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History of 5-Axis Machining

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2023.06.09

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The first numerically controlled (NC) machines were built in the 40s and punched tape was what ran them. They were developed by John T. Parsons and Frank Stulen, of Traverse City, Michigan. Parsons owned Parsons Corp. and came up with the initial idea while working on helicopter parts that needed specific, complex structures. Stulen even received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1985 for his work on the machine.


Additional features of NC technology developed in the following years and computer controls were incorporated. NC machines quickly developed into CNC machines, and they gained so much popularity that many different programming languages were created and had to be sorted through. G-code is the programming language commonly used today.


Post-processing systems were another significant advancement. CAD programs would create the designs that a CAM program would map into tool paths and machine movement. The post-processing system would convert the CAM results into a code that could be read by the specific machine that was in use. In short, a post-processor translates a CAM system’s data into the G-code that the CNC machine can read. This development allowed a CAM design to be read by whatever machine necessary and added versatility and ease of use to the whole operation.


As computer prices fell in the 60s and 70s, CNC machines became more and more affordable. Now, more than just the best of the best could afford a 5-axis machine. Advancing CAM systems also allowed for less experienced operators to run the machine and made it possible for non-experts to use them. Combined with the lack of a need for manual repositioning of the object, labor became more manageable. Better automation and production quality led the charge for more companies to adopt CNC machines.


As for multi-axis machines, they took a little longer to become affordable due to the increased complexities. They were mainly only found in large aerospace companies that had the budget and the knowledge to create the specific projects they needed. Now, multi-axis machines are commonplace on any shop floor.


But that’s a more recent development. 5-axis machines were actually on the commerce control list of the U.S. Department of Defense until 2009. The DoD considered them advanced technology and a matter of national security, so their export was regulated.


Advances in software and technology have allowed 5-axis machinery to become affordable and more user-friendly. As 5-axis machines have become more common, education on them has also become necessary. Colleges have seen the role that 5-axis machinery plays in the workforce. Educating their students on it gives them a substantial advantage and helps future employers reduce extra training costs.


Training costs for employees is a significant factor to consider when moving to 5-axis machining. Skilled machine operators are a must for any 5-axis application. Without trained employees, you risk not being able to create the complex parts that your clients need, let alone operating the machinery in the first place. Also, without the knowledge base present, a 5-axis machine isn’t being used to its fullest potential. You could be missing out on cost savings in labor reduction, quality improvements and automation procedures.


As for its future, 5-axis machining doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It has only recently gained popularity in less specialized applications, and its benefits are widespread, even on 3-axis work. These machines are becoming commonplace in any shop environment.