If you’re new to the CNC industry, you’ve probably got lots of questions. At CNC Masters, we’ve been CNC machinery for over 30 years and love helping our clients, students, and others find helpful information. If you’ve wondered what a CNC lathe is and what functions it serves, we’ve got you covered. There are many different kinds of CNC machines out there, but it is machine lathes that hold a crucial role within this field.
What Is A CNC Lathe Machine?
A CNC lathe is a machine that has a spindle that holds a workpiece. Lathes drive their set of cutting tools over two different axes. These axes are known as X and Z. Many lathes feature far more functionality than just this though. The process of cutting any workpiece that rotates on the spindle is known as ‘turning’. As the spindle is rotated, the material is removed and formed through drill bits and cutting tools, of different widths and shapes. Eventually, the lathe produces a symmetrical product. These machines have the capability to produce many different details on the rotating workpiece through different cuts and shapes. A CNC machinist can program their lathe to make hard cuts on very tough materials while also producing high-caliber pieces at high volumes.
Lathe Parts You Should Know
- Control Panel (CNC): The instructions, programs, and machining software are all housed in the control panel. Operators control and manage the control panel to produce the final product.
- Carriage: Used for mounting and moving the cutting tools, a carriage moves the tool horizontally and vertically on the bed for a smooth cutting process. It carries an apron, saddle, compound rest, cross slide and tool post.
- Tailstock: Also referred to as a foot stock, the tailstock is used with the milling machine’s rotary table. The tailstock supports the longitudinal rotary axis of the product being made.
- Bed: Beds are commonly horizontal beams. They are either single or two-piece depending on the operator’s needs.
- Main Spindle: A hollow component of the lathe that received whatever material is being machined.
Horizontal CNC Lathes
Horizontal CNC lathe machining, as the name implies, happens using a lathe configured horizontally. These machines rotate their workpieces in a cylindrical motion as their set of tools shape the workpiece as they cut away the extra materials. If you’re having trouble visualizing this, just think of a rotisserie chicken rotating in its own horizontal axis. Since workpieces need to lie in a vertical position on their spindle, horizontal machines usually require more space or bigger footprints. That means they’re best used for only midsize or smaller workpieces. Also, since the chuck of these units hold workpieces vertically, they’re doing so against any natural pull of gravity in a downward direction on the workpiece object. As such, such units are better off when using lighter materials. Heavier substances might damage the chuck. If you intend to look into used machines, then you should inquire with the dealer about the previous work history of the unit.
Vertical CNC Lathes
When the workpiece is rotated upright, then it’s a vertical CNC lathe. This lets the spindle get cut at more difficult angles. If you want to picture this mentally, just keep in mind a pottery wheel. Vertical lathes require less footprint than their horizontal brethren, which means they’re better choices for workpieces that have larger size, heft, and weight, especially if they require crane loading. They also work well in pinch-turning operations, since the reduced footprint might permit dual-spindle options. In this case, gravity is a friend instead of foe, because it keeps the workpiece more stable during the process of machining. That extra steadiness means the cutting can happen with more precision. If you do choose to look into the vertical lathe market, then you should know they are typically priced mildly higher than horizontal machines.
Common Uses of CNC Lathes
Technological advancements have made CNC lathes attractive replacements for more traditional production lathes that have historically been used, like the multispindle. That’s because of how many advantages that come up with them. Lathes are easy to set up and operate. They offer a desirable intersection serious repeatability along with premiere production accuracy. 
Many lathes are created to employ the most modern applications of carbide tooling processes. Specific parts are designed to be customized, and then the actual tool paths of the machine get programmed using processes like CAM or CAD. Programmers can even design tool and part paths manually if they want. Whatever the final coded computer file is, it’s uploaded into the lathe, so the machine can automatically start production on the parts it’s programmed for in design intent.
Examples of finished production items created using CNC lathing include baseball bats, camshafts, cue sticks, gun barrels, musical instruments, and crankshafts. They’re commonly used to make the legs of dining room chairs you sit on, the legs of the kitchen table you eat at, and even some of the bowls you eat from. You probably use products made by CNC lathes in your daily life!
Picking the Best Lathe
In the case of either vertical or horizontal lathe, you need to be sure you’re getting something with high-caliber clamps, as these are what hold a workpiece in a steady position during the excess material removal. Substandard clamps might shift a bit, resulting in less-precise measurements. Additionally, used lathe machines mean that you need to ask about the tolerance of each machine you look at.
Work of this kind requires a qualified professional for machine operation and precision craftsmanship. That means that just buying a good machine is only the first step, as you would also need to find someone certified, experienced, and skilled in its usage. Still, the investment in both hardware and personnel can be well worth it. As the CNC industry keeps growing, its ability to transform the world also grows. With innovations like digital technology being leveraged, modern machines can handle quite a few tasks that weren’t previously possible. Modern CNC market technology and options are leading to higher-caliber results and operational efficiencies never before thought possible.
CNC machining includes more than just CNC lathing. The applications and adaptability that result in precision pieces of custom design with high accuracy of repeated shapes and sizes over high-volume runs make this kind of technology very attractive to many industries that rely on it for their supplies, parts, and products. For all the growth in 3D printing, CNC machining overall is still used even more so. Trends and innovations continue to drive market growth, including lower costs involved with buying, upkeep, and installation. This market is expected to attain a global value of nearly $100 billion USD in the next five years alone.