All About CNC Lathes

A machine shop or manufacturing plant is very likely to have a CNC (Computer Numeric Control) Lathe on its production floor. What’s a Lathe, you may ask? A Lathe is a machine that’s as old as time itself. Ancient Egyptians used lathes to shape wood with one man pulling a rope while another applied a sharp tool for shaping. As the rope was pulled in one direction and then the other, the workpiece spun and the sharp tool removed unwanted material. Fast forward a few thousand years and we’re still using lathes today; just not in such a rudimentary form. Still, the concept of turning a workpiece to shape it with a sharp tool applies today with even greater significance.

Big and Slow or Small and Fast?

Given the history and longevity of lathes throughout time, it’s a small wonder that there are literally dozens of different designs and types of lathes. Some lathes are engineered as large as a house and turn out huge, one-of-a-kind workpieces while other lathes are small and extremely precise instruments sensitive to the vibrations generated by cars driving by outside the building. The range and spectrum of lathe design is as broad as it is deep. Depending upon the application and available technology, there are even lathes that have Artificial Intelligence (AI) onboard that can solve problems before the machine operators know something is wrong.

General Designs of CNC Lathes

Due to the variety of engineering designs and applications, it is difficult to categorize lathes into specific groups. However, there are some types of lathes that are more prevalent in terms of numbers in service than others and that helps create some broad categories that can be identified as follows:

  1. Bench Lathe – Probably the most common piece of equipment in the world of lathes. This lathe fits on top of a workbench and can be operated by one machinist.
  2. Speed Lathe – An old, if not reliable, lathe design that can fit on top of a bench or have stand-alone capability with supporting legs. The cutting tool is hand-applied, so there is no advanced technology to deal with; just an old-fashioned, spinning device for making chair legs, staircase risers, and baseball bats.
  3. Engine Lathe– So-called because back in the day, it took a water wheel with leather strap pulleys, a gasoline or diesel engine to run the spindle. Of course, in today’s world, it’s an electric motor doing the work, but the name has stuck even though the tech advanced.
  4. Tool-room Lathe – Small and efficient, this lathe tends to have tighter tolerances and is designed for finer cuts and more accurate work than a Bench, Speed, or Engine Lathe. This lathe can easily fit on a bench for close-in, tight-tolerance work.
  5. Capstan and Turret Lathe – This is a mass-production piece of equipment that doesn’t require a lot of operator training or skill. The operator simply ensures the proper tool is on the lathe spindle and the lathe does all the rest of the work., This is the lathe you will find in most manufacturing facilities and production shop floors.
  6. Automatic Lathe – As the name implies, this is the lathe that does it all. The operator is basically along for the ride as the CNC machine does all the tool loading, workpiece positioning, material removal, and off-put stacking of finished parts. If it is programmed correctly, this lathe might even take the boss’ dog for a walk and wash his car!
  7. Special Purpose Lathe – This is the catch-all for a group of lathes that don’t fit anywhere else – Precision, Facing, Frontal, Vertical, Crankshaft, Duplicating, Screw Cutting, to name just a few. For more info on these and other customized lathe designs, the internet has all the information a machinist could need, want or use.

More to Explore

Look around and talk to machinists with a few years of experience under their belt. You’ll discover lathes are a common denominator among CNC operators with lots of information and networking available to boost your knowledge. No matter what type or kind of lathe you’re involved with, chances are there are resources available to help you along your way.

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