Lathes are designed for precise machining of relatively hard materials. They are originally designed to machine metals; however, with the advent of plastics and other materials, and with their inherent versatility, they are used in a wide range of applications, and a broad range of materials. These rigid machine tools remove material from a rotating work piece via the (typically linear) movements of various cutting tools, such as tool bits and drill bits.
A lathe shapes material by rotating it rapidly while pressing a fixed cutting or abrading tool. Today, lathes equipped with computer numerical control (CNC) features tend to dominate the factory or machine shop floor. CNC lathe machinists operate these machines to help fashion tools and products.
CNC Lathes are rapidly replacing the older production lathes due to their ease of setting and operation. They are designed to use modern carbide tooling and fully utilize modern processes.
The machine is controlled electronically via a computer menu style interface, the program may be modified and displayed at the machine, along with a simulated view of the process. The setter/operator needs a high level of skill to perform the process, however the knowledge base is broader compared to the older production machines where intimate knowledge of each machine was considered essential. These machines are often set and operated by the same person, where the operator will supervise a small number of machines (cell).
The design of a CNC lathe has evolved yet again however the basic principles and parts are still recognizable, the turret holds the tools and indexes them as needed. The machines are often totally enclosed, due in large part to occupational health and safety (OH&S) issues.
With the advent of cheap computers, free operating systems such as Linux, and open source CNC software, the entry price of CNC machines has plummeted.
When a shop wants to shape a part using a CNC lathe, a programmer will first create a set of machining instructions and translate them into a computer aided/automated manufacturing (CAM) program for the machine to follow. Then a CNC lather operator downloads the program, sets up the lathe, starts the machine and monitors it until the job is complete.