December 15, 2021

How Automation Will Power the Next Generation of CNC Machining

By Amanda Tierney

You’re probably asking yourself: “Do we really need a next generation of CNC machining?” Milling and turning have been around for centuries and there is a reason for that. They get the job done. If we take a note from history though, manufacturing saw a shift in the 1950s when computer numeric controls (CNC) were applied to the existing technology. The first modern CNC mill was born. Now, flash-forward 70 years to today. The need for even greater speed and ability to handle design complexity have pushed the limits of what a traditional CNC machine can handle. So what’s next? 

Let’s walk through the critical components needed for the next generation of CNC machining.  

The Machines Behind Machining  

We have some really amazing technology partners building incredible milling and turning machines. Haas and Mazak are two of the leaders in industrial machinery because they keep improving technology and offer new capabilities. Whether it’s expanding the number of tools stationed on one machine, tighter tolerances, more complexity with multi-axis milling, or just the capacity to build larger parts, all of these capabilities help companies change the world by enabling design innovation.  

The Software That Drives CNC Machining   

We’re emersed in a digital world. Everything and everyone is connected. Hello, internet of things! This pipeline of 0s and 1s has pushed innovation forward at mind-blowing speeds. Most tech companies employ hundreds, if not thousands, of developers who are tasked with testing the limits of our generation’s tools. Software is the backbone of innovation.   

So, let’s take that concept and apply it to CNC machining. Our team of developers has designed automation into every step of our process, from upload to production. In fact, a lot of people don’t know that we digitally manufacture your part at time of upload! Crazy, right? The CAD file you send is analyzed and receives automated design for manufacturing feedback, so when you are ready to start production on that part, so are we.  

Hardware + Software = Next Generation Enabled by Automation  

Imagine a world where there was peanut butter but no jelly, Wayne but no Garth, or if you’re younger, Woody but no Buzz. You get it. The magic comes from combining the two together. In automating the CNC machining world, we need the partnership of hardware and software. That’s what guarantees fast and reliable service every time.  

Take a look at this photo of our machining facility taken during a busy workday. Do you notice anything missing? The answer is machine operators. To be totally transparent we do have some, but because of our automated system, we don’t need as many.  

Another great example in which combining hardware and software can enable innovation is within our robotic cell. When your aim is to be faster than the competition, you scrutinize every element of your production process. In this case, we found an opportunity to speed up material prep for milling. In the process, we maximized automation, and also increased safety and reliability within that production cell.  

These are just two of the ways Protolabs automation is creating a totally scalable service through automation that is blazing the trail for the next generation of CNC machining.  


Amanda Tierney is the product marketing manager for CNC machining and sheet metal at Protolabs. She has 10-plus years of experience marketing to manufacturing engineers and designers across multiple industries. She holds a B.A. in business and marketing from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. 

CNC Machining Guide

If you have any issues getting your guide, download here.

Definitive Guide to CNC Machining

Take an in-depth look at CNC machining, from milling to turning and prototyping to production. Our downloadable guide offers tips on optimizing your design for machining, tolerances and threading considerations, choosing the right material for your parts, and much more.