Computer numerical controlled (CNC) lathes are rapidly replacing the older production lathes (multispindle, etc.) due to their ease of setting, operation, repeatability and accuracy. They are designed to use modern carbide tooling and fully use modern processes. The part may be designed and the tool paths programmed by the CAD/CAM process or manually by the programmer, and the resulting file uploaded to the machine, and once set and trialled the machine will continue to turn out parts under the occasional supervision of an operator.
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 varies with different manufacturers, but they all have some common elements. The turret holds the tool holders and indexes them as needed, the spindle holds the workpiece and there are slides that let the turret move in multiple axis simultaneously. The machines are often totally enclosed, due in large part to occupational health and safety (OH&S) issues.
With rapid growth in this industry, different CNC lathe manufacturers use different user interfaces which sometimes makes it difficult for operators as they have to be acquainted with them. 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.