Computer Numerical Control Explained: Learn the Basics!

Computer Numerical Control, otherwise known as CNC, is widely used in modern manufacturing to help create parts and products more precisely and quickly than can be achieved using traditional methods.

If you are new to the world of CNC tech, here is a quick introduction to what it involves, how it is used and why you should be interested in its capabilities even if you are not in the manufacturing industry yourself.

The interaction between software and hardware

In its simplest form, CNC is a way of describing how designs created using software on a PC are converted into instructions that can be executed by largely automated equipment that brings concepts to life across a range of materials.

CNC machinery itself can be very varied in terms of how it interprets instructions and interacts with materials. For example, CNC machinery includes everything from computer-guided mills and lathes to the likes of welding equipment and even laser cutting and engraving kit.

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The coding

As you might expect, most CNC machines are fed instructions as code, telling them where to move their tooling and how to manipulate it so that the designs of the human engineer can be made into a reality.

G-Code is one of the most widely used and beautifully simple of the languages understood by CNC machines and although it is still deployed to this day by modern equipment sold on sites like, it has actually been around for around half a century. It can handle a whole host of commands, ranging from the speed with which the machine operates to the type of tooling used.

Of course while the standardized code may be interpreted more generally by compatible CNC machines, there are still manufacturer-specific modifiers introduced to add extra functionality which can limit interoperability in certain cases. Certain CAM software solutions can cope with translating between the different languages used by machinery brands, while others are less capable in this respect.

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The equipment varieties

The variability and versatility of CNC machinery functions has already been touched upon above, but it is worth restating that this is a diverse marketplace and it is not easily described or defined by a single piece of hardware.

This also means that there are products and systems for almost every need, including desktop CNC machines that are small, affordable and lightweight enough to be used in a domestic setting. These are generally limited to manipulating materials which are less durable, such as plastics and foams.

At the other end of the spectrum are large, industrial CNC machines that are built for everything from rapid prototyping to fully-fledged runs where parts for mass-produced items are created quickly and efficiently, with minimal waste.

The machines available are limited not only by the software and coding with which they are compatible, but also the axes of movement they offer and the materials they can accommodate.

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Even with the rise of additive manufacturing in recent years, CNC remains a relevant and potent technology in this space and will continue to define it going forwards.