Machine wars: the most popular CNC machines 

Ladies and gentlemen, manufacturers and engineers.

 

You’ve heard about the Battle of Hastings, the Battle of Waterloo, and even the Battle of Endor in Star Wars. But here at Sheldon Precision, we must report that a new kind of war is upon us.

 

A war between CNC machines.

 

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines have taken over the manufacturing world. Their precision, accuracy and repeatability provide a quick and easy method of producing complex shapes and geometries in high-volume batches.

 

But now, five CNC machines are battling each other to claim their place as the most dominant.

 

But who are the contenders? And who will reign supreme?

 

A CNC machine manufacturing a component from metal.

 

 


What is a CNC machine?

 

A CNC machine is essentially a modernised manufacturing unit that is computer-operated via a programming language called G-code. The machine is programmed with instructions and creates the desired components from a block or rod of material in a precise, accurate, and repeatable manner. As a result, CNC machining is a popular manufacturing method for various industries.

 

There are many CNC machines out there, all ideal for a wide range of uses, but five notable candidates have fought their way into the arena — and only one can emerge victorious.


The CNC machines

 

Emerging from the battlefield, our five machines are readying themselves for all-out war.

 

CNC milling machines and lathes are revving up, confident they’ll win this fight. They’re both renowned in the manufacturing world for their speed and precision, but they aren’t the only ones competing.

 

CNC plasma cutters, laser machines, and routers aren’t just fast but also accurate, removing excess materials with clean cuts. They’re in it to win it, just as much as milling machines and lathes.

 

Milling Machines

 

CNC milling machines are a top contender for the title. They offer fantastic accuracy when milling, drilling, and cutting materials for a range of components.

 

They easily comprehend G-code, holding workpieces steady while the tools cut and drill at high speeds that vary between two or more axes. They’re best suited for large blocks of materials. Because of the computer-automated instructions, a CNC milling machine allows for repeatability across components, especially those that are asymmetrical from an axial perspective, which is perfect for manufacturing many batches of the same product.

 

Lathes

 

CNC lathes, or turning machines, are as popular as milling machines. They have the same programming as milling machines and can precisely cut and shape materials into specific components, making them a go-to option for cylindrical and conical parts.

 

A CNC lathe machine rotates the workpiece material around a central axis. The tools stay still while the workpiece moves. Once the machine is programmed, fixed cutting tools and drill bits are used to cut and remove materials to shape, allowing for a range of details engraved into the piece. These machines are ideal for quickly producing large quantities of products that require high consistency and precision.

 

CNC Routers

 

CNC routers operate similarly to milling machines. They ensure the machining of complex shapes using supplied G-code, which makes the rotating cutting tool move at high speeds.

 

They typically offer a gantry-style construction where the spindle moves left and right along the X-axis, back and forth on the Y-axis, and large cutting areas suited to large plants or plates. CNC routers are ideal for various industries, including furniture and packaging.

 

Plasma Cutters

 

Plasma cutters are an underestimated contender but are still raring to march into battle. Not only are they fast and accurate, but CNC plasma cutters also offer a fantastic option for larger-scale projects. They reach incredibly high heat and can cut through up to six inches of steel in minimal time, meaning there’s no need to wait for machines to warm up before operation.

 

A CNC plasma cutter uses compressed gas or air forced through a nozzle to ensure precision when cutting through materials. The gas or air is then introduced to an electric arc, which produces ionised gas or plasma that slices through the material quickly and effortlessly.

 

Laser Machine

 

Another underdog, CNC laser machines are perfect for various materials and typically craft multiple aerospace parts, medical equipment, and more.

 

A CNC laser machine works with a laser beam that makes for easy cutting and removal of materials, using this minor point of contact to ensure high precision. As a result, surface finishes are improved, and cutting tools won’t require sharpening.

 

A CNC laser cutter during the manufacturing process.


The battle

 

To find a winner, the machines have to fight to the death.

 

Well, not to the death, but until we find a winner.

 

They’ll battle in three rounds: material compatibility, versatility, and operation. Comparing the machines in these areas will reveal distinct strengths and weaknesses, highlighting which ones excel on the CNC battlefield. After every round, CNC machines will be eliminated until we’re left with the winner.

 

Materials

 

Popular CNC machines are typically compatible with a wide range of materials.

 

Aluminium and steel are the most common materials for CNC milling machines and lathes due to their machinability, and both are known for tackling a range of materials head-on. Whether it’s brass, copper alloys, titanium, plastic or wood, lathes and mills usually make for easy manufacturing work — though this can depend on the machine, as some lathes aren’t suited to materials with high toughness.

