Consider?

Three CNC machines correspond with the recent focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics): the CNC mill, lathe, and router. Although there are similarities among the three machine tools, they cover a broad area of operations, enabling them to offer a comprehensive real-world learning experience in CNC technology.

affordable milling machines from cnc masters
CNC Masters desktop CNC mills, the perfect machines for the classroom

CNC Milling Machine

The advantages of learning to run a CNC milling machine are numerous. First, your students are learning to run a machine used in various industries, including aerospace, medical, and electronics. Aerospace allows them to machine components such as manifolds and landing gear parts. They could be helping to create prostheses, medical instruments, and medical devices in the future. Or they could be machining excellent electronic parts like amplifier housings.

CNC milling machines will keep your students safe as they learn. Many machines are enclosed, and operators are not required to be near the cutting tools, so flying chips and pieces of metal are not an issue.

Kids love technology, such as robotics, and CNC mills are equally exciting technology, with automatic tool changers, prototyping, or transforming a workpiece into a part. These machine tools’ speed, precision, and efficiency provide an adrenaline rush that turns CNC training into a fun-filled and meaningful experience.

Although students enjoy the technological aspects of CNC equipment, administrators will appreciate the affordability of quality CNC milling machines. For instance, CNC Masters, an American company based in California, manufactures versatile CNC vertical knee mills that are easy to learn and operate. Students will quickly build confidence in these rugged CNC milling machines capable of CNC and manual control (tutorials included) for under $15,000 brand new.

A CNC benchtop mill is the perfect solution for training centers with limited space. Although they have a smaller cutting area, benchtop mills feature a cast iron frame, robust power supply, and easy-to-learn control software ideal in an educational setting. CNC Masters offers budget-friendly “desktop” models starting at under $6,000.

CNC Lathe

Although learning to operate and program CNC mills is a priority, a student’s education would be incomplete without thorough training on a CNC lathe. Like the milling machine, a CNC lathe operates from design instructions to produce precision machined parts. However, the CNC lathe takes a different approach to creating pieces since the workpiece is held in a chuck or collet and rotated by the main spindle as a fixed cutting tool removes material on various axes.

1440 CNC Lathe Machine
CNC Masters 1440 CNC Lathe Machine

As a result, of this “turning” of the workpiece, CNC lathes produce precise cylindrical shapes with an outer diameter (OD) and an inner diameter (ID). Even though lathes are not as versatile as mills, they can machine many different parts and components for various industries, including medical, electronics, oil and gas, automotive, aerospace, mining, shipbuilding, power plants, and steel mills.

Students must learn to use a CNC lathe safely. Though the turning process is automated, special training is essential to help students develop the skills to comprehend the safety standards and programming parameters that ensure safe operation. As with the CNC mill, a CNC lathe operator is not required to be as close to the spinning chuck and flying chips as manual lathe operators; lathe safety should be a student’s priority.

High schools and vocational training centers should exercise caution when choosing a CNC lathe for their programs. Lightweight CNC lathes might have a lower purchase price, but they tend to get out of balance quickly, affecting the learning experience for would-be machinists.

Rugged CNC lathe machines, like those offered by CNC Masters, are designed for high-quality operation over long productions, meaning they will withstand the unintentional mistreatment that educational CNCs must endure. Plus, these lathes have an ease of use that allows students to experience advanced control even in the early stages of their training. And at a price starting under $11,000 and loaded with features, the CNC Masters lathes will make it easy to stay within your school’s budget.

CNC Router

CNC routers are designed for complex machining of softer materials such as wood, plastic, and aluminum. These machine tools are restricted to relatively thin materials, such as plywood boards or thin-gauge aluminum plates since the cutting tool has reduced motion along its Z-axis (up and down) compared to the CNC mill.

Closely aligned with the CNC milling machine, students who envision a future in woodworking will need to understand the intricacies of the CNC router, from its gantry-style construction, where the spindle travels along the X-axis (left and right) and the Y-axis (front and back), to its materials and Z-axis movement limitations, the CNC router contrasts with a CNC mill in many more areas than it compares to it.

What are the Best Educational CNC Machines?

