Why CNC is better than a lathe?

For a long time, the lathe has been the machine of choice for shaping metal for metalworking projects. But with the arrival of CNC technology, lathes are becoming a thing of the past. While both machines share the same basic function,  their operation and capabilities vastly differ. 

Anyone new to metalworking will often ask, “Why is CNC better than a lathe?” Well, there are plenty of reasons for that. Here, we will uncover all those reasons and tell you if CNC is actually better than a lathe. 

So, read through the whole article to better understand whether you should go for the conventional lathe or ride the CNC wave like everyone else. 

What Does CNC Stand for?

CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control. It essentially refers to a manufacturing process where computer software dictates the movement and actions of machine tools. A CNC machine is an automatic machine that follows a pre-programmed tool path to create parts out of metal, plastics, and other materials. 

How does it work?

The working mechanism for most CNC machines is pretty much the same. It follows certain steps to create parts for various machines and tools. Here’s how the whole process works –


The first step involves creating a digital blueprint of the desired part using Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software. This software translates the design into a 3D model with precise dimensions and tolerances.

Next, Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software takes over. It analyzes the 3D model and generates a detailed program called a toolpath. This program tells the CNC machine exactly how to move the cutting tool in three or more dimensions to create the part from the workpiece. 

The program specifies factors like cutting speeds, feed rates, and coolant flow for optimal machining.

Setting up the machine 

The generated CNC program is then uploaded to the machine’s control unit. The operator may also need to perform some initial setup tasks, such as installing the appropriate cutting tool and securing the workpiece in the machine’s fixture or chuck.

Starting the machine 

The CNC control unit reads the program and breaks it down into instructions. These instructions are sent to the various motors and drives that control the movement of the machine’s axes and the cutting tool.

The motors precisely control the movement of the cutting tool and the workpiece along the programmed toolpath. Closed-loop feedback systems constantly monitor the position and ensure accuracy by adjusting if any deviations occur.

As the cutting tool follows the toolpath, it removes material from the workpiece according to the program, gradually shaping it into the desired final form.

Some CNC machines have automatic tool changers for complex parts requiring different machining operations. The program dictates the specific tool needed, and the changer swaps it automatically, minimizing downtime.

Completion and Inspection

Once the program is executed, the CNC machine stops, and the finished part is ready for removal. The machined part undergoes quality checks to ensure it meets the dimensional specifications and surface finish requirements. Depending on the application, additional finishing processes may be required.

Types of CNC Machines

Here’s the thing: CNC machining is not an individual function. It’s an entire technology. Various machines within that technology are meant for different purposes. In fact, one of them is a lathe machine called a CNC lathe, which basically performs the same function as a conventional lathe. 

Let’s explore all the different CNC machines to understand how they function and are used to create different parts. 

CNC Milling Machines

CNC milling machines are versatile workhorses capable of creating a wide range of features on a workpiece. They remove material from the piece using multi-pointed rotary cutting tools that spin at high speeds. 

Unlike a drill that moves only vertically, a CNC mill allows for movement along multiple axes (X, Y, Z) for intricate machining. This enables them to create flat surfaces, pockets, slots, grooves, and complex 3D contours.

This machine is ideal for parts requiring intricate features on multiple planes. CNC mills are commonly used in the aerospace, automotive, and medical device industries to create engine parts, moulds, and prosthetics. 

Moreover, they are popular for creating custom parts prototypes and small-batch production runs.

CNC Lathes

CNC lathes are essentially computerized versions of traditional lathes. The workpiece spins on a chuck while a cutting tool removes material to create cylindrical or round shapes. CNC lathes excel in high-precision production with tight tolerances. They can perform various operations, such as turning, facing, drilling, threading, and grooving.

These machines are the industry standard for manufacturing rotationally symmetrical parts. They create many components, including shafts, bearings, bushings, fasteners, and even complex parts like gears and pistons. 

Their precision and repeatability make them ideal for high-volume production in the automotive, machinery, and aerospace industries.

CNC Routers

Similar to CNC mills, CNC routers utilize computer-controlled cutting tools. However, routers are specifically designed to work with softer materials like wood, plastic, aluminum composites, and foam. 

They come in various sizes, some featuring a table-top design for smaller workpieces and others boasting large beds for handling bigger projects. CNC routers are adept at following intricate tool paths to create precise cuts, shapes, and designs.

These are the go-to woodworking applications for cabinetry, furniture making, and sign creation. They excel at creating intricate 2D or 3D designs for decorative elements, architectural models, and even custom jigs and moulds. 

Additionally, CNC routers are commonly used in the plastics and foam industries for prototyping, product packaging, and signage.

CNC Plasma Cutters

CNC plasma cutters utilize a superheated stream of ionized gas called plasma to slice conductive materials like steel, aluminum, copper, and some stainless steel. 

The plasma torch generates intense heat, melting and vaporizing the material along the cutting path. CNC control ensures precise torch movement, resulting in clean, defined cuts.

CNC plasma cutters are the workhorses of metal fabrication shops. They’re commonly used to cut sheet metal for parts, create signage, and structural steel applications in construction and industrial projects.

CNC Laser Cutters

CNC laser cutters employ a highly focused beam of light energy to melt and vaporize material along the cutting path. 

The laser beam can be precisely controlled, enabling intricate designs and clean cuts on various materials, including metals, plastics, wood, and fabrics.

CNC laser cutters are in high demand for their precision and versatility. They’re commonly used in sheet metal fabrication for electronics, medical devices, and aerospace components. 

CNC Waterjet Cutters

CNC waterjet cutters utilize a high-pressure stream of water, often mixed with an abrasive garnet substance, to erode and cut through virtually any material. 

The water jet can handle various materials, including metals, plastics, stone, glass, and food. The abrasive jet creates a clean cut with minimal heat distortion.

CNC waterjet cutters are popular in industries requiring precise cutting of various materials. They’re commonly used in aerospace for composite parts, automotive for gasket and seal creation, food processing for meat and cheese cutting, and stonework for intricate countertop and tile designs.

Reasons why CNC is Better Than A Lathe

While both machines share the basic function of shaping metal, CNC lathes offer a significant leap forward in precision, efficiency, and capability. Here’s why CNC lathes have become the go-to choice for many modern machine shops.

Unmatched Precision and Repeatability

Conventional lathes rely on the skill and experience of the operator to achieve the desired dimensions and finish on a part.  Human factors like fatigue, slight variations in technique, and even temperature fluctuations can lead to inconsistencies in the final product.

CNC lathes eliminate this human error.  The computer program dictates every movement of the cutting tool with incredible accuracy, down to the micrometer. This ensures that every part produced on a CNC lathe is identical to the previous one, consistently achieving micron-level precision.

This level of precision is critical for many modern applications.  In aerospace, automotive, and medical industries, parts need to fit together perfectly and meet tight tolerances to ensure proper function and safety. CNC lathes guarantee this consistency, leading to reliable and high-performance end products.

Conquering Complexity

Conventional lathes are limited by the operator’s skill and ability to manipulate the cutting tool. Complex shapes or intricate features often require significant expertise and time to create.

CNC lathes excel at tackling complex geometries.  Advanced computer programs can translate intricate designs into precise toolpaths that the machine follows flawlessly. This allows for creating parts with curves, grooves, undercuts, and other complex features with incredible detail.

This ability to handle complex designs unlocks new possibilities for product development.  Engineers can design parts with improved functionality, lighter weight, and more efficient performance.  CNC lathes make these designs a reality, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in metalworking.

Material compatibility 

Conventional lathes are typically designed to work with a specific range of materials, often limited to softer metals.  Working with harder materials or those with different properties can require specialized tools and techniques.

CNC lathes offer greater material versatility.  The computer program can be adjusted to optimize cutting parameters for different materials. This allows CNC lathes to handle a wider range of materials, including soft aluminum, tough steels, and even exotic materials like titanium or Inconel.

This versatility makes CNC lathes ideal for shops working with diverse projects or needing to adapt to changing material requirements. They eliminate the need for multiple machines or specialized setups for different materials, streamlining production and reducing costs.

Mass Production Ability 

Conventional lathes require constant operator attention and adjustments throughout the machining process. This can be time-consuming and limit production output, especially for high-volume runs.

CNC lathes are champions of efficiency.  Once a program is set and calibrated, the machine can churn out identical parts with minimal human intervention. This allows for unattended production runs, maximizing output and minimizing labor costs.

The ability to automate high-volume production translates to significant cost savings. Manufacturers can produce more parts in less time, leading to increased profitability and faster customer turnaround times.

Labor Efficiency

Conventional lathes require skilled operators to handle the machining process effectively. If skilled labor is scarce, this can limit production capacity and create bottlenecks.

CNC lathes allow for a more efficient use of skilled workers.  The computer takes care of the repetitive and precise movements, freeing up operators for higher-level tasks like programming, quality control, and machine maintenance. This allows for upskilling the workforce and focusing human expertise on areas that add greater value.

By automating repetitive tasks, CNC lathes don’t replace skilled workers, and they empower them.  This allows for a more efficient allocation of resources and a higher level of expertise within the manufacturing workforce.

A Quick Comparison Table 

Here’s a quick comparison table that should give you a complete overview of the differences that make CNC machining a much better choice than conventional lathes. 

FeatureConventional LatheCNC Lathe
PrecisionLower relies on operator skillHigher micron-level accuracy
RepeatabilityInconsistent, depends on the operatorConsistent, identical parts every time
Complexity of partsLimited to simpler shapesCan handle complex geometries and intricate features
Material VersatilityLimited to specific materialsA wider range of materials, including soft and hard metals
Production RateSlower, requires constant attentionFaster, can run unattended for high-volume production
Labor RequirementsRequires skilled operators for machine operationLess operator intervention is needed, allowing for upskilling
Setup TimeMore time is needed for setup and adjustmentsLess setup time, faster changeovers between jobs
Cost of MachineLower initial costHigher initial cost


To conclude, CNC is clearly a much better choice in terms of efficiency, precision, quality, material versatility, and the ability to produce complex parts. With a conventional lathe, you will face difficulty in all those aspects. The only aspect where CNC might feel like a pressure to you is the higher initial cost. 

However, with the help of CNC machining services like Zintilon, even that problem gets resolved easily. You can get the same quality, precision, and expertise with Zintilon at a much more affordable price. So, if you don’t have the money to get a CNC machine, a service like Zintilon might be your perfect companion.

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