Machine Controllers (MCUs): What are their capabilities

machine controllers

In today's article we will present the capabilities of modern CNC machine controllers and whether the actual needs of a machine shop can be met by the controller or the purchase and installation of an external CAD / CAM system is necessary.

By the term “controller” (as it is commonly called today in the market) we mean the control unit of a CNC (Machine Control Unit or MCU). Basically, it is the heart of the machine.

In other words, it is the computer that stores and reads the machining programs, as well as the unit that controls all of the machine's individual systems.

The controller also functions as a user interface between the operator and the machine through its input and output systems.

Thus, through the controller the operator can prepare and program the machine to perform the desired machining, assisted by the controller's capabilities.

Features of Synchronous Controllers (MCUs)

Modern controllers of most CNC machine tools are now equipped with a huge range of features and standard commands, which enable the machine programmer to perform the machining required in a much easier and fast way.

Too often, there is the wrong impression that the only way for a machine maker to exploit 100% of his machine tool's capabilities is to use an external integrated CAD / CAM system.

It is true that for very complex geometries, especially when they contain free form surfaces, an integrated CAD / CAM system is the only way to program the required processing.

However, most of the classical engineering tests are usually geometries with simple geometric features that can be programmed directly into G code through the controller editor.

In particular, modern controllers are equipped with:

  • the basic types of interference
  • dynamic coordinate systems
  • a wide range of routine canned cycles, such as drilling, tapping, circular pocketing, general-purpose pocketing, boring, etc.
  • dynamic tool height and radius compensation
  • standardized whitening and finishing cycles (depending on the type of machine tool).
  • ability to use sub-programs and parametric programming with hypothesis and variaties.

It is also worth noting that several machine manufacturers provide (at a reasonable cost) the controller can read .dxf files and guide the user with auxiliary systems to the desired programming.

In addition, in some cases some types of controller come equipped with their own CAM system, fully harmonized with the machine controller and accessible through the user interface.

When to buy a CAD / CAM system

Taking full advantage of the capabilities of modern controllers, the real need to purchase and install an external CAD / CAM system arises when:

  • the machine's controller does not allow us to program some advanced processing, even though the machine has the ability to perform it (full 3 axis free form surfaces, etc.).
  • the programming of particular geometry, though feasible through the capabilities of the controller, is considered unprofitable and time-consuming compared to the programming through an integrated external CAD / CAM system.


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