Without intending to slight CNC routers, mastering the CNC milling machine and CNC lathe is the most promising path to a career in manufacturing. Vocational schools know there is a growing demand for well-trained CNC programmers and operators, and the ideal training method is to provide as much hands-on experience as possible.

The experts at CNC Masters strive to provide innovative technologies to high schools and vocational training programs by offering first-rate machine tools at affordable prices. Our CNC mills are excellent for metalworking and woodworking applications. Our lathes and desktop milling machines switch conveniently from CNC to manual mode, allowing students to learn both aspects of machining!

About Peter Jacobs

Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters, a leading supplier of CNC mills, milling machines, and CNC lathes. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general. You can connect with him on his LinkedIn.

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29. Create a Peck Drilling Program in Circular or Rectangular Patterns
Using the Circular or Rectangular Drilling Wizards, you can program the machine to drill an un-limited series of holes along the X and Y planes. Program it to drill straight through to your total depth, use a high-speed pecking cycle, or deep hole pecking cycle. You can program the cut-in depth and return point for a controlled peck drill application to maximize chip clearance.

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20. Change up to 30 tools with compensation, and store your tool offsets for other programs
The MX supports…

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21. Use the optional ATC rack up to 8 tools for milling, drilling, and rigid tapping applications
The CNC Masters Automatic Tool Changer Rack and Tools (US Patent 9,827,640B2) can be added to any CNC Masters Milling Machine built with the rigid tapping encoder option. The tutorial will guide you through the set-up procedure using the ATC tools.

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22. Use the optional Rigid Tapping Wizard without the need for tapping head attachments
When you order your CNC Masters machine, have it built with the optional rigid tapping encoder. You can take any drill cycle program and replace the top line with a tapping code created by the wizard to tap your series of holes up to 1/2” in diameter.

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23. Use the optional Digital Probe to scan the profile and/or pockets of your fun/hobby type designs to write your tool path program and machine out a duplicate of your original design To “surface” scan an object, you can program the probe along the X or Y plane. The stylus will travel over the part starting on the left side front corner of the object and work its way to the end of the part on the right side. Depending on how the stylus moves, it will record linear and interpolated movements along the X, Y, and Z planes directly on the MX Editor.
To “pocket” scan an object containing a closed pocket such as circles or squares, the scan will start from the top front, work its way inside of the pocket, and scan the entire perimeter of the pocket.
Under the Setup of the MX software you will find the Probe Tab which will allow you to calibrate and program your probe. Your “Probe Step”, “Feed”, and “Data Filter” can also be changed on the fly while the probe is in the middle of scanning your object.

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24. Use work offsets G54-G59 for nesting applications
The work offsets offer you a way to program up to six different machining locations. It’s like having multiple 0.0 locations for different parts. This is very useful especially when using sub-routines/nesting applications.

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25. Create a Rectangular Pocket / Slot with our selection of Wizards to help you build a tool path program
The Cycle Wizards for the mill or lathe makes it easy to create a simple tool path without needing to use a CAD and CAM software.
On this Wizard, the Rectangular Pocket / Slots, can be used to form a deep rectangular pocket into your material or machine a slot duplicating as many passes needed to its total depth.

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26. Create a Circular Pocket Wizard
Input the total diameter, the step down, and total depth and the code will be generated.

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27. Do Thread Milling using a single point cutter Wizard

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28. Cut a gear out using the Cut Gear Wizard with the optional Fourth Axis

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19. Disable the axis motors to manually hand crank each axis into place
Easily de-energize the axis motors by clicking [Disable Motors] to crank each axis by hand, and then press [Reset Control] to re-energize the axis motors.

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30. The MX interface can easily be interchanged from Mill Mode to Lathe Mode
Use this interface for your CNC Masters Lathe. It contains all the same user-friendly features and functions that comes in Mill Mode. Simply go to the Setup page and change the interface.

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31. Use Tool Change Compensation or the optional Auto Tool Changer Turret if your application requires more than one tool in a single program
You can offset the length and angle of each tool and record it under Tools in your Setup. The program will automatically pause the lathe’s movement and spindle allowing you to change out your tool, or allowing the optional ATC Turret to quickly turn to its next tool and continue machining.
On the MX interface, you also have four Tool Position buttons. Select your desired T position, and the auto tool post will quickly turn and lock itself to that position.

