What is CNC Machining?
by Todd McGonagle

On a daily basis, people interact with or use finished products that were manufactured using CNC machining processes. Some people have probably heard this term before, but chances are few of us really know what CNC machining really means.

In the manufacturing sector, CNC machining is at the heart of daily operations. Equipment ranging from small drill presses to precise laser instruments use CNC technology to manufacture a vast array of products for use in homes and other sectors of the economy. Below we cover the basics of CNC machining. We’re going to discuss the terminology behind CNC, cover some applications in the manufacturing sector, and talk about the qualifications needed to become a CNC machinist.


CNC is a rather generic term that is applied to multiple devices used in the manufacturing industry. Most people assume CNC machining refers to one piece of equipment, when in reality it is a term that describes the technology behind the operation of various pieces of equipment. CNC stands for Computer Numeric Control (sometimes also called Computer Numerically Controlled), and is a process where computers control what the machine tools do to accurately and precisely manufacture parts.

In essence, CNC machining is the process of using computers and software programs to control the equipment used to machine materials. CNC technology can be used in conjunction with vinyl cutters, 3D printers, and milling machines. Using computers and software programs to control manufacturing equipment, machinists can make more precise cuts and create more intricate designs compared to manual machining or working by hand.


CNC Machining is different than other machining processes, such as manual operation or handcrafting, because it relies on fully-automated manufacturing equipment. The CNC process is more complex than other machining processes in that it uses various computer software programs during the production process to prepare the equipment and material for machining.

The CNC machining process can vary by project and exact equipment used, but it always starts with the use of computer-aided design (CAD) software. CAD programs are used to create a 3D model of the final product, allowing the machinist and customer to develop a virtual image of the finished product. Once the CAD image is finalized, it is exported to computer-aided machining (CAM) program. CAM software is capable of recognizing surfaces on the 3D model, creating paths for the machining equipment to follow, and define the movements required to cut away material to create the product in the 3D image.

Once your virtual image is loaded into the CAM program, the CNC machine uses the embedded codes in the CAM software as a guide for creating the final product. The CAM software guides the movements of the machine and allows the equipment to follow precise patterns to cut out shapes and images from material.

In simplified terms, CNC machining automates the manufacturing process to allow for faster, more precise production of finished products. The average piece of machining equipment fixes the material (referred to as stock) in position and the computer controls the cutting tool as it moves along the X, Y, and Z axis to machine precise products.


Although CNC machining is a highly-automated process, the average individual cannot simply walk onto the manufacturing floor and start creating masterpieces. CNC machinists are highly-trained individuals with years of experience working with equipment, both manual and CNC controlled. Learning to talk to manufacturing machines is very much like learning a foreign language.

The exact qualifications needed by CNC machinists vary from one job to the next depending upon the requirements of the workplace. Generally speaking, CNC machinists need to have not only mechanical skills as mentioned above, but also the ability to read blueprints and computer programming skills to operate CAD and CAM software. Some CNC machinists complete educational courses in engineering to better understand the nuances of computer programming, design, and operation.

CNC machinists complete educational coursework ranging from technical school programs to Bachelor’s degrees. The level of education required is dependent upon the role in the machining shop and duties expected of the CNC machinist.

We have CNC experts on the Ickler team and they’re the best of the best. If you’ve got a project that you think would be successful with help from CNC machining, contact our Ickler Foreman today.

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