While today’s machining tools – such as CNC (computer numerical control) lathes – are marvels of technology, these programmable machines wouldn’t exist if early man hadn’t played around with some sticks and stones, several millions of years ago, and come up with Tool #1.
In the hands of skilled men and woman, quality machining results from the know-how and dexterity that extensive training brings.
Just as artists can instinctively shape their brush strokes to the different demands of watercolour or oils, machinists must be able to interpret drawings, know their metals and materials, and be able to operate manual, automatic, and computer-controlled machinery skilfully.
So did that clever homo sapiens running a thumb over the sharp edge of a fractured rock (or stubbing a toe on it) realize what was about to happen? His or her moment of creativity led in a straight line to hand tools like potter’s wheels, bow drills, and eventually, primitive lathes, created thousands of years ago in Ancient Egypt.
Probably the next most notable development, centuries later, was the pole-lathe. Powered by foot pedal, the pole-lathe had the enormous advantage of allowing the worker to use both hands on his material. With later innovations including lathes driven by horses, machining truly changed with the arrival of the First Industrial Revolution.
Spanning a time of social ferment from about 1760 to 1840 and beginning in Europe, the First Industrial Revolution saw the slow and painstaking production by hand of goods, like textiles, glass, paper, cloth and footwear, being replaced by machine production.
Entire sectors, including chemistry, mining, transportation, and agriculture were forever changed by inventions like the steam engine and its tireless, centralized power, or the mechanical seed drill developed by British lawyer Jethro Tull, which transformed agriculture. Floods of innovations not only increased efficiency but also saved time, manpower and costs.
Wood to metal
Without the First Industrial Revolution, the world would still use small, hand-held tools to make the things we use every day, from forks to shirts and socks. At the time, some did their best to halt the tides of process.
While the so-called Luddites – most notably textile workers – who had lost their jobs in the industrial revolution rebelled and smashed the machinery, there was no stopping it replacing human labour. Wood soon gave way to metal, in the form of massive lathes and machines for boring, shaping, bending and so on.
In America, as a mechanical engineer and manufacturer best remembered for inventing the cotton gin, Eli Whitney’s legacy must also include the invention of machines to mass-produce muskets. Whitney devised ingenious machining methods for producing standardized, uniform musket parts, including the barrels, and in quick time secured a contract from George Washington’s government to manufacture 10,000 muskets, an unheard of number in those days.
Over the decades, machinists have played a vital role in the evolution of manufacturing and mass production, especially during World War II. Manufacturing – along with all other industries – suffered terribly during the depression years leading up to the start of the Second World War on September 1, 1939. Entering the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was compelled to ramp up the production of everything from ammunition to aircraft and tanks to torpedoes.
Rise of the machine age
The contribution of machining to Allied victory in WWII cannot be overstated. Manufacturing, particularly in the U.S., was driven by the scarcity of labour, the adversity of war, and the plight of Europe to considerable innovation, faster processes, lower costs, increased precision, and the furious development of new equipment.
The progress made during the war years, combined with the rising prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, inevitably resulted in mass production that was of a range and quantity completely new, and the development of the CNC machine.
Although the roots of CNC were in the 18th century, the true potential of computer numerical control evolved in the post-WWII years, most notably when Richard Kegg devised the first-known CNC milling machine in 1952.
Patented on January 14, 1958 as the Motor Controlled Apparatus for Positioning Machine Tool, the patent states the invention was created “for shaping and modifying work pieces and more particularly to a method of and means for automatically controlling machine tools, such as milling machines and the like, from media containing stored information such as cards or tape punched or otherwise modified for this purpose.”
Big, big business
As digital technology advanced throughout the Sixties and Seventies, so did CNC machines. Machining is an evolving field, with innovation driven by computers and technology. It is also a very big business.
According to CNC Machine Market – Forecasts from 2019 to 2024 (which provides extensive information on CNC by type, industry and geography): “The CNC machine market is projected to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 7.62 percent to reach US$76.058 billion by 2024, from US$48.965 billion in 2018.”
Reasons for the tremendous growth include accelerated production, increased safety, and that CNC machines do not need a human operator’s constant presence. CNC Machine Market goes on to say, “CNC machines does [sic] the mechanical process based on the pre-defined parameters embedded in computerized control unit which gives it instruction regarding the tool control, feed rate, coordinate systems etc. The growing competitive environment is resulting in firms pushing their efforts to increase the production in order to improve on its existing market position.”
Among the key players in the CNC industry are Samsung Machine Tools, Mazak Corporation, Dalian Machine Tool Group Corporation and others.
Can’t wait to innovate
Along with CNC, a wave of tooling and machining machines have come to market flaunting such innovations as laser beam machining (LBM). Pioneered by Bell Labs in the mid-Sixties, LBM evolved rapidly and was soon used for cutting metals with incredible precision and much less waste than a blade. Incorporating carbon dioxide at first, the technology has advanced to continuous wave lasers and pulsed fibre lasers (ideal for exacting engraving).
Not to be outdone, the market is seeing developments in in other technologies, such as electrochemical machining (ECM), and waterjet cutting (WJM). Invented almost 100 years ago, ECM – widely referred to ‘reverse electroplating’ since material is removed instead of added – is available through companies such as ECM, LLC.
This company is behind a range of ECM machines that have a small footprint, are non-polluting, and are ideal for applications in automotive, aircraft, jewelry and even human-implant manufacturing. Waterjet cutting, which goes back to the 1930s, was at first limited to using narrow water jets to cut soft materials, like paper.
By the 1950s, the technology was using ultra high-pressure to cut through stainless steel, and is regularly used today to cut plastics, glass, various metals, and more, with extreme precision.
Today, some of the biggest manufacturers representing the market are Flow International, Water Jet Sweden, Baykal Machine Tools, and Shenyang Head. And like the CNC machine market, the worldwide waterjet cutting sector is can expect strong growth from 2019 to 2025, according to BlueWeave Consulting, a market intelligence company.
Segmented into three markets – 3D, Robotic Waterjet, and Micro – the market is further broken-down by applications such as aerospace and defense; and pure waterjet cutting and abrasive waterjet cutting. This last is well-suited for shaping window panels, and cutting through other hard, yet brittle, easily-broken materials like ceramic tiles and marble.
Last year, Method Machine Tools, Inc. introduced the new FANUC RoboDrill ecoPLUS. Available in two models, this versatile machine performs a multitude of tasks, including drilling, milling, and deburring. It’s an all-in-one device designed and manufactured for high-speed machining and continuous use. With a 21-tool capacity, the FANUC RoboDrill ecoPLUS is available with options like robotic automation and high-speed indexers.
With machining evolving at breakneck speed in recent decades, it’s easy to forecast that the machining tools of the future will be faster, more accurate, and safer – or, more of the same, but better.
But if machining’s history is anything to go by, you can also expect the unexpected, sooner rather than later. Perhaps something that makes CNC look positively First Industrial Revolution.