cnc lathe machine

What is a CNC Lathe Machine? The Ultimate Guide

You know how a lathe works if you ever worked in a machine shop, even if you didn’t operate one yourself. But maybe at some point, you toured a manufacturing facility as part of researching a career in metalworking, and now you want to find out more about these exciting machine tools. In that case, this guide is for you!

The lathe works on a relatively simple principle: You fasten a workpiece in a chuck, turn on a motor that spins the piece, feed a fixed cutting tool in one of two directions, and create a cylindrically shaped part with a flat front. Of course, this is an oversimplification of a turning operation, but you get the point.

A few decades ago, all lathes were manual turning machines where an operator determined the speed of the chuck, the depth of the cut, and the feed rate of the fixed cutting tool. These machining operations were among the most dangerous in the machine shop. Lathe operators were exposed to hot, flying metal chips, the occasional workpiece letting loose, and worse yet, getting clothing or fingers entangled in all those moving parts resulting in missing digits or worse.

The Invention of the CNC Lathe Added Automation and Safety to Horizontal Machining

At around the same time that computer numerical control—CNC milling—was changing the face of the manual milling machine, CNC lathes arrived on the scene with the promise of high production, tighter tolerances, faster spindle speeds, and shorter cycle times. And these CNC turning centers would keep their promise. Eventually, multi-axis CNC lathes would perform machining operations that were unimaginable a few years ago.

Now that you have some idea of what a CNC lathe does, let’s back up a bit and look at the basic functionality of these versatile CNC machines.

cnc lathe diagram
A diagram of a CNC lathe machine

What are the Parts of a CNC lathe?

  • Machine Bed: The CNC Lathe or CNC Turning Center bed is the main base on which its components are mounted.
  • Main Spindle: The main spindle consists of the spindle assembly and the spindle drive system. Many of the moving parts of the CNC lathe are in the main spindle, including motors, gears, and the chuck. The C-axis drive that assists in positioning the material is also assembled with the spindle.
  • Sub-Spindle or Second Spindle: Although not part of the main spindle, the optional sub-spindle works in concert with the main spindle to complete primary and secondary cutting operations, improving efficiency and production.
  • Chuck: The lathe chuck is comparable to the vise on a milling machine since it holds the workpiece to allow safe and accurate machining. The chuck size determines the size of the work a CNC lathe can handle.
  • Guide Way: The guideway enables the cutting tool to move horizontally and vertically and complete a smooth cutting process.
  • Headstock: The headstock contains the main motor and the main spindle mounted on the chuck.
  • Tailstock: The tailstock is located on the end opposite the headstock. The tailstock provides support when machining long workpieces such as shafts.
  • Tool Turret: The turret provides the ability to change the cutting tools as required. The number and size of the cutting tools will determine the turret’s size.

What are the Primary Axes on a CNC Lathe?

cnc lathe axesAn axis defines all the movements of a CNC Lathe, and there is a definition and purpose for each of them:

  • X-Axis: The movement perpendicular to the spindle.
  • Z-Axis: The longitudinal movement of the turret.
  • Y-Axis: Vertical direction for milling/drilling operations.
  • C-Axis: The axis that positions the part in the chuck by using the spindle.
  • B-Axis: The rotation of the lathe’s milling head enables the head to perform work from various angles.

What are the Different Types of CNC Lathes?

