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Precision Machining Operations: An Introduction to Turning With Swiss-Type CNC Lathes

[10/24/2015] Precision manufacturing has always been an evolving and dynamic industry, and recent advances in milling and machining technology have allowed for the design and production of more custom and complex parts. A present day CNC machine shop is a mere shadow of what it once was in terms of specialized equipment and capabilities. Traditional subtractive machining methods using cams and other mechanical linkages have given way to today’s highly sophisticated milling machines, metal lathes, grinding equipment and drill presses, much of it automated now with advances in CNC, microcomputers and robotics. But is this new technology an improvement over some older methods of milling and machining a part? In almost all cases, the answer is yes. Surprisingly though, a concept in machining introduced over a hundred years ago in Switzerland is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

Swiss-type lathes, pioneered in Switzerland for the watch making industry, are being increasingly utilized in machine shops running conventional CNC turning machines. Today there is increased demand for small, custom and complex low-volume machined parts from the defense, automotive, electronic and medical parts manufacturing sectors. Once considered more specialized equipment, the advent of CNC machining technology has pushed Swiss-style turning machines into the mainstream as shop owners have realized the advantages for producing small, intricate and fragile parts, especially those that are long, narrow diameter and cylindrical in nature. In short, machinists are manufacturing parts today that would’ve been unthinkable 5 or 10 years ago on traditional CNC lathes.

What sets Swiss-type lathes apart, resulting in reduced setup times, secondary operations and work in process adjustments, is their specific design allowing for extreme accuracy and ultra-high tolerances. They differ from other lathes where the part is stationary and the cutting tool moves. Instead, Swiss turning lets a part move vertically while the tool remains stationary. The key to this operation is a“sliding headstock” style and a “guide bushing”. In short, bar stock is held firmly in the machine with a “collet” and advanced, or slid vertically through the guide bushing closely past a stationary, single-point lathe turning tool. Only the portion being machined is exposed from the guide bushing to the cutting tool. This results in great rigidity during the CNC turning process minimizing deflection and vibration while maximizing accuracy and efficiency. In fact, the entire machining process can be completed in a single operation with one setup, reducing the number of times a part is touched during production. The use of live tooling and sub-spindles allow for overlapping operations.

There are some nuances to be learned for a CNC machinist new to the technology, and Swiss-type CNC turning certainly requires deft operation to ensure the demands of tight tolerances are adhered to. What began with Swiss watch makers, then on to screw manufactures, has now become mainstream. The bottom line is that more and more machine shops have discovered the value of these machines as demand for ever-smaller CNC machine parts has grown. The future for Swiss-type machines will only expand, and machine shops that seek to adopt the technology can distinguish themselves with more high-end work and gain a competitive advantage.

“APM is dedicated to manufacturing the highest quality precision parts while providing the best customer service experience in the machine shop business”. For additional information or to request a quote, please visit http://advancedprecisionmachine.com or call 303-776-1910.

About the Author

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he partnered with his friend and colleague, Kirk Tuesburg, currently APM’s machine shop manager, together launching what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing. 

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