Where Did CNC Machining Come From?


Many people think that computer numerical control machining, better known as CNC machining, was something that came along with computers in the 1980s and 1990s. CNC was actually created in physical working form in the 1940s, during World War II. The fact is people were designing machines that worked mechanically much earlier than computers. The earlier tooling machine which worked with manually driven power was created as far back as the 1750s. That said, there is usually a big gap of time between a really good idea and the practical application that everyone can use.

The advent of true CNC machining kickstarted automation. It was clearly a jump forward in terms of mass production, especially for a process that custom-shapes products versus producing them on an assembly line by the thousands. Assembly line manufacturing was easy to implement, even in the early years. Simply line up enough workers, assign each one a task, and the assembly takes place sequentially. Robots doing the same were extremely late to the game at the end of the 20th century.

The Early Days of CNC Work

Going back to the end of the 1940s, however, it was John T. Parsons who gets the credit for coming up with the first working form of a CNC machine. This project was not done in a garage. In fact, it had quite a bit of resources behind it, developed at the time as a military research project in a partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, and the U.S. Air Force. At the time, the first work form was produced as a milling machine connected to a servomechanism design. The hodge-podge of parts was cobbled together experimentally using helicopter parts and other aircraft components connected to motorized angular controls.

From the earlier experimental ideas, Parsons then began connecting the apparatus to IBM machines that cranked out the numerical values of positions points and coordinates. Every space has coordinate points relative to each other. Define them by a scale, and the points become part of a bigger grid. Then, with instructions, one can essentially map out a path of movement. Apply computers and that movement becomes automated. Before electronic circuits and chips the size of a quarter a fingernail, instructions could be fed into a very early control machine with punch cards. Made of paper, punch cards were the basic form of writeable medium, but it still took a long time to fabricate them.

By 1952, Richard Kegg took the idea of CNC machining further. Also partnered with MIT, which of course allowed some idea-sharing, Kegg came up with a contour milling machine that worked on a vertical spindle. This design, which passed the critical boundary of a working system, became the footprint that later designs were built on. Much of this work stayed the main paradigm until the 1960s. It was about that point that analog computers started to become available and applied into practice. By 1968, the early work done by Parsons was honored with serious awards and recognition for the fundamental way he changed the automated world to be. In fact, the change was so significant, Parsons was titled the “Father of the Second Industrial Revolution.” Not a shabby acknowledgement for the impact of his work.

The Evolution of Today’s CNC Factory

The modern CNC machining that is applied today, however, is truly driven by later and modern technology. Utilizing the power of software, it drives machines and tooling via scripted instructions by the thousands, and the software is changeable as well. Thousands of variations of the same product can be applied, put into production, and created. No surprise, CNC machining became a massive gamechanger. It was also applied to thousands of uses and hundreds of industries. Even mass manufacturing had tremendous use for CNC machining. Many times, factories had the tooling incorporated into their on-site shop to provide for immediate part replacement fabrication or for prototyping new ideas and quick physical tests.

The boost of CNC machining started when computer-aided design came into vogue. This essentially allowed for three-dimensional shape and design development. The CAD file is then matched to a software language that both creates the script version of the design as well as what instructions need to be included to direct tools to do their work in a CNC machine. At the simplest design, CNC machines work with three axes, X, Y and Z. This allows the instructions to be applied on a worktable in terms of horizontal, vertical and depth. Between the three, and thousands of points of positions, the tooling does its work per instructions and creates the CAD design in real product form.

Evden Enterprises has been a long-time leader in CNC machining, keeping up the spirit of Parsons’ original invention and work. Granted, the computers Evden specialists use today are light-years ahead of what the earlier inventors worked with, even at MIT, but the fundamental concept of CNC machining still lives in how Evden does its work for clients. It’s one of the reasons why Evden Enterprises stands out so much in the industry for its CNC work.