In the past, we have written a lot about CNC machining. We have praised its capabilities, marveled at its precision, and pointed out all of its various benefits. If you missed these blogs, be sure to check them out — CNC Machining – Information and Benefits is the perfect place to start.

In today’s blog, we are going to talk about the history of CNC machining, specifically some key innovations that paved the way for all CNC machines. Tracing the progression of the innovations will help you better understand the machines that we use every day for everything from manufacturing to metalworking to rapid prototyping.

If you are in need of custom metal work, contact Fort Miller Fab3. Our capabilities not only include CNC machining but also metal bending, robotic welding, plasma cutting, and more! We love tackling custom projects and being able to handle virtually all of your metal fabrication needs. Contact us today to learn more or to get your free custom quote.

Punch Cards (1890)

In 1804 Joseph Marie Jacquard developed small, durable plates to control weaving looms. The holes on these rigid cards determined where hooks would or would not be activated and where thread would be applied. These cards were easily strung together on chains, allowing for subsequent patterns to be easily appended and complex patterns achieved. While these cards were revolutionary, they had their limitations. After experimenting with these machines and the card-reading methodology, Herman Hollerith, an MIT engineer, had a breakthrough innovation that would revolutionize the world of data processing. In 1890, he unveiled a punch card system. This new system was a crucial part of the 1890 US census and the driving force behind his computer data storage business, which would later go on to become a part of IBM.

Magnetic Tape (1928)

Magnetic tape was an essential part of the first commercially successful CNC machine. It allowed substantial amounts of information to be relayed quickly. The origin of magnetic tape dates back to 1928 when German inventor Fritz Pfleumer patented magnetic tape that used an oxide bonded with a polymer. Because this technology was perfect for recording, sending, and storing data, it was highly valued during World War II, and after the Allies invaded Germany in 1945, the German Magnetophone was seized, shared, improved, and the rest is history.

Ball Lead Screw (1929)

Finding ways to reliably and efficiently convert rotating motion into linear travel was an early obstacle for CNC machining. The recirculating ball lead screw was crucial to overcoming this obstacle. The pioneer of this technology was a Texan by the name of Rudolph Boehm. Part of what made this screw so genius is that, when mounted on a precision screw shaft, it offers repeatable accuracy and very low friction. When a motor or crank turns the shaft, these screws and whatever they are mounted to can be pulled along its length very quickly.

Servo Motors (Around 1940)

WWII inspired a number of inventions. In the world of battery technology, perhaps the greatest of these was the servo motor. Although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact date of this innovation, the impetus of the invention is rather clear: both sides needed a motor to power and guide radar and anti-aircraft gun placements. These motors used encoders to send electrical signals that gave precise readings of their rotational position, and they became a crucial interface in turning digital information into physical motion — a feature that is paramount to all CNC machines.

Automatically Programmed Tool (1956)

The invention of the automatically programmed tool (APT) is credited to Douglas T. Ross and his MIT team. Their goal was to improve on the early numerically controlled machine tools by making them quicker to position. The result of their efforts — along with the help of a government-sponsored task force and 14 separate companies — was the forerunner to G-Code and the CAD/CAM systems.

Numerically Controlled Machine (1952)

When Jone T. Parsons set out to find a better and more reliable way to make rotor blades for aircraft — which at the time were being produced in a complex and error-prone way — he realized the value in using a mathematical system to define the movements of a cutter head. This led to the invention of the first numerically controlled machine, laying the foundation for modern CNC milling, printing, and other automated forms of manufacturing.

As you can see, modern CNC machining wouldn’t be possible without all of these seminal innovations. At Fort Miller Fab3, we work with CNC milling machines, grinders, drilling machines, plasma cutters, and more every day. While we understand that not everyone eats, sleeps, and breathes metal fabrication, we do. When you come to us in need of metal fabrication, we leverage this experience and passion to help you accomplish your goals. Our engineers and skilled operators take great pride in delivering consistent, quality, and custom CNC work. Check out our capabilities here! Contact Fort Miller Fab3 today to learn more!