what is cnc turning

What is CNC Turning? A Comprehensive Guide

Table of content

What is CNC turning? It is a highly precise and efficient manufacturing process in modern manufacturing. This process is widely used in various industries, including automotive, aerospace, medical, and consumer goods, to produce intricate and complex parts with exceptional accuracy and repeatability. This post will delve into the world of CNC turning, exploring its work principles, manufacturing process, components, and types. We will also discuss the benefits of this technology and how it has transformed the manufacturing industry.

What is CNC Turning?

CNC turning, or Computer Numerical Control turning is a machining process. During turning, the workpiece is secured in a chuck and rotated at high speeds, while the cutting tool, typically a non-rotary tool bit, the cutting tool moves along one or more axes to cut away excess material. The CNC system interprets and executes pre-programmed sequences of machine control commands automates and controls the movements of the lathe machine, ensuring precise cuts and shapes. This process is particularly effective for creating cylindrical parts, such as shafts, bolts, and other round components.

What Materials are Best Suited for CNC Turning?

The materials that are best suited for CNC turning operations include:

Metals for CNC Turning

Aluminum alloys:
6061 aluminum: A general-purpose alloy with good machinability, weldability, and corrosion resistance. Commonly used for automotive parts, bicycle frames, and sporting goods.
7075 aluminum: One of the strongest aluminum alloys with excellent strength-to-weight ratio. Used for high-strength applications like aerospace frames and recreational equipment.

Stainless steels:
303 stainless steel: Good machinability but cannot be cold-formed, heat-treated, or welded. Used for nuts, bolts, fittings, shafts, and gears.
304 stainless steel: Non-magnetic, corrosion-resistant, and weldable. Suitable for a wide range of consumer and industrial applications.

Carbon steels:
1045 carbon steel: A mild steel that is less expensive than stainless steel but stronger and tougher. Easy to machine, weld, and heat-treat. Used for nuts, bolts, gears, shafts, and connecting rods.

Easy to machine with good corrosion and chemical resistance. Used for aerospace components, electronic hardware, and fittings.
Titanium: Known for high strength, toughness, and corrosion resistance. Suitable for demanding aerospace, military, and medical applications, but expensive and challenging to machine.

Plastics for CNC Turning

Nylon (PA):
Nylon is a strong, wear-resistant plastic that also has good chemical resistance. It is commonly used in bushings, gears, wear pads, and automotive parts, where its strength and resistance to abrasion are advantageous.

Acrylic (PMMA):
PMMA, known for its high clarity and excellent weather resistance, is easy to machine. It is commonly used for light covers, display cases, optical lenses, and aquariums due to its transparency and durability.

Polycarbonate (PC):
Polycarbonate is a strong, impact-resistant plastic that is also transparent and dimensionally stable. It is often used in applications such as safety glasses, machine guards, automotive components, and electrical insulators where durability and clarity are essential.

Polyethylene (PE):
Polyethylene is a durable, chemical-resistant plastic with low moisture absorption. Variants like HDPE and UHMW-PE are used in applications such as cutting boards, food processing equipment, and wear-resistant parts because of their toughness and resistance to wear.

Polypropylene (PP):
Polypropylene is a lightweight, chemically resistant plastic with good fatigue resistance. It is commonly used in laboratory equipment, medical devices, and automotive components, where its durability and resistance to chemicals are beneficial.

Polyoxymethylene (POM/Acetal/Delrin):
POM, also known as Acetal or Delrin, is a strong, low-friction plastic with excellent dimensional stability. It is widely used for gears, bearings, bushings, and precision mechanical components due to its strength and machinability.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC):
PVC is a strong, chemically resistant plastic that is also flame-retardant. It is often used for pipe fittings, valves, and chemical processing equipment because of its durability and resistance to corrosion.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE/Teflon):
PTFE, commonly known as Teflon, is a plastic with excellent chemical resistance, low friction, and high heat resistance. It is typically used for seals, gaskets, and bearings due to its ability to withstand harsh conditions and reduce friction.

Polyetheretherketone (PEEK):
PEEK is a high-performance plastic known for its strength, heat resistance, and excellent chemical resistance. It is used in demanding applications such as aerospace parts, medical implants, and high-performance engineering components.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS):
ABS is a tough, impact-resistant plastic that is easy to machine. It is commonly used for enclosures, housings, prototypes, and consumer products because of its durability and ease of fabrication.

What are the Basic Principles of CNC Turning?

Workpiece Rotation
The workpiece, typically a cylindrical bar or rod, is securely clamped and rotated at high speeds by the main spindle of the CNC lathe. This rotation allows the cutting tool to remove material from the outer surface of the workpiece.

Cutting Tool Movement
While the workpiece rotates, a cutting tool remains stationary and moves linearly along multiple axes (typically X and Z axes) to shape the workpiece according to the programmed instructions. The cutting tool is mounted on a turret or tool holder that can index and position different tools as required.

Material Removal:
As the workpiece rotates, the cutting tool removes material by shearing off small chips. The depth of cut, feed rate, and cutting speed are carefully controlled to achieve the desired shape and surface finish.

Programming and Control:
The CNC system uses G-code, a language consisting of commands that dictate the machine’s movements and operations. Programmers create the G-code using CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software, which translates the design into executable commands.

