Differences between CNC Mill vs CNC Lathe

Understanding the differences in CNC technology

Most machinists understand the differences between a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) Milling machine and a Lathe. Both machines are designed to remove material, but in different ways. The basic difference is how each tool treats the workpiece being milled. A Milling machine uses a spinning tool to make cuts on a stationary workpiece and a lathe spins the workpiece so that a stationary cutting tool can be applied to shape the workpiece. The other difference is the CNC Mill moves in three or more directions around or inside a workpiece and the CNC Lathe works more horizontally than vertically on workpiece surfaces. Manufacturing production floors and machine shops frequently employ both types of mills because of their complementary capabilities.

CNC Mill

Of the two types of shaping tools, the CNC Mill is the more versatile tool. CNC Mills have evolved into highly sophisticated equipment capable of shaping metal, wood, plastic, nylon, and other raw stock into any shape imaginable. Improved technology in cutting tool designs combined with CAD/CAM integrating software have taken CNC mills to a whole new level of productivity. The ability to make inside cuts and the extremely tight tolerances achievable because of software and hardware improvements make CNC mills indispensable for every machine shop and production floor. CNC Mills turn and cut with a variety of tools producing:

  • Outside cuts, drilling, and chamfering
  • Interior cuts and hollowed-out spaces
  • Spherical and rounded shapes
  • Multi-tool functions on one workpiece

CNC Lathe

 A Lathe shapes workpieces by spinning the piece on an axis while a tool is used to form or shape the work piece. On a CNC horizontal mill, the workpiece is stationary and the tool moves to form the desired shape. By design, lathes are better suited to shaping longer, horizontal pieces like baseball bats, and stairway balusters. CNC Lathes can apply multiple tools to the same workpiece for:

  • Sanding
  • Drilling
  • Cutting
  • Knurling
  • Reaming

CNC Turning

Over the last decade, technological advances in computer software applications like CAD/CAM design tools has enhanced the capabilities of both CNC mills and lathes. Precision control combined with advanced tool designs has increased productivity as well as machining capabilities. CNC equipment produces incredibly precise results with greater speed, less manpower, and lower cost per workpiece than ever before. Design and engineering horizons have been pushed to the limit as CNC machining capabilities have expanded. Competition between CNC manufacturers creates dynamic new applications further expanding machine functionality while reducing costs for equipment.

The future of CNC mills and CNC lathes

CNC turning has morphed over time from simple, single-function devices to multi-tool, multi-function production powerhouses. CNC machines today have production capabilities and capacities only dreamed about ten years ago. CNC machines are being adapted to install components into workpieces in addition to removing materials. Technology is creating smaller CNC machines capable of producing tiny, microscopic workpieces as well as gigantic machines that can turn huge workpieces weighing more than a car. Advances in specialized materials for cutting tools, tool functionality, and computer control functions make no job impossible or unworkable.

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