3? 4? 5? How Many Axes Does My CNC Machine Need?

by | Mar 25, 2022 | Diversified Machine Systems, DMS Custom, DMS Essentials, Freedom, Hybrid Manufacturing

DMS CNC machines on factory floor

If you are new to CNC machining, you’ve probably noticed all the new vocabulary that comes with the trade. Experienced operators tend to throw around terms like “high-rail moving gantry” or “tangential oscillating knife like they are common lingo. So when you hear about machines with three, four, or five axes, you might be wondering, What’s the difference? And how many do I need?

Diversified Machine Systems (DMS) makes 3- and 5-axis machines to meet our customers’ exact specifications. When coaching people through CNC options, here are the three axes we consider and what they each entail:

3-Axis CNC Routers

3-axis routers are the most basic CNC machines, but they are also extremely capable and suitable for many applications. As the name implies, they operate on three axes: the X-axis, which moves left-to-right; the Y-axis, which moves front-to-back; and the Z-axis, which moves up-and-down. While a 3-axis machine is not suitable for creating 3D designs, it is more than capable of designing very complex and precise 2D designs.

Machines with three axes are common in applications that need machining on only one side of a workpiece. While it is still possible to machine on all sides with stops to reposition the workpiece, that can be time-consuming and costly. 3-axis machines are common in woodworking,  sign-making, marine, and even aerospace industries.

Don’t underestimate the abilities of a 3-axis machine; there is a good chance it can solve your manufacturing challenges. DMS offers many customizations to handle different applications—automatic lubrication, different table options, vacuum options, and custom stroke sizes to name a few. These options make these machines very versatile and able to handle a wide variety of materials.

4-Axis CNC Routers

For processing that requires routing on the sides of an object you will need four axes of operation. The additional axis is known as the A-axis, and it refers to rotation around the X-axis. This can be achieved by either rotating the workpiece itself or, more commonly, by rotating the spindle itself around the workpiece. Adding an A-axis can also allow a milling machine to operate as a CNC lathe.

It’s worth considering the additional cost of a 4-axis machine for some applications. The A-axis can save you cost by reducing the number of fixtures required by a 3-axis machine. It can also save time and increase productivity by eliminating stops to reposition the workpiece to cut on more than one side of an object using a 3-axis router.

The ability to cut or drill the sides of a workpiece also allows for more complex curves and helical machining, making it ideal for applications involving cylindrical surfaces. 4-axis machines are common in aerospaceautomotive, and mold-making industries. With many of the same customizations available as on 3-axis machines these can be fitted to handle many materials and applications. 

5-Axis CNC Routers

5-axis routers operate along the same X-, Y-, and Z-axis as 3-axis routers but add two axes. As with 4-axis machines, they can rotate around the X-axis with the A-axis. In addition, they can rotate around the Y-axis with the B-axis and rotate around the Z-axis with the C-axis. 5-axis machines can operate along either the A- and C-axis or the B- and C-axis at the same time. Similar to 4-axis machines, these axes can be achieved by either rotating the workpiece itself or the spindle. Anytime you are considering machining on a 4-axis machine, it’s worth considering the added benefits of a 5-axis machine. In fact, for some complex shapes, a 5-axis is not an option but a requirement.

5-axis machines are capable of machining very complex 3D objects and are extremely flexible in their applications. This makes them very popular in just about every industry—prototyping, energy, construction, and defense industries to name a few. Customizations include continuous C-axis rotation, barcode readers, automatic lubrication, and tool changers. The possibilities are endless.

What’s the Right Choice for Your Application?

We hope this gives you an idea of what type of machine you need for your specific manufacturing challenge. As mentioned, there are seemingly endless customizations and configurations to consider beyond the basic configuration, Z-stroke size, and table size. To make sure you have the right machine for the job we take a hands-on approach to building machines.

Contact us and one of our knowledgeable and qualified sales techs will work with you to make sure you get the right machine for your manufacturing needs. You can get the job done and even solve future challenges over the entirety of your machine’s lifetime. Industries are always evolving, and we are here to help you find the most efficient and cost-effective solutions to the challenges you face. Reach out today to get started!

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