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Computer Numerical Control machinery uses computerized controls and rotating cutting tools to progressively remove material from a workpiece and thereby produce a custom-designed product or part. CNC machines can be used with a variety of materials, such as metals, glass, ceramics, plastics, and woods. While CNC machines have been widely used in the manufacturing industry for some time, they are now increasingly being used in the world of architecture.

A Brief Overview of CNC Machining

With CNC machines’ automation and precision, it is no wonder that CNC processes have become a helpful asset in architecture. CNC originated in the 1950s, but it was only in the 1990s that architects started using CNC processes. CNC machines come in many forms, including press brakes, lathes, mills, saws, and manual knee mills. The premise for CNC machinery is simple. Operators pre-program CNC machines with a set of coordinates and instructions known as G Code, which tell the machine what to do, where to go, and when and where to stop. With CNC machining, higher precision, accuracy, and production rates can be achieved.

There are many advantages to CNC machining over other manufacturing processes. Firstly, the precision of the process means highly accurate identical parts or products can be created. Secondly, any design program can be repeated infinitely, which means the machine operator does not have to actually be involved with the running of the machine once it is underway. A single operator can supervise dozens of machines simultaneously.

Architectural Applications

CNC processes have two main uses in architecture. Firstly, CNC is not only for repeatable processes. It can also be used to create prototypes and models. Seeing as models are essential to the architectural world, it is clear to see how the CNC process can help. Architects can design buildings or structures with a Computer-Aided Design program. Those designs are then turned into cutting and machining programs for CNC machines to render the models. The result is a highly accurate representation of the architectural design, enabling construction industry professionals to understand the design. Sometimes, it also allows for mechanization, which means the CNC-created models can be applied to the actual construction of a building or structure.

The second most-widely used adoption of CNC processes in architecture is architectural flourish. Because CNC machines work with a wide variety of materials, architects and designers can use them to create anything from Corian countertops to stylish wooden banisters.

Material Considerations

Before beginning the process of turning architectural designs into models or products, you need to consider the material you want to use. CNC machining is suitable for most materials. But you still need to consider several factors first. That includes considering the properties of the material, such as its hardness and temperature resistance, and its cost-effectiveness. When you have chosen the best material to suit your purposes, you can select the right type of CNC tool and use the optimal settings for things like the depth of the cut, the cutting speed, and the feed rate.

The Process

Let us take a look at the process of creating a CNC-machined model, to give you a better idea of how the whole process takes place, from the initial design to the completed product.

Design Idea

The process begins with the architect’s idea. He or she could have a fully-formed idea or just a vague concept. At the initial design stage, the architect sketches out the broad boundaries of the project.

Computer-Aided Design

Armed with elements of a design idea, the next step is for the architect to use a CAD program to further develop his or her concept. Designs can be rendered in 3D with a CAD program, enabling the architect to explore every minute element of potential designs before coming up with a final design.

Computer Assisted Machining

Once the CAD program has a finished design, it is time to use a Computer Assisted Machining program, which adds all the bits of information a CNC machine requires to properly execute the program. Basically, a CAM program translates the design into machine language.

Toolpath

While all CNC machines use G Code, each machine will have its own variants of the language, depending on the manufacturer and the age of the machine. At the toolpath stage of the process, detailed instructions are generated for the CNC machine, so that it knows exactly how and where to move and what to cut.

Execution

Once the above steps have been taken, the last stage is easy. The program is executed by the CNC machine to create the model. The only thing a human being has to do at this stage is to oversee the operation to ensure no troubleshooting is necessary. All being well, the CNC machine will run automatically to produce a physical replica of the architect’s model.