Automated Operations
CNC turning machines can perform a wide range of operations automatically, including straight turning, taper turning, facing, grooving, parting, threading, and drilling. These operations are executed with high precision and repeatability, ensuring consistent quality and tight tolerances.

cnc turning machine components
cnc turning machine components

What is the Step-by-Step CNC Turning Process?

Design and Programming

  • CAD Modeling: The process begins with creating a 3D model or 2D drawing of the desired part using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. The digital models specify dimensions, geometries, and other critical features.
  • CAM Programming: The CAD model is then imported into Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software, which generates the CNC program containing the instructions for the machining process. This program is written in G-code and M-code, which the CNC machine can interpret.
  • Toolpath Generation: The CAM software simulates the machining process and generates the toolpaths, which define the movements of the cutting tool and the workpiece to achieve the desired shape and features.

CNC Turning Machine Setup

  • Workpiece Preparation: The raw material, typically a cylindrical bar or rod, is loaded and securely clamped into the CNC lathe’s main spindle, which rotates the workpiece at high speeds.
  • Tool Selection and Setup: The appropriate cutting tools are selected and mounted onto the tool turret or tool holder of the CNC lathe. The tools are precisely positioned and calibrated for accurate machining.
  • Program Transfer: The CNC program generated by the CAM software is transferred to the CNC lathe’s control system, which interprets and executes the instructions.

Machining Process

  • Automated Machining: The CNC lathe follows the programmed instructions, coordinating the movements of the cutting tool and the rotation of the workpiece to remove material and shape the part.
  • Cutting Operations: Various cutting operations can be performed during CNC turning, including straight turning, taper turning, facing, grooving, parting, threading, and drilling.
  • Coolant and Chip Removal: Coolant is often used to lubricate the cutting tool, dissipate heat, and flush away chips or swarf from the cutting area, ensuring efficient chip removal and preventing damage.
  • In-Process Inspection: Throughout the machining process, quality control measures are taken to ensure the part meets the required specifications. Precision measuring instruments like micrometers and gauges are used for inspection.


  • Finishing Operations: After machining, the part may undergo additional finishing operations, such as deburring, polishing, or surface treatments, depending on the application requirements.
  • Final Inspection and Quality Control: The finished part undergoes a final inspection to verify that it meets all dimensional and quality specifications before being approved for use or assembly.

What are the Benefits of CNC Turning?

CNC turning offers numerous advantages that make it a preferred method in modern manufacturing. Here are some key benefits:

  • CNC turning ensures consistent quality and tight tolerances by eliminating human errors through computer control.
  • CNC turning machines can run continuously, significantly speeding up production times and enhancing overall productivity.
  • CNC turning centers can handle a variety of materials and part designs, allowing for easy adjustments and versatile applications.
  • Automation in CNC turning minimizes the need for manual labor, lowering overall labor expenses.
  • Enclosed and automated CNC turning machines reduce the risk of workplace accidents and injuries.

What are the Disadvantages of CNC Turning?

While CNC turning offers numerous advantages, it also has some disadvantages and limitations. Here are some key drawbacks:

  • Purchasing CNC turning machines requires a significant upfront investment, including the costs of programming and setup.
  • CNC machines need regular maintenance and can incur high repair costs due to their complexity and need for specialized technicians.
  • Operating CNC turning machines effectively requires highly skilled and trained operators, who can be challenging to find and expensive to retain.

What is the difference between CNC milling and CNC turning?

CNC milling and CNC turning are two distinct subtractive manufacturing processes used to create parts with different geometries and features. The key differences between them are:


  • In CNC milling, the cutting tool rotates while the workpiece remains stationary. The tool moves along multiple axes to remove material from the workpiece.
  • In CNC turning, the workpiece rotates while a stationary single-point cutting tool removes material from the rotating workpiece.

Part Geometry

  • CNC milling is suitable for creating parts with complex 3D shapes, pockets, slots, and irregular geometries from rectangular/square stock.
  • CNC turning is ideal for producing rotationally symmetric parts like cylinders, cones, shafts, and other round/tubular components from round bar stock.

Cutting Tools

  • CNC milling uses multi-point rotating cutters like end mills, face mills, etc. with multiple cutting edges.
  • CNC turning uses single-point cutting tools like turning inserts or bits with one cutting edge.

Material Removal

  • In milling, the cutting tool disengages from the workpiece during each revolution.
  • In turning, the cutting tool maintains continuous contact with the rotating workpiece.

Axes of Movement

  • Milling utilizes 3 to 5 axes of tool movement (X, Y, Z plus optional rotary axes).
  • Turning primarily uses 2 axes (X and Z linear axes), with some machines having additional axes.


CNC turning is a highly precise and efficient manufacturing process used in industries such as automotive, aerospace, and medical. If you are looking for more information on the best type of CNC machining or CNC turning service for your project, get in touch today. Our team will get back to you.


Small parts with simple geometries may take minutes to complete, while larger or more intricate components can take several hours or even days. The time depends on various factors such as the complexity of the part, material type, tolerances required, machine setup, etc.

There are several types of CNC turning machines, categorized primarily based on the number of axes and the orientation of the spindle. The common CNC turning machines are 2-Axis CNC lathe, 3-Axis CNC lathe, 4-Axis CNC lathe, 5-Axis and 6-Axis CNC lathe.

A lathe is a simple turning machine for basic operations, while a CNC turning center is more advanced, offering automated control, multi-axis capabilities, and additional features like live tooling.