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CNC Lathes and Lathe Machines
Brian KennedyJul 24, 2023 9:07:00 AM4 min read

What Are CNC Lathes? Everything You Need to Know

A CNC lathe, or turning center, is a versatile tool used in various manufacturing processes. It consists of a spindle that rotates a workpiece and a tool block or turret to hold a cutting tool or stick-tool with a cutting insert. 

Lathes can be configured with a horizontally mounted spindle (often equipped with a tailstock), a vertically mounted spindle, or a rotating table. This article will explore the key aspects of CNC lathes and provide valuable insights for those interested in understanding their functions, types, applications, and more.

What is a Lathe Machine?

Lathe machines are commonly used in machining processes, particularly for turning shafts or discs using a stationary stick-tool. Over time, they have evolved to incorporate more versatile features, such as live-tools in the tool turret and spindle brakes, enabling operations like drilling, milling, tapping, and contouring workpieces.

CNC lathes can be programmed to shape workpieces into various forms, and one of the qualification tests often involves manufacturing a sphere to validate the machine's contouring capabilities.

CNC Lathe or Milling Machine: Which One to Choose? 

The line between milling machines and lathes has become blurred with the advent of new features. Mills can now perform turning operations, and lathes can mill, drill, tap, and bore like milling machines. When deciding between the two, it's crucial to consider the primary purpose of the machine and the associated costs of features that provide similar cutting actions. 

For example, a business manufacturing camshaft blanks would find a CNC lathe more efficient for grooving operations than a milling machine, which may be costly and less effective for that specific task.

Different Types of Lathe Machines 

The market offers a wide range of lathes tailored to various applications. Here are some common types: 

  • Woodturning lathes
  • Bench lathes
  • Vertical turning lathes (VTL)
  • CNC slant-bed lathes
  • Conventional or gap bed lathes
  • Swiss-turn lathes
  • Multi-spindle chuckers
  • CNC turning centers
  • Turret lathes
  • Center drive lathes
  • Screw machine lathes
  • Precision lathes
  • Hollow spindle lathes
  • Facing lathes
  • Tracer lathes
  • Speed lathes
  • Engine lathes

Various Applications of CNC Lathes 

CNC lathes find extensive use in various applications and industries. Some common purposes and applications include: 

  • Finishing the outer diameter (O.D.) and inner diameter (I.D.) of shaft-type parts
  • Grooving, threading, and contouring O.D.'s
  • Taper cutting of shafts
  • Facing operations
  • Drum manufacturing (e.g., auto brakes)
  • Preparing shaft blanks for grinding or heat treatment
  • Centering of parts using center drills
  • Barstock cut-off
  • Screw production
  • Propeller and axle shaft production
  • Cannon and gun barrel manufacturing
  • Knurling operations
  • Chamfering and filleting corners
  • Table leg production

To evaluate the type of machine needed for various job requirements, it is advisable to consult experienced operators who can guide you in selecting the appropriate lathe machine and necessary accessories. Their expertise can help you make informed decisions based on the specific features required for your production needs.

Components of a CNC Lathe Machine

Each component plays a vital role in the overall functionality and performance of the lathe machine. The essential components of CNC lathes include:

  • Spindle
  • Chuck
  • Tool slide
  • Cutting tool
  • Tool turret or boom-slide
  • Spindle drive (e.g., belt, gear, cam)
  • Tailstock with clamping quill (in many cases)
  • Lathe bed to mount component assemblies
  • Bar feeder and part catcher (in many cases)

Key Features to Consider When Selecting CNC Lathes 

When selecting a lathe machine, consider the following key features: 

  • Compatibility with your production needs
  • Size of the machine and its impact on capabilities for different projects
  • Weight and its influence on stability and portability
  • Number of axes and their effect on functionality
  • Workspace or swing capacity and its suitability for workpiece size
  • Power or speed and their impact on performance and material compatibility
  • The selection of a lathe machine should align with your production requirements and the specific features necessary to achieve desired results.

Programming and Automation 

CNC lathe machines offer advanced programming capabilities. Programming works by utilizing interactive on-screen programming packages or CAM packages that allow operators to select features, tools, speeds, feeds, and other parameters. Modern CNC lathes often come with graphical user interfaces and pre-canned macros to simplify programming tasks.

The advantages of CNC lathe machines over non-CNC ones include increased efficiency, precision, and the ability to handle higher production volumes. However, conventional lathes may still be preferable for one-off or repair projects.

Accessories and Additional Features 

Several accessories and additional features can enhance the functionality and versatility of a lathe machine. These include a variety of work-holding chucks, steady rests, coolant systems, live-spindle turrets, machine guarding or enclosure, enhanced CNC controllers, and more. Depending on specific requirements, selecting the right accessories and additional features can significantly improve efficiency and precision.

Used vs. New CNC Lathes

Buying a used lathe machine offers advantages such as lower initial out-of-pocket costs. However, the condition of a used machine can impact its performance and lifespan, with potential issues including worn-out feedscrews, way degradation, and obsolete motors or drives. It's essential to consider the age of the control system, overall wear and tear, spindle bearing condition, and turret index-lock wear when purchasing a used lathe machine.

Choose ICMS as Your Trusted CNC Lathes Provider

At Ingersoll CM Systems, we proudly offer a wide range of lathe machines to cater to different industry needs. We offer solutions for diverse turning applications, including conventional lathes, CNC flatbed lathes, CNC slantbed lathes, turning centers, multi-spindle lathes, and center drive lathes.

Our extensive experience of over 50 years in providing turning equipment and lathes sets us apart from our competitors. We have a team of highly skilled CNC programmers who possess in-depth knowledge and expertise in lathe applications. Contact us today to learn more about our CNC lathe machining solutions. 

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Brian Kennedy

I lead teams of engineers, designers, and technicians to deliver innovative solutions for complex and challenging projects in various industries. I have a proven track record of managing multiple programs, contracts, and customers, while ensuring quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.