Even though we work in the CNC machining industry and use rapid prototyping machines every day, we don’t spend much time thinking about the history of the machines we work with. The closest we probably get is “good thing we don’t have to mill this by hand, because nobody could be that good.” Today we thought we’d take a look at the history of CNC prototyping and how it has affected our country.
Before CNC Service
Lathes and drills have been around for a long time, but they were always worked by hand. That meant that you needed someone who was incredibly good not just with the tools but also able to replicate a single piece many times over. It wasn’t good enough to make a good table leg; you had to be able to make four exact copies of the table leg.
Even when it came to mass production, hand-controlled millwork could only go so far. If there was room for non-exact tolerances, then human-operated equipment was good enough. But as machines got more complex, even the most accurate person couldn’t perform to high enough standards, and humans became the bottleneck to advancing technologies.
It Starts With Numerical Control
CNC stands for computer numerical control, but before computers got involved it was simply numerical control. Numerical control began in the 1940s, as the post-WWII military was looking for a way to reproduce airplane parts more accurately, efficiently, and cheaply.
Numerical controlled machining was initially done with punched tape or punch cards in order to input the information, much like early computers. While the prototype matching was done by the machines, the cards and tape were created by hand.
Computers Are Incorporated
Computers were introduced to the process in the mid-1950s, though not as you might at first imagine. They were not yet able to interact directly to the machines, but they did play a vital part in creating the information that was placed onto the punched tape. Doing so cut down the time exponentially.
Computers Take Over
The next logical step was to have computer talk directly to the machines instead of having an intermediary piece of punched tape. For three years between 1956 and 1959, MIT joined forces with the US Air Force in order to create a standardized programming language and a computer that could interact directly with the numerical control machines. This became the very first CNC machine.
Hardware and Software Evolve
While a person working in CNC in the early 1960s would be able to identify most of the milling equipment of today, they’d certainly have a hard time believing the advancements that have been made to both hardware and software. Large computers that used to fill large rooms became much smaller, moving from vacuum tubes to magnetic tape to the hard drive-based computers we know of today. Software that previously required a doctorate to understand is much more WYSIWYG today, and the files can be emailed instead of couriered.
We’ve Got the Latest and Greatest
Our rapid prototyping service is at the forefront of technology on both the hardware and software side, and we’re ready to help you get the milled materials necessary for your machine. Contact us today to see what we can do!