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32. Use the Lathe Wizard Threading Cycle to help you program your lathe’s internal or external threads in inches or metric

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33. Use the Lathe Wizard Turning / Boring Cycle to help you program simple turning and boring cycles without having to go through a CAM or writing a long program with multiple passes

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34. Use the Lathe Wizard Peck Drilling Cycle to help you program your drill applications or for face grooving

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35. Facing / Grooving / Part Off Cycle Wizards – with Constant Surface Speed
These cycles can be used with Constant Surface Speed allowing the spindle speed to increase automatically as the diameter of the part decreases giving your application a consistent workpiece finish. With CSS built into the wizard, there is no need to break down the cycle into multiple paths and multiple spindle speed changes.

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36. This is our list of supported G and M codes which can be found under Tools > G Code/ M Code List in the MX
If you plan to use a third-party CAM software to generate your tool path program, use a generic FANUC post processor and edit it to match our list of codes. As an option, we also sell Visual mill/turn CAM software which comes with a guaranteed post processor for our machines to easily generate your tool path programs based on your CAD drawings.

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37. Our pledge to you…

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10. Run each tool path independently to study its movement
1. Run the machine on Trace mode. You can run each tool path independently, one line at a time to study the tool path movement on the machine to verify the position of the application and if any fixture/vise is in the way of the cutter’s path.

2. You can also verify your program by clicking on the Trace and Draw buttons together. This will allow you to view each tool path independently one line at a time in the Draw Window.

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2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!2. Clutter Free Interface
The MX is engineered for the CNC MASTERS machine so you do not have to fiddle with a detailed complicated configuration that can be overwhelming. Just load in the MX and start machining!

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3. Features Tour and Tutorials Included
The Features Tour will give you a quick run-down on all the features the MX can do for you. The Tutorials are easy to follow even for the first time CNC machinist.
Feel free to download the MX on any of your computers. We recommend downloading the MX along with your CAD and CAM software there at the comfort of your office computer to generate your tool path programs. You don’t need to be hooked up to the machine either to test your program in simulation mode.

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4. Navigate and Edit Your Program through the MX interface with Ease
With a few clicks of the mouse or using touch screen technology, you can easily navigate through the MX interface importing saved programs into the Editor from the File drop down menu. Using standard windows features to edit your program you can then lock the Editor Screen to avoid accidental editing, and if you need to insert a line in the middle of a program, just click on [ReNum] to re-number your tool path list.
You can create a program or import CAM generated G-code tool paths into the Editor
The X Y and Z W arrow jog buttons are displayed from the point of view of the cutter to avoid confusion when the table and saddle are moving. You can also adjust your spindle speed and coolant control while jogging each axis.

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5. Feed Hold – Pause in the Middle of your Program
Feed Hold lets you pause in the middle of a program. From there you can step through your program one line at time while opting to shut the spindle off and then resume your program.
You can also write PAUSE in the middle of your program and jog each axis independently while your program is in pause mode.

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6. Hot Keys
Hot Keys is an alternative method to easily control your machine using your hard or touch screen keyboard. One can press P to pause a program, press S to turn Spindle On, G to run a program, Space Bar to Stop, J to record your individual movements one line at a time to create a program in teach mode.

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7. Pick Menu – for conversational mode programming
Write FANUC style G-codes directly into the Editor or select commands off the [Pick] menu and write your tool path program in conversational mode such as what is written in the Editor box. You can even mix between conversation commands and G-codes in the same program.

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8. Pick Menu List of Options
Use commands such as MOVE, SPINDLE ON/OFF, COOLANT ON/OFF, PAUSE, DELAY, GO HOME…. to write your tool path programs in conversational mode.

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9. Draw the Tool Path to verify it before pressing Go
Hit Draw to view your tool path program drawing, check out its run time, or even simulate the tool path in 3D mode. This can be helpful to quickly verify your program before running it. You can also slow down or speed up the drawing or simulation process.
You can also hit Go within the Draw Window itself to verify the cutter’s position on the machine. The current tool path will be highlighted and simultaneously draw out the next path so you can verify what the cutter will be doing next on the program.

