Milling machines are used to process a wide array of solid materials. A universal milling machine is a variation of this tool that is capable of performing multiple functions, as opposed to primarily one purpose, which is more common with a general machine. A typical machine has a long table surface with an adjustable machine head suspended over it. It is usually made of extremely durable material such as cast iron.
The first widely-adopted universal milling machine was created by Joseph Brown in 1861. With this machine, he enabled the first automated production using 3-axis travel. His specific goal was to allow the milling of spirals by machine, a process that had previously been accomplished only by hand. Tool company employee Frederick Howe had also invented a universal milling machine in 1852, but it never came into common use.
A universal milling machine is capable of a wider range of motion than a typical milling machine. For example, it can be made to perform both vertically and horizontally, while most other types of milling machines are usually able to handle one or the other. Universal machines can manage different kinds of tasks, such as using both a table feed and an indexing head. They can also perform work that was not originally done via machine, or possibly even in the same workroom, such as filing.
The specific capabilities of this type of milling machine can vary widely. They can be made to handle precision work or less exacting projects. The mechanism may be manual or semiautomatic. They also come in several different sizes, depending on the number of features and the nature of the work to be performed. There are also infinite combinations of functions, feed types, and other features which can be customized on a universal milling machine.
While universal milling machines are for the most part efficient, durable, and reliable, they can be more high maintenance than simpler milling machines. This kind of tool is more complex and thus has more elements that need upkeep. The wide array of parts on the machines provide more opportunities for breakage, safety issues, and other mishaps, making them somewhat more dangerous to run. They also tend to be more expensive to purchase and maintain. Despite these drawbacks, these machines continue to be popular for their flexibility, versatility, and ability to do the work of several different kinds of tools in one unit.