Computer numeric control, better known as CNC, is a process by which a computer uses a specially designed router or other cutting tool to create complex designs in wood, metal or plastic. The result is designs that are routed into the wood or other material with a significant degree of precision. Not only are the lines and curves of the design controlled by the CNC software, but it can control the depth of the tool as well.

There’s a good chance that you’ve either seen a CNC router before or have at least seen the end-product of one. Have you ever been curious about them or wondered exactly how they worked? Wonder no more, because here are the basics of CNC.

How Does CNC Work?

A CNC router is controlled by a computer, with special software controlling the movement of the router unit. The router itself is mounted so that the computer can move it along three different axis directions; this lets it move forward and backward, left and right, and up and down as needed. The movements are precisely controlled, ensuring that the end-result precisely matches the data given to the computer.

The data, which typically comes from a computer-aided drafting (CAD) program, provides the CNC router with coordinates made of three numbers representing the x, y and z axis. The CNC machine positions the router at the coordinate given then loads the next coordinate; when that coordinate loads, the router moves to the new position and cuts through the wood in its way. As the router unit moves along its three-axis directions it eventually creates the desired result.

Benefits of CNC

One of the biggest benefits of using a CNC router, instead of working by hand, is the level of precision that is achievable even with highly complex designs. This isn’t to say that experienced workers can’t also create precise and complex designs with a router, of course. With a CNC router, however, even those who do not have the benefit of years of experience can create high-quality work by simply loading a digital design from a CAD file.

Another huge benefit of CNC routing is repeatability. Whereas manual routing produces unique works - even similar designs could wind up with slight differences in them, while a CNC router makes the exact same motions each time a specific CAD file is loaded. This speeds up production work considerably and also ensures that pieces can be perfectly replicated in different locations or after a significant period of time has passed.

Is CNC Right for You?

Not everyone who works with a router will be interested in CNC. If you don’t have much in the way of CAD design skills and aren’t interested in learning new software, then you may be limited in what you can create with a CNC router. Likewise, if you prefer working by hand and have no reason to create pieces in bulk or with extreme precision then you might not see much of a benefit. Personal preference plays a large part in determining whether a CNC router is right for you.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in incorporating new technologies into your work or to see what you can do with the digital precision that CAD design and CNC routing provides then you might want to check it out. There are a lot of resources and training options to help you learn CAD design and CNC software so you might be surprised at what you can create with just a little practice.

Have you ever designed anything with CAD software or used CNC tools to bring your designs to life?