Posted July 27, 2021

Basics of Live Tooling for CNC Lathes

A CNC lathe with live tooling mills the workpiece

Modern technology requires components precisely fabricated according to their design dimensions and specifications. To build parts that meet such exacting tolerances, manufacturers rely on the precision of CNC machining equipment. CNC lathes and mills involve separate and opposite processes, and parts that require both turning and milling will typically take longer to fabricate. However, with live tooling for CNC lathes, these two machining operations can occur on one machine, as this article will explain in detail.

CNC Turning and Milling

CNC machining is a subtractive manufacturing process, meaning the machine tools remove raw material from the workpiece to form a part. As mentioned above, the two pieces of equipment used primarily for machining include the lathe and mill—both driven by computer numeric control (CNC) G-codes—but differing in the method of subtraction. 

Turning with a CNC lathe

A lathe rotates the workpiece on a spindle, and a stationary cutting tool cuts or shaves material off the spinning part. Lathes only produce cylindrical or conical-shaped parts. A conical part includes a drill, which bores a hole through the middle of the part.

Milling with a CNC mill

A mill operates antithetically from a lathe in that it maneuvers a rotating cutting tool to cut paths or drill holes in a stationary workpiece. While multi-axis mills can position the tools and the workpiece into any position necessary for the cutting path, mills only produce features in relatively flat workpieces.

Many components require both turning and milling to achieve the final shape and contour of the part. To manufacture these parts requires the machine shop to run two separate production processes; one on the lathe and the other on the mill. Not only is this time-consuming, but precision problems arise when aligning a part on a new machine. Fortunately, live tooling resolves most of these issues.

Live Tooling for CNC Lathes

Live tooling brings the capabilