When Ada Lovelace developed the first computer program in the early 1840s, who knew how fast and far we would develop a new technology we continue to improve upon with each passing year?

Today, we are so accustomed to the computers we use around us, the phones in our pocket being an  all-in-one device when even 20 years ago we would have needed a separate device to play music, take photos, and text people. Never mind the connectivity we’ve established between each other and around the world. 

One area of technology that has changed significantly through the years has been and continues to be is machining. 


Manual Machining

For thousands of years, humans have been innovative and imaginative, so it’s no surprise that manual machining has a long history. Since the 13th century BC, machining lathes made of wood would be operated by two people to create countless necessities and tools. 

For context, a lathe is described as, “a machining tool that is used primarily for shaping metal or wood. It works by rotating the workpiece around a stationary cutting tool. The main use is to remove unwanted parts of the material, leaving behind a nicely shaped workpiece.”

While improvements and changes have been made since the 13th century BC, we can directly see a rapid change in manual machining with the first industrial revolution of the 1700s. Later on in 1818, Eli Whitney invented the first milling machine. 

You might be wondering what the difference is between a lathe and a milling machine. According to Monroe Engineering, “Both lathes and milling machines are used to remove material from a workpiece. Lathes, however, involve rotating a workpiece against a single-bladed cutting tool, whereas milling machines involve rotating a multi-bladed or pointed cutting tool against a stationary workpiece.”

While additional machines have been created and used such as plasma cutters and wire electric discharge machines, the move to incorporate manual and CNC machining has been ever growing. 


The First CNC Machines

Much like Ada Lovelace a mere hundred years prior, James Parsons created the first computerized numerical control or CNC method for automating parts of the machining process in 1949. Parsons had worked in the Air Force Research Project. During his time there, his research included improving helicopter exteriors and blade production. Prior to this there were numerical controlled machines. 

A few years after the first CNC lathe machine was created, Richard Kegg in 1952 developed the first CNC milling machine in a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Punched tapes were fed into the machine and gave instructions to the machine on how to precisely control it. This may not sound complicated at first, but considering that someone had to be able to read and understand the binary-based program written on the tape, test to make sure the machine would do exactly what was intended and then feed it into the machine, it’s nothing short of amazing. Otherwise whatever supplies were being used such as metal, wood, or even fabric– could be damaged in the process. 

CNC machines lowered the expensive pricing required of manual machining, and created precise parts faster and more accurately than an individual machinist or operator might, there’s still value to be had in both manual and CNC machining even today. 

Manual and CNC Machining

Now CNC machining has moved beyond the punched tapes meters long, CNC machines are run with specific software and coding pre-programed into the machine. A 2D or 3D CAD drawing is conceived and then the software will, in a sense, translate it into code for the machine to understand. Unlike manual machining, CNC machines are able to get into and create within very small dimensions which is referred to as tolerances. For very intricate and precise requirements of a project, CNC machining is the way to proceed. 

While manual machining is still used often and sometimes preferred by experienced and highly skilled operators, CNC machining offers the ability to “set and forget” in a way, due to their full automation. 

Once the CNC operator tests the coding they’ve created and can ensure the items will be correct, the machine can start and could even continue for 24 hours and onwards without stopping (dependent upon the machine, of course). Maintenance may be needed during and after it completes the coded tasks, but considering the high volume and precision, it’s a no- brainer for many manufacturing industries. 

Some CNC machines are used to create 3D printers, glass cutters, electronics, automotives, and even embroidery in just a handful of minutes, a volume of work that would have taken months of a person’s labor to complete.  

For ultra-precision and required tighter tolerances, a newer CNC operator will be able to code and begin production on a CNC machine with a very high volume. But understanding of and developing manual skills to use a manual machining lathe or other machines is extremely important. While it would be difficult to produce precise items at a high volume in the same short time frame as an automated CNC machine, understanding how and why, and developing your skills in manual machining will only increase your knowledge in CNC. 

While it can be less expensive overall, having highly skilled manual machinists is just as valuable as their CNC machinist counterparts. 


Why It Matters Even Today

As you might have already guessed from the title and all the information you’ve learned so far about manual and CNC machining, our progress as a society and the many things we are able to create now goes beyond what even the founders of these machines may have ever dreamed. It’s astounding. 

From embroidery to space flight, machining has a home in countless industries across the globe and will continue to develop and expand as the industry grows. Regardless of which machines are used, it takes talented and skilled people to make sure everything runs smoothly and efficiently.  

Since this is a career that requires skill and an ability to grow over time with further education and practical experience, the industry is seeing fewer people entering the manufacturing workforce. This is happening for a number of reasons, but one is that people don’t know that they can receive the training they need, and for little to no cost. 

If you are unemployed or underemployed, there are free manufacturing training programs offered by AMTEP/NAMC including Manual and CNC Machine operating. In the CNC Machine Operator Training programs, students will learn the basics such as: 

  • Operating CNC Mills and Lathes
  • Blueprint Reading
  • An Intro to G-Code 
  • And Geometric Dimensioning and tolerancing (GDT)

In addition, students will work towards obtaining their NIMS CNC Milling and Lathe Certification. 


Program lengths depend on the season and regional area, but currently there are a number of Manual and CNC Machining trainings happening this fall.  

With hands-on, in-depth training and practical experience, you can become a CNC operator at no cost to you. With AMTEP, a new career path is waiting for you.