In my regular visits to factories specializing in high end wood products, I never fail to get excited whenever I approach the CNC section. In that part of the factory, I see a lot of blades cutting through wood with great precision that all end products look exactly the same with very little tolerances. This is made possible with the use of Computerized Numerical Control machines, more commonly known as CNC machinery.
With the use of CNC machinery, designs ranging from simple to the most complicated are inputted to computers through Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software. The CAD and CAM software then controls the cutting and carving tools with great precision that the end products come out exactly as they were drawn. Because of that, mass production of even the most delicate carpentry designs are made possible as if the best carpenter was cloned a thousand times and made to work in one design for several times.
In the high end wood furniture companies that I inspect, several CNC machinery controlled cutting tools silently work on various wood designs and came out with thousands of main and cabinet doors for installation in expensive high rise condominium projects both local and overseas. What makes it so amazing is the almost absence of human participation in the process. Prior to the machines operation, I normally see one or two technicians positioning wood materials in tables. I later on see them working on the computer behind a glass partition. I presume that those guys are running the CAD and CAM programs and within a couple of minutes my attention is normally drawn to the cutting machines as it hums and several blades begin to work all at the same time. The next time I look at the computer, the technicians are normally nowhere to be found.
Focusing my attention back to the machines, I see it finishing the product and a mechanical vacuum begins to blow air and suck dust away from the finished wood products. Mechanical arms then push the finished product into a conveyor which sends it to the painting, lacquering or laminating lines. For then meantime, the CNC machinery begins working on the next pre-positioned raw material. This process repeats itself over and over with very little human participation. Sometimes, I would see the technicians doing random checks but with everything in order almost all of the time, all they do is look at the activity for less than a minute then walk away. Perhaps, they have other computers to work on in other parts of the factory.
Will CNC machinery replace the skilled carpenter? For mass production, I’d say that yes, I will generally prefer that CNC machinery take central role in the production for consistency of quality. It also allows me to meet my customers deadlines. The human carpenters, however, will never run out of work and even prosper. Single piece orders are more economically done by humans despite the high labour cost. It is also more probable that single piece orders done by humans will be finished faster. Artists can draw intricate designs and the craftsman can immediately get down and start working. With CNC machinery, there is still the process of CAD and CAM programing that has to be done before the mechanical blades get to work. Besides, there are a lot of discriminating consumers who would pay top dollar for single hand crafted pieces, especially those that have no duplicates.
One type of CNC machinery that will probably be not be surpassed by humans are the water jet cutters. Such a machine can finely cut through thick steel in a variety of ways. It can even cut very fine drawings. A couple of years ago, in Xiamen, I was shown a large but very beautiful and colourful fish design cut into a large piece of granite. The fish had fine details such as the scales finely cut and decorated by filing the thin gaps with colored granite. I thought that such fine lines can only be done using a water color brush. The water jet cuts were that fine.
In my opinion, future developments in CNC machinery will largely be dictated by software upgrades. Deep cuts that are as fine as scalpel slices are already being done using CNC but software upgrades will perhaps elevate the machines performance to higher and pretty much unimaginable levels. Despite its wonderful performance at present, a lot of wonderful surprises can be expected from the CNC machinery.
How did CNC machinery come to being? In a simplistic and quick look back, we see man creating the first tools from tree branches and rocks. Later, rocks and tree branches were connected to each other creating a better tool. As time went by, the use of metals got introduced. Going fast forward to the 1940’s or 1950’s, numerical controls were introduced creating the NC machine. Eventually, the benefits of using computers were established paving the way for the birth of CNC machinery. Today, CNC includes the use of plasma cutters that makes use of gas and electric arc, wire EDMs and other tools were included to comprise the present day CNC. Perhaps, more methods will be developed paving the way for a new age in CNC machinery development.