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MX Software – Easy to Use, Easy to Learn – Included with your machine purchase
The MX software is designed to work seamlessly with your CNC Masters machine. It is made to work with Windows PC – desktop, laptop, or an all in one – on standard USB. Use it on Windows 8 or 10 64-bit operating systems.
No internal conversion printer/serial port to USB software or additional conversion hardware is used with the MX.

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11. Counters display in Inches or Millimeters – Continuous Feed
1. When running a program, the counters will display a “real-time” readout while the machine is in CNC operation without counting ahead of the movement.
2. The current tool path is highlighted while the machine is in operation without causing slight interruptions/pauses as the software feeds the tool path to the machine. The MX internally interprets a program ten lines ahead to allow for “continuous machining” avoiding slight interruptions as the machine waits for its next tool path command.
3. “Run Time” tells you how long it takes to run your tool path program.

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12. Use the “Go From Line” command to start in the middle of your program
If you ever need to begin your program from somewhere in the middle of it, use [Go From Line] which you can find under Tools. The Help guide will walk you through how to position the cutter without losing its position on the machine.

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13. Exact Motion Distance without over-stepping on an axis while jogging
Use “Relative ON” to enter a specific coordinate to jog any of your axes to an exact location without having to write a program. It’s like using “power feed” but easier. You can jog an exact distance on any of the axes without needing to keep the key pressed down and mistakenly over-step the movement releasing your finger too slowly off the jog button.
Let’s say you need to drill a hole exactly 0.525” using the Z. So you enter 0.525 in the Z box. Next, adjust the JOG FEED RATE slider for the desired feed rate. Then “click once” on the +Z or -Z button to activate the travel. In this case you click once the -Z button first to drill the hole exactly 0.525”. Then click once on the +Z button to drive the axis back up 0.525”.

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14. Teach Mode – Jog Input
You can create a tool path program by storing each point-to-point movement by simply jogging an axis one at a time. Click on either of the Jog Input buttons to store each movement on the Editor Screen. You can then add Spindle ON, feed commands, and press GO to run the new program as needed. This is a great feature to help you learn to create a program by the movements you make on the machine without necessarily writing out an entire program first.

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15. Override on the fly to adjust the Jog Feed to Rapid or the Spindle Speed during the middle of a program
1. Jog Feed and Rapid with Override: You can adjust feeds using the slider from slow minimum 0.1″ per minute to a rapid of 100″ per minute of travel. You can even micro-step your jog as low as 0.01”/min. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.
2. Spindle Speed with Override: You can adjust speeds using the slider from a slow minimum RPM to the max RPM according to the machine setup. The [-][+] buttons allow you to fine tune feeds in 5% increments while the program is in motion.

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16. Adjust Counters using Pre-Set if you cannot begin the program from 0.00
In a situation where you cannot begin your cutter at it’s 0.00 location, you can “Pre-Set” directly into the counters by typing in your beginning coordinate. You can press Go from here to run your program. You can also “zero all” or “zero” your counters independently. With one click of the [Return to 0.0] button, all axes will travel back to its respective 0.0 on the machine.

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17. Set and Save your 0.00 position for future runs
Set and save your 0.00 position on the machine. These coordinates will be recorded as the first line of the program in the Editor Screen. Should you desire to return to this program at a later date, you only have to click on the Set Zero Return button. This will command the machine to automatically jog each axis to its saved “set” 0.00 position according to the recorded coordinates at the first line of the program.

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18. Create a “Home” position to clear your application and run multiple times
Let’s say you need to machine one application times 100 pieces. This usually requires a jig to retain that physical 0.00 position. But in this case, you want the program to end with a clearance of the axes to easily switch out the next piece of stock and start again. With Save Home, you have the ability to save this offset (home) position while still retaining your Set Zero position where the machine will mill your part out. Pressing [Save Home] will record this new position under the Set Zero line in your program.
Pressing [Go Home] will jog your axes back to your “saved home” position where you originally pressed the Save Home command. You can also input GO_HOME from the Pick Menu as its own tool path in your program. At the completion of your program the axes will end at your Home position. Replace your part, then press [Return to 0.0] button to allow the axes to return to its zero position, and press Go to start your next run.

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