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Numerical control (NC) (also computer numerical control (CNC)) is the automated control of machining tools (drills, boring tools, lathes) by means of a computer. An NC machine alters a blank piece of material (metal, plastic, wood, ceramic, or composite) to meet precise specifications by following programmed instructions and without a manual operator.
NC machines combine a motorized maneuverable tool and often a motorized maneuverable platform, which are both controlled by a computer core, according to specific input instructions. Instructions are delivered to an NC machine in the form of graphical computer-aided design (CAD) files, which are transformed into a sequential program of machine control instructions, and then executed.
NC is a major advance in machining, and is a vast improvement over non-computer type machining that requires manual control, by hand wheels or levers, or mechanical control by fabricated pattern guides (cams). In modern CNC systems, the design of a mechanical part and its manufacturing program is highly automated. The part’s mechanical dimensions are defined using CAD software, and then translated into manufacturing directives by computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software. The resulting directives are transformed (by “post processor” software) into the specific commands necessary for a particular machine to produce the component, and then are loaded into the CNC machine.
Since any particular component might require the use of a number of different tools – drills, saws, etc. – modern machines often combine multiple tools into a single “cell”. In other installations, a number of different machines are used with an external controller and human or robotic operators that move the component from machine to machine. In either case, the series of steps needed to produce any part is highly automated and produces a part that closely matches the original CAD.
Machining is any of various processes in which a piece of raw material is cut into a desired final shape and size by a controlled material-removal process. The processes that have this common theme, controlled material removal, are today collectively known as subtractive manufacturing, in distinction from processes of controlled material addition, which are known as additive manufacturing. Exactly what the “controlled” part of the definition implies can vary, but it almost always implies the use of machine tools (in addition to just power toolsand hand tools).
Machining is a part of the manufacture of many metal products, but it can also be used on materials such as wood, plastic, ceramic, and composites. A person who specializes in machining is called a machinist. A room, building, or company where machining is done is called a machine shop. Much of modern-day machining is carried out by computer numerical control (CNC), in which computers are used to control the movement and operation of the mills, lathes, and other cutting machines.
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