  • Standard 2-Axis Machine: Typically, these CNC lathes use outside diameter (OD) tooling to remove material from the outside of the part and boring bars to machine material from the center. As a rule, CNC Lathes have one spindle, one turret, and a tailstock.
  • 3-Axis CNC Lathe: Much like a 2-Axis version, a 3-Axis CNC Lathe also has high-speed live tooling, giving the operator an option to do milling machine operations and standard turning operations and drilling.
  • Multi-Axis Machine with sub-spindle or dual turrets: A multi-spindle CNC lathe has either two spindles of equal size and power or a sub-spindle that is smaller in capacity and horsepower. These machine tools allow the operator to turn both sides of the workpiece in one operation instead of removing it from the chuck and flipping it around.
  • Chucking Lathe: The Chucking CNC Lathe has no tailstock and is typically confined to short and small parts because of the lack of support from a tailstock.
  • Big Bore CNC Lathe: Sometimes called an oil field lathe, these heavy-duty turning machines have a larger bar capacity and are reserved for large diameter parts such as pipes, flanges, shafts, and rollers. The large spindle bore allows longer pieces to fit through the spindle.
  • Swiss CNC Lathe: The Swiss CNC Machine produces smaller parts quickly and accurately, feeding the round bar stock through a guide bushing and into the tooling area of the machine.

Most of the CNC lathes on this list are enclosed to keep the operator safe and high-pressure coolant from escaping and making a slippery mess of the work area. Also, many of these machine tools will have the popular Fanuc CNC control.

How to Use a CNC Lathe

The CNC lathe operations begin with a workpiece held in place by a chuck in the main spindle like a manual lathe. The material is rotated as the mounted cutting tool removes material on the outside diameter, inside diameter, or across the face of the workpiece.

Unlike its manual counterpart, the CNC lathe operates with instructions from computer-aided drawings and manufacturing software, providing the G-code programming language to the machine tool. The machine tool can be programmed to move on various axes to get the precise dimensions and shape of the finished part.

Although CNC lathe machines have six or more axes, the basic CNC lathe operates on two axes with the cutting tool remaining in a fixed position. The two standard

cnc lathe in action
A CNC lathe in action

axes are the Z-axis for removing material from the material’s diameter and the X-axis for controlling the depth of cut and removing material across the face of the part. Both of these are linear axes.

The material being removed by a CNC lathe machine comes off much more quickly than on a manual lathe. And the parts and products from CNC turning centers are precisely finished and can be considerably more complex. The accuracy of these machining centers makes them the favorite of the demanding automotive and aerospace industries and are also favored for prototyping.

Some multi-axis machines also have a Y-axis incorporating another turret that includes a second spindle, sometimes called a sub-spindle. This setup enables off-center milling, drilling, and tapping operations, and it eliminates the need to remove the workpiece and transfer it to another machine for secondary operations. With the help of multiple axes, these CNC turning machines can perform multi-tasking while producing highly complex parts.

metal parts from cnc lathe machine
Parts turned on a lathe

What Can I Make With a CNC Lathe?

Because CNC turning operations produce parts with shapes such as cylinders, cones, and spheres, these CNC machine tools are often involved in machining shafts and pipes. However, with their versatility, CNC machining centers take on boring, milling, drilling, tapping, threading, reaming, knurling, and numerous other operations.

As a result, the list of items that CNC lathe machines can produce is seemingly endless. Here is a sampling:

  • Aerospace parts
  • Automotive parts (crankshafts, camshafts, pistons, etc.)
  • Train parts
  • Electric motor parts
  • Nuts & bolts
  • Baseball bats
  • Gun barrels
  • Cue sticks
  • Candlestick holders

Who Manufactures Quality CNC Turning Centers?

cnc masters 1440 lathe
CNC Masters 1440 Lathe

CNC Masters is the manufacturer and distributor of two CNC lathes, the 1340 and 1440 models, that will help you eliminate the need to outsource work for prototyping and high production. Both machines provide machine shops with the versatility to switch to manual control quickly and efficiently, avoiding a CNC program for short runs. Also, their advanced CNC capabilities turn complex turning operations into simple designs that are programmed and executed accurately over multiple production runs.

Our turning machines are built in California and backed by the CNC Masters One-Year Warranty, or you may extend it for two more years. We also offer unlimited “Life-Long” Tech Support, step-by-step troubleshooting, and a walk-through process by email or phone, Monday-Friday during normal business hours, Pacific time, for as long as your company owns the machine. Unlike costly servo systems, our machines are easy to repair, replace parts, and maintain!

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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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