What Is a CNC Machining Center?

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  • Written By: Page Coleman
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 17 January 2020
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A computer numerical control (CNC) machining center is used to produce parts or molds for industry. As technology has advanced, so has the capabilities of these machines, and they are now available in several variations. Those who are interested in programming or operating these pieces of equipment may obtain technical training.

CNC machines originated from manually operated milling machines. Numerical controls were added to milling machines in 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, increasingly powerful computer controls were added. As both industrial and computer technology has evolved, the machines have become more sophisticated, and are now capable of performing very complex machining tasks.

The machining centers are pieces of industrial equipment that work with solid materials, such as metals and plastics. Fixtures typically hold the material to be worked in place, and other tooling moves around the material, removing portions of it. These precise movements and their speeds are programmed into the machine’s computer. The working parts of a CNC machining center are usually enclosed in metal housing and have a door that allows the operator to access to the fixtures and tools.


Different machining centers have the ability to work in different axes, or planes. Some common examples are the y-axis, which is forward and back, the x-axis, which is left and right, and z-axis, which refers to vertical movement. The machines may be described by the axis in which they are set up to work, such as horizontal or vertical. A CNC machining center may be sophisticated enough to work in multiple axes.

The machines may produce actual machined parts or they may be used to cut molds, which are in turn used in producing molded parts. They make use of various types of tools to perform various operations, such as tapping, boring, and drilling, to create the needed part or mold. Machining centers are capable of producing parts within a very tight tolerance, which refers to the parts’ standard dimensions and the allowable deviations from the standards.

Programming and machine set up can take a substantial amount of time. Once the machine is set up, little operator intervention is usually needed. For that reason, these machines are frequently used for mass-produced parts.

CNC machining center programming and operating are both skilled trades. Depending on the nation or region, technical training may be available at local community trade schools. CNC machining center programming courses may also be available online.


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