Customizable CNC add-ons, control convergence

CNC solutions are finding life beyond a “me too” status. Standardized at the core, CNC approaches differentiate with highly customizable add-ons. Consolidation of controls can help.


PC-based controllers have optional multi-core processor technology available today, which provides more than enough power to manage CNC functionality along with most other machine functions on one hardware controller. Courtesy: Beckhoff AutomationMany vendors have a similar approach to computer numerical control (CNC) technology, from those iconic panel controllers to software that provides the expected range of standard functions. Most dedicated controllers for CNC machines have a specific set of functionality and, as a result, application restraints. It is typically difficult to add much customization to a “canned” CNC solution. The question to the consumer of CNC solutions (machine builder or end user) is how do you best leverage technology with the rest of the automation equipment on the machine to differentiate from competitors?

By implementing the CNC system as just one part of an integrated, standard automation platform, it is possible to add much more functionality tailored to each unique application. Using an “all-in-one” automation system that handles CNC and all other machine automation requirements, it is much easier to add other machine elements, such as infeed/outfeed, conveyance systems, and tool changers, just to name a few.

Controller convergence

Multi-core optimized platforms, such as TwinCAT 3 from Beckhoff, facilitate the actual assignment of different cores on a multi-core processor for different tasks. Beckhoff TwinCAT CNC software screen capture is shown. Courtesy: Beckhoff AutomationThe most competitive CNC systems are just one part of an overall automation framework. This automation approach merges the following core elements into one harmonized platform: controller, software, and network. Many enabling technologies drive this convergence. PC-based controllers, for example, have optional multi-core processor technology available, which provides more than enough power to manage CNC functionality along with most other machine functions on one hardware controller. Conversely, traditional controllers for CNC machines can be limited by memory and processing power.

With PC-based control there is effectively no limit in those areas; it is quite easy to run complex CNC applications and still have ample room for programmable logic controller (PLC) functions, other forms of multi-axis motion control, and numerous other functions. In the software department, multi-core optimized platforms facilitate the actual assignment of different cores on a multi-core processor for different tasks. This means that the entire CNC program can run on core 0, while the PLC project runs on core 1, the HMI program runs on core 2, and so on. The integration of robotics or a vision system on the same PC-based controller as the CNC is a very real option for many applications today.

Matt Lecheler is motion specialist with Beckhoff Automation. Courtesy: Beckhoff AutomationLeading CNC advances are driven not as much from hardware as from the changing requirements of CNC implementations in the field and from the ability of technology providers to deliver a customized answer to each need. Clearly, CNC vendors should not lose sight of delivering core, standard CNC functionality while providing highly customizable add-ons that provide differentiation and value to the machine and the enterprise.

- Matt Lecheler is motion specialist with Beckhoff Automation. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

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