 

While CNC routers offer faster cutting speeds than milling machines, they aren’t as precise or robust. As a result, routers are more compatible with soft materials, including composites, wood and plastics, and thin materials that accommodate their limited motion along the Z-axis.

 

However, the first machine to be knocked out of this round is the CNC plasma cutter. Since CNC plasma cutters work on an electric discharge mechanism, they’re restricted to manufacturing electrically conductive materials like metals. This makes them weaker than other CNC machines, like laser machines, which are compatible with metals, plastics, paper, and hardwood, among many other materials.

 

That said, CNC laser machines also find some materials more challenging. Some metals, including brass and copper, cause the laser beam to reflect. Others, like polycarbonate, can create harmful gases. These issues can damage the machine and those using it, so CNC laser machines also find themselves out of the battle.

 

Versatility

 

So far, CNC plasma cutters and CNC laser machines have been eliminated from the lineup, leaving CNC lathes, milling machines and routers to the next round: versatility.

 

Versatility is crucial when it comes to CNC machining. The most popular machines can produce components for various industries and applications.

 

CNC lathes are incredibly versatile. They are compatible with interchangeable parts, such as drills, making them fit for a range of applications and industries and ideal for cutting, turning, facing, drilling, and more.

 

CNC milling machines also score points for versatility. There are many of them across industries, which gives them strength in numbers. With different variants, including hand, universal and plain, milling machines offer a range of functions with three-axis movements. Plenty of CNC milling machines also accommodate the fourth and fifth axes, which result in even more precision.

 

CNC routers are ideal for a wide array of cutting operations, including straight cuts and complex contours. They are available in different sizes with three or four-axis options. Their ability to produce precise components for various needs makes them great for many applications and industries. However, compared to CNC milling machines and lathes, a CNC router offers less accuracy regarding detailed cuts and often achieves cuts of a shallower depth, limiting its usefulness.

 

And just like that, CNC routers are out of the running. Now, the spotlight shines on the ultimate showdown between the fan favourites: CNC lathes and CNC milling machines.

 

Operation

 

We’re down to our final two machines. The fight is on.

 

The main difference between a CNC milling machine and a CNC lathe is the part of the machine that moves. While CNC milling machines move cutting tools around the material, lathes rotate materials around the cutting tools.

 

The biggest strengths of CNC milling machines are their precision and speed. They produce many parts in short periods — sometimes just hours — ensuring strong production rates. Most can be run without constant attention, too, which means increased production and reduced labour costs.

 

That said, CNC milling machines aren’t perfect. They often need skilled operators to code and program the machine before production. Think of them like the robots in Pacific Rim: highly specialised pieces of kit that need capable operators to avoid mishaps, specifically, poor accuracy and design flaws.

 

Their complexity also makes them costly. But with the right approach, they often pay for themselves with unmatched accuracy and production speed. Some even consider milling machines the most cost-effective CNC machine, especially compared to other modern manufacturing alternatives.

 

Like CNC mills, CNC lathes are incredibly efficient. They deliver quick machining capabilities, short production times, and seamless workflow without sacrificing precision.

 

CNC lathes are also high-cost investments. This isn’t always practical for smaller businesses, but you’re still getting much bang for your buck — including long-term efficiency and accuracy when creating a wide range of parts. This comes at a trade-off of being tricky to operate, so, like CNC mills, skilled operators must be able to make the most of your lathes.

 

A close up shot of a CNC machine at work.


The verdict

 

So, who walks away with the title of strongest CNC machine?

 

It’s a close call, but when you compare the two, CNC lathes emerge as the stronger contender.

 

After all, lathes ensure high productivity and speed. They are also much better for volume manufacturing. This is due to automation benefits, such as running 3m bars, which can make multiple parts per load and cycle times that are measured in seconds, not minutes.

 

However, it’s important to recognise that CNC lathes, while highly popular and favoured in the manufacturing world, are not the only option available. Mills, routers, plasma cutters, laser machines and more each offer unique advantages tailored to specific applications and production needs. It’s always best to pick the right kind of machine for your project to achieve the best results.

 

With the fight for CNC dominance now over, manufacturers and engineers everywhere can get back to building a better future for their businesses. What’s more, they can do it with whichever kind of machine suits their needs for material compatibility, versatility and operability — be it the all-purpose but complex CNC lathe machine or the easy-to-use but restrictive plasma cutter.


Supporting UK businesses

 

Are you looking for support with your project? Sheldon Precision is here to help. With a full CNC manufacturing facility, we provide a premium service to exact customer specifications.

 

Contact us today for more information.