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History and Evolution of Precision Manufacturing and CNC Machining Industry

The modern society that we know today, with all the sophisticated mechanical and electronic devices helping us perform a specific task at the push of a button or transport us to great distances within a matter of hours, has been built on the foundation of manufacturing. However, before the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing was labor-intensive and time-intensive, with skilled artisans churning out mechanical devices in small quantities at prolonged intervals. This made the devices costly and beyond the reach of common people.

Things started to change gradually in the eighteenth century with the advent of the first Industrial Revolution across Europe. Manufacturers felt the increasing need to look for faster alternatives for crafting instruments and devices. It led to building the first turning machine to improve precision and produce items faster in 1751, thus marking the beginning of industrialization and mechanization of production.

The 19th century was marked by the discovery of electricity and its industrial applications, bringing about the second Industrial Revolution. In 1833, the Factory Act of the United Kingdom, which set a standard for factory work, led manufacturers and machinists to pursue options that reduced the need for human input, paving the way for automated machining methods. The earliest machines used cams or perforated paper cards to control the machine tool, which still required human intervention to extract information from an abstract level. These punched tapes were used to store numerical data by punching holes on a long tape, read by paper tape reader, and translated to machines using instructions. Manufacturers also encountered the challenge of meeting the machining tolerance, or the level of precision needed for producing a part of equipment, which was addressed by synchronizing two servomotors to form a closed loop.

The third Industrial Revolution started in the 20th century bringing automation in production processes. The automation was further strengthened by the introduction of computers in production processes during the 1960s-1970s. During the 1940s, the US Navy took help from the company Parsons Corp. to accelerate the output of its production line for helicopter blades and efficient aircraft bodies. John T. Parsons, a computing pioneer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Frank L. Stulen developed a milling machine with motorized axes for making these blades, programmed by the punch tape method. This was the first version of a numerical control (NC) machine. In collaboration with IBM, they researched the prospects of using computers to control these machines. Modern computer numerical control (CNC) operations used in fabrication processes owed their origin to the punch card system developed by Parsons and Stulen. In 1952, a collaboration between MIT and Richard Kegg led to the development of the first commercial version of a CNC machine called Cincinnati Milacron Hydro-Tel, a vertical-spindle contour milling machine.

The growing applications of computer programming languages in automation prompted the development and adoption of standardized programming language in the NC machining industry. In 1956, the US Air Force sponsored the development of the automated programmed tool (APT) language to be used in NC machines. This marked the beginning of the use of computers with standardized programming language in machining, thereby paving the way for the development of CNC machines which required less human intervention.

In the 1970s, the introduction of microcomputers and microprocessors further developed the CNC machines and made them affordable for small-scale applications. The CNC machining industry further expanded due to the application of computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided machining (CAM) in 1972. 3D CAD and CAM machining was introduced in CNC machining in 1976. In 1989, CAD and CAM software-controlled machines became available commercially.

In 2011, the portable 3-axis desktop CNC machine MTM Snap was developed by Jonathan Ward, Nadya Peek, and David Mellis under a project started by MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atmos Laboratory, which was capable of milling various materials.

The CNC machines in the 21st century have continued to add more axes of movements from 4, 5, to 12, making them more efficient and productive with the changing demands and requirements from the manufacturing industry.

The CNC machines have come a long way from the earlier operator-controlled room-size machines to portable desktop-size machines in the 21st century. With the rapid emergence and adoption of concepts and technologies, such as Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT) in the 21st century, further advancements in CNC machines would likely bring more integration among the machines and manufacturing processes enabled through information and communication technologies. These evolving technologies would likely allow CNC machines to become more autonomous, requiring less or no human intervention in their operations. These machines are equipped with an intelligent control system (ICS) capable of using information from process sensors and neural networks to autonomously adjust process functions, including cutting speed and depth. These machines behave and act like humans and can easily communicate with operators through self-learning and evolutionary procedures.

At Lambda Function, we continuously seek to upgrade our ICS solutions to an intelligent level, thereby enabling your CNC machine shop to generate performance evaluation reports, conduct process impact analysis, and assist machinists in effective decision-making.

At Lambda Function, we are developing solutions that bring increased machining autonomy to CNC machine shops. Our portfolio of solutions assists you to achieve higher machine uptime, enhanced yield, increased throughput, optimized annual expenditure on tool maintenance, and improved staff productivity.

Learn more about our ICS platform by checking our product demo.

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