Integrating CNC machines and automation

Online Editor

Vincent Hua explains how to make your manufacturing process smarter by automating CNC machines

CNC or Computer Numerical Control is a manufacturing process where a program tells the machine how and where to drill or cut on a block of raw material. Once programmed, the CNC machine works on its own to create the design on the metal block.

CNC machines have been around since the 1960s. They have gained a prominent place in the manufacturing industry over time. With automation becoming the buzzword in recent times, many industries are combining automation with CNC machines to create a smarter manufacturing process. It is often considered the first step towards a dark factory or a completely automated factory. 

The need for automation in CNC machining

CNC machines are becoming more and more popular, and it is expected to become a US$115 billion industry by 2026 with a CAGR of 6%. Even 3D printing now uses the CNC process to create various designs. Combine this with the fact that consumer electronics, automobiles, machine parts, etc., are growing considerably. The consumer electronics market is expected to grow at a rate of 8% from 2021 to 2027. The automotive market is also expected to grow at a rate of 4.8% from 2020 to 2025. This is in addition to the fact that there is expected to be a shortage of 2.4 million skilled labourers by the year 2028 in the US alone.

There is a growing need for automating the manufacturing process of these products. Since most of them are reliant on CNC machining, the need for automating CNC machining is on the rise. In addition to this, CNC machining is already partly automatic. The machine carries out the pre-programmed design with little human intervention.

Benefits for automation in the CNC machining process


CNC machines are highly precise and accurate. Once programmed properly, the CNC milling machine can produce multiple parts at the same level of precision. This makes CNC machine a prime candidate for automation as there is no need to readjust parameters to create the same level of precision throughout the manufacturing process.

Create complex machine parts

The CNC machines in the market today can create parts with minute details with a high level of precision. Since most machine parts, consumer electronics, and automotive parts today require minute details, CNC is the perfect candidate for the job.

Reduces user error

There is always a chance for human error to occur on a manually operated machine. As long as the CNC machines are given regular maintenance and the parts are checked for wear and tear, the results are accurate and consistent. It also reduces material wastage as there are no defective pieces.

Reduce labour cost

Since the computer program and the CNC machine are doing most of the work, a single staff can oversee multiple machines. The need for highly skilled labour is less as the overseeing only needs minimal training to change the parts and troubleshoot common problems. They do not have to carry out the drilling and milling process. Automating CNC machining brings down the labour cost significantly.

Easily Integratable

CNC machines have evolved a lot since their inception. Modern machines can be used for various applications and can even be integrated with various other manufacturing units. If you already have an automated manufacturing process, the CNC milling machine will fit right into the line without major alterations.

Things to consider before automating CNC machining

While automation has various benefits, you need to consider certain things to reap these benefits.

Be proactive

Many think about automation only because it is the trend. However, automation requires proper planning. The entire process must be well thought out so that it is aligned with the needs of automation. Otherwise, you might end up making changes as they come along. These will often lead to manufacturing errors and wastage of resources.

Hire adequate resources and define roles

While automation does cut down the number of employees, the ones that remain have crucial roles. You need trained and skilled employees to create the programs and G-code needed for the CNC machine. After all, it is the code that guides the machines, and any error in the code can be expensive. Similarly, you will need personnel to check the machines and the products to determine if they adhere to the quality set forth by the customers. The roles of all the personnel should be well-defined so that there is no confusion.

Control the environment

While the CNC milling machines can work continuously once they have been programmed, they do generate heat. The heat can impact the machine parts can cause variability in the results. Therefore, you need to ensure that the environment on the manufacturing floor is favourable for the continuous operation of CNC machines.

Get proper tools

Not all equipment is created the same. A high-quality CNC machine is capable of handling the complexities of continuous operation. Select CNC milling machines that can handle complex programs and employ tools that can withstand continuous operation.

Automate the smart way 

Automating CNC machines is the way towards a smarter manufacturing process as it can manufacture complex parts at a reduced cost while also creating highly precise results. However, it is a step that should be taken after considering everything mentioned above.

Hiring the right personnel, using top-notch CNC milling machines, and creating a detailed plan for automation are the cornerstones for a successful transition to automation. Automation is not just a trend; it is the future.

Vincent Hua is with TSINFA.

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