A Buyer’s Guide For Milling Machines

Milling Machines with CNC

Horizontal Angled Mill
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Milling machines with CNC are an integral part of the manufacturing industry with a unique design that sets them apart from their vertical counterparts mill machine without CNC. These CNC machines feature a horizontally oriented spindle that holds cutting tools, allowing chips to fall away more quickly and making these milling machines particularly suitable for heavy-duty tasks and high-volume production. Horizontal milling machines enhance manufacturing productivity and precision because multiple cutters work simultaneously on different surfaces of the workpiece.  Check out this CNC Mill on sale right now.  Click here.

Milling machines are among the most commonly used machine tools in modern manufacturing. They’re found in assembly lines, small tool-and-die shops, home workshops, and just about everywhere in between. Almost every industry uses milling machines from small mills in high-end scientific labs to machining centers in the automotive industry.

Milling machines are popular with manufacturers and engineers because they help produce more complex parts than the average 3D printer or manual craft tool can handle. On the consumer side, hobbyists and DIYers use milling machines at home for small parts and woodworking projects.

If you’re in the market for a new mill, we’ve got you covered. This article has background on milling machines including types, uses, and features so that you’ll know how to choose a machine that helps you get the results you need. This guide gives you everything you need to buy your milling machine confidently.

diagram of milling machine parts

What does a milling machine do?

Milling machines can machine materials such as metal, plastic, or wood. Mills use cutting tools including end mills, face mills, and drills. They can feature high-quality cast iron construction, variable speed capability, power feeds, and milling cutters that move along the X, Y, and Z axes. Milling machines are essential tools in manufacturing, offering the flexibility to produce a wide range of products with precision and efficiency. Their versatility and accuracy make them indispensable in many industries from automotive and aerospace to furniture and mold production.

They perform various milling operations like slotting, keyway cutting, and drilling to more complex functions like contouring, die sinking, and 3D milling. Unlike lathe machines, where a workpiece is mounted between the headstock and tailstock and above the bed, mills fasten the workpiece to the table.

Mills handle a wider range of materials, offer greater precision and control, and use a rotating cutting tool to remove material. Routers are used for woodworking and some plastics and perform lighter, faster cuts and that employ a spinning bit to shape or hollow out an area on the workpiece.

cnc machine diagram
A CNC horizontal machining center (HMC)

Types of Milling Machines

Milling machines primarily fall into two types based on the orientation of the main spindle: horizontal and vertical. Vertical milling machines are used for plunge cuts and drilling, while horizontal milling machines perform tasks requiring specific heavy-duty machining. Both types use rotating cutting tools (end mills, bed mills, face mills, drills, etc.) spinning at speeds up to 20,000 RPM.

Some machine tools combine elements of a milling machine with other common tools. Small mills certainly aren’t the only variation on the milling machine theme. Here are the most popular types of milling machines and their uses.

Vertical Milling Machines

Vertical Mill

Characterized by a vertically oriented spindle axis, vertical milling machines are extensively used in manufacturing industries because of their versatility and precision. The vertical orientation of the cutting tool allows for more complex shapes and unique designs to be machined with accuracy. It enables manufacturers to perform various tasks like keyway cutting, surface milling, drilling, and multi-dimensional contouring. Vertical milling machines are the go-to method for producing surfaces because they are a more efficient way of face milling than grinders, abrasives, and planers. Industries such as automotive, aerospace, and electronics rely on these machines for producing intricate parts and components.

Knee Mills

older manual bridgeport knee millSometimes referred to as a turret mill, Bridgeport-type mill, mill drill, or even a drilling machine, the knee-type vertical milling machine is a highly versatile piece of equipment commonly employed in various industries for its capacity to handle multiple tasks. It can even take the place of a stand-alone drill press. Its defining feature is a vertically adjustable worktable (the “knee”), which provides flexibility in handling different sizes and types of workpieces. This machine can perform multiple operations on the same workpiece including drilling, boring, and milling. The knee-type vertical milling machine’s adaptability to diverse tasks and materials (from metalworking to plastics) makes it an invaluable asset as a toolroom mill or on the shop floor.

Small Milling Machines

A small mill, the CNC JrAlso known as benchtop and mini-mills, desktop milling machines are compact yet powerful tools that have considerably expanded manufacturing and prototyping. Most mini-milling machines are vertical mills, making them highly versatile. They carve and shape materials such as wood, metal, or plastic with excellent precision. Ideal for small-scale projects, engineers and hobbyists commonly utilize them to create intricate designs and parts.

These machines can also be used in educational settings, offering students hands-on experience in manufacturing and design principles. They have diverse uses such as producing electronic circuit boards and crafting intricate jewelry designs. Modern mini-mills with CNC technology have increased versatility and even more applications. In the next section, CNC technology will be explained in more detail.

CNC Milling Machines

baron cnc desktop mill
CNC Baron Mill

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) milling machines are revolutionary devices in manufacturing and prototyping. They utilize a computer-controlled system to automate the complex processes involved in milling which significantly enhances precision, reliability, and speed. These complex 4-axis and 5-axis milling machines feature software and programming that helps “run” the milling machine. Whether a horizontal or vertical machining center, the CNC milling machine features electronic variable speed and coolant systems for prolonged protection. Because it translates computer commands into mechanical motion, CNC milling machines offer unparalleled control over production.

CNC milling machines are capable of remarkable efficiency. Traditional manual mills are labor-intensive and require manual skills. CNC milling machines automate the production process, reducing the need for human intervention and thereby reducing errors. These machines can operate continuously over extended periods to increase productivity.

CNC milling machines are the top-end option because they provide a high-precision solution to parts manufacturers. These machines are versatile and can handle various materials including metals like aluminum, steel, plastics, and even wood. This versatility and high precision make them suitable for multiple industries including automotive, aerospace, and electronics where customers demand excellent accuracy and consistency. For more information on these CNC machining centers, please read our guide on CNC machines.

Milling Machine Must-Haves

When it comes time to purchase a milling machine, what are the most important things to consider? There’s no one universal milling machine, and every machine will likely be better at some milling operations than others. But before you make your choice, consider these three primary considerations:

Reasonable Price 

How much does a milling machine cost?

  • For a hobbyist desktop mill, a solid machine costs roughly $2,500 to $7,500.
  • CNC knee mills start at $15,000 and go up to $75,000.
  • 3-Axis Mills begin around $45,000 and go as high as $100,000.
  • Production mills and lathes are $250,000 and up, depending on size and features. These machines are found in larger shops for machining complex, heavy-duty parts.

Appropriate Size

The size of the mill determines the type of work it can perform. Clearly, you will need an industrial-sized machining center for a machine that can handle industrial-sized workpieces. Metal fabrication shops handling more significant pieces of metal will want either full-size mills or larger benchtop models. You may want a reinforced milling head on a vertical mill, or you may jump straight to a horizontal mill.

Mini-milling machines are smaller than their full-size counterparts. Some mini-mills are the typical desktop mills, able to handle sizable parts yet small enough to fit on top of a workbench. Other mills fall into the “micro milling machine” category which are tiny mills for intricate or detailed work like jewelry. Most home milling machines fall into this category.

Remember that there’s a stability trade-off with smaller mills. In general, the larger the mill, the more stable it is. Mills can be clamped to the top of a workbench or bolted directly to the floor; the latter is preferable if you need precise and heavy-duty cutting. While clamping your mini mill on top of a bench offers substantially more accessibility and ease of use, it comes at the expense of some stability.

Advanced Features

As you read through the description and list of features for a possible milling machine purchase, you need to hone in on the features that are important for your needs. What features should you look for? Here are a few features that we recommend:

  • Digital readouts (DROs): Digital readouts make a mill much more user-friendly. They’ll also help the operator keep cuts accurate and precise.
  • 3- or 4-axis movement: The more axes of movement, the greater the range of operations possible on the mill. X-axis, Y-axis, and Z-axis movement is the standard. Tools with more axes will likely swivel the cutting tool around the part, engaging it from different angles. Mills with a rotary table allow the workpiece itself to swivel, providing access without re-mounting the part.
  • Cast-iron construction: Cast iron isn’t just sturdy; it’s heavy. Weight on a mini-mill is an advantage. It adds stability and improves precision.
  • Spindle speed and horsepower specs: High-speed spindles and heavy-duty horsepower engines increase drilling and milling capacity.
  • Head tilt: Many mills have geared heads capable of cutting at an angle, adding flexibility.


For the ultimate in precision cutting, you’ll want a CNC mill. CNC programming allows an operator to program the exact series of operations for the mill to make, creating precise and accurate cuts.

CNC mills can also be more easily integrated with design workflows. A hobbyist might design a custom part on a CAD program, export the vector file to their CNC mini mill, and create a custom program to fabricate his part.

In many situations, however, the task at hand does not require CNC capabilities. Manual mills are less precise, designed for only one operator, and have no computer-controlled movement, making them more affordable than their CNC counterparts. Since adding CNC capabilities will make your new mill considerably more expensive, carefully evaluate whether you need the benefits of the added functionality.

Buying Tips

Now that you know what you need from the milling machine, what should you look for in a suitable manufacturer?

  • Wide product range
    • Look for companies catering to the machinist industry who sell high-quality lathes and mills of all shapes and sizes.
  • Excellent customer support
    • Customer support doesn’t just come after a sale! Reach out to companies for advice who are willing to guide you through purchasing, not just try to upsell a more expensive machine. Also, check the warranty policy for each machine and manufacturer.
  • Detailed specialist knowledge
    • Machine tools include specialist and hobbyist fields such as desktop mills, jewelry machine tools, or DIY. If applicable, look for a company that serves your niche.
  • Quality construction
    • From collet to shank, the best machine tool manufacturers use only the best parts. Look for a company that doesn’t skimp on quality components, and you’ll find one that produces high-end milling machines.

Popular Milling Machine Brands

Even among the best in the industry, certain brands stand out for their quality, durability, and precision, while others are known for their low prices. Ideally, you will find the manufacturer with the best combination of high performance, affordability, and service for your needs. The following brands have a strong reputation while serving different industry niches.

  • Jet sells manual mill drills for under $4,000 and manual Bridgeport-type knee mills in the $17,000 to $21,000 range.
  • Grizzly offers lightweight, low-horsepower mills for around $2,000.
  • Wen is another brand you might encounter with mill drills under $2,000.
  • CNC Masters has high-quality CNC knee mills under $15,000, CNC lathes for less than $12,000, and CNC desktop mills starting under $6,000.
  • Haas machining centers are found among mid-price range CNC mills since they provide a cost-effective alternative to higher-priced brands without compromising quality or performance.
  • Okuma has vertical and horizontal machining centers offering precision and flexibility to enhance productivity, reduce downtime, and save money for companies in the manufacturing sector.
  • Mazak offers advanced technology and high-level productivity exclusively for larger corporations willing and able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for each machine tool.

Our Choice: The Supra Mill

CNC Supra Milling Machine
CNC Supra Milling Machine

The SUPRA CNC vertical knee mill from CNC Masters will make any shop more productive. This versatile machine works for hobbyists, machine shops, product development, high production work, engraving, and teaching tools in vocational-technical schools and science labs. And if you need a manual mill for a few quick operations, the Supra converts from CNC to manual mode effortlessly.

Look at a few of the specifications for the CNC SUPRA 10×54 Vertical Knee Mill:

  • Table travel (Longitudinal X-axis): 35.5”
  • Saddle travel (Y-axis): 15.5”
  • Knee travel (Z-axis): 18”
  • Table size: 10” x 54”

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.

Have Questions? Need a Quote?

Looking for more information about our CNC machines and services? Contact us today.


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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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