What Are the Different Types of Machine Tool Controls?

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  • Written By: Jordan Weagly
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2019
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Machine tools are generally used to fabricate finalized products out of solid materials. The tools, including lathes and millers, can be small — and typically for home use — or sized for industrial use. They usually are controlled manually by a human or automatically by a computer. Generic machine tool controls have changed over time, from manual controls such as pulleys and levers to the highly computerized controls used today.

Most early types of machine tools utilized manual controls, and modern machine tools may still be manually controlled. Depending on the equipment, a machine tool operator might have pulled a lever, spun a flywheel or used another type of hand-activated mechanism attached to a complex set of pulleys and levers. These machine tool controls would have moved the work piece or the cutting tools to a new position to form the desired product, and they often required a great deal of skill and knowledge to operate properly.

Eventually, machine tool controls evolved to include automatic components. An early example of automatic machine tool controls utilized a water wheel to provide constant power that could be used for various tasks. The later development of steam power meant new machine tool controls could be amplified using steam mechanisms. Many machine tools eventually utilized steam power, a major factor that contributed to the growth of mass production and the industrial revolution. Even then, machine tool controls were mostly manual and still required a machine tool operator to manipulate.


Numerical control was a major step forward for precise and automated machine tool controls. Rather than manually turning and activating controls, a machine tool operator would punch a numerical sequence onto a card or paper tape. These sequences were fed into the machine tool, which could read the numbers and operate the various parts in the correct sequence. The benefits of numerical control included precision, speed and easy repetition. Many of the concepts developed using numerical control influenced later, computerized methods.

Computerized numerical controls operate the parts of a machine tool via a computer program. The machine tool operator specifies the exact dimensions of the desired product. Once initiated, the process of forming the finished product is almost completely automatic. Computerized machine tool controls usually have a high level of precision compared to machine tools operated manually. One significant benefit of computerized numerical control is that multiple tools or machines can be configured to work together.


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