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The History of the Milling Machine: Machining Equipment That Has Come a Long Way


Now used to machine a wide range of metal objects with complex designs, the milling machine has a most interesting history.

Once 100% mechanical, milling machines have since benefited from the technological advances of recent decades and have become more precise, faster and more versatile than ever in cutting metals and alloys.

Discover the history of the milling machine and learn about its evolution over time.

We owe the first milling machine in history to Eli Whitney

As with many inventions, the first milling machine was designed in a period of armed conflict. In 1789, the U.S. government asked the Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney to make a large quantity of firearms, since war with France was imminent.

Whitney thus began working on his project and devised a new manufacturing model based on the production of similar rifle parts that could be exchanged between different arms. All design details were put together in a sort of diagram that had to be followed in the process for manufacturing parts.

However, in order to implement his strategy, Whitney needed a machine capable of accurately cutting the metals according to a pattern. He consequently developed the first manual milling machine in 1818.

Before the milling machine, a machinist mainly used files as tools and this required a highly skilled worker. The milling machine now made it possible for a less skilled labourer to produce quality parts.

A century and a half later: the arrival of CNC milling machines

As with the first milling machine in history, the first CNC-controlled milling machine was developed by a North American inventor.

In the 1940s, John T. Parsons devised a precision machining system based on the use of data in a reference system to define the contour surfaces of helicopter screws. This method of manufacturing was proven to be effective and today computer numerical control is widely used in the machine tool industry.

Machines with built-in numerical control allow the work process to be automated. With the right programming data in hand, virtually any machinist can successfully produce a gear or any other complex mechanical part with an exceptional degree of precision. The various programming languages found on the market include the international ISO language and Heidenhain and Siemens codes.

The CNC can also control the relative position of a tool in relation to the workpiece and operate on several axes (up to 9 axes). This system has also incorporated other innovations such as linear interpolation functions and automatic tool changers to develop a new type of machine sometimes referred to as a “Machining Centre”.

CNC milling machines are indispensable in today’s machine shops

While the first milling machine retained its characteristics for almost 150 years before a new technology took over, milling machines are now evolving at an impressive pace. In parallel with the development of information technology, new milling machines, boring machines and other machine tools continue to push the limits of part production.

At Braidwood Industries Ltd., we are proud to employ modern tools that allow us to create exceptional quality machined parts in small or large quantities. Contact us to work with us for your machining needs!

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