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Computer Numerical Control Machine Definition & Meaning

A computer numerical control machine is a computer that gives commands to manufacturing machines to help design and produce equipment more efficiently. The computer controls the machinery, which cuts materials into parts depending on the specifications programmed into the computer. A numerical control machine was initially developed by John Parsons in the 1940s and 50s (he was not the only researcher to develop numerical control machinery, but he did patent it). Numerical control involved programming machines to perform tasks, but initially it was human-run. Computer numerical control (CNC) machines automated some of the process.

CNC machines connect to machinery within a manufacturing warehouse or plant and give them specifically programmed commands. The machines then cut, drill, and design parts and products accordingly. The heavier reliance on machines eliminates much human labor: when CNC machines were introduced, they made machinery and parts production much more efficient. CNC machines also design parts very specifically, providing a way to make the same piece of machinery multiple times without variance. The computer programming does have to be very specific and accurate so that error is eliminated as often as possible—there's very little margin for it in machine manufacturing.

CNC machine software

Software allows manufacturers to visualize the product design and testing processes through different stages. The most common types of CNC software are computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM).

  • Computer aided design allows users to visualize how pieces fit together and how the entire machine would work with different parts, often using either 2D or 3D modeling.
  • Computer aided manufacturing plans how a mechanical system or part should run and helps the product testing process succeed. It can also offer 3D modeling features.

CAD and CAM software are similar and are often combined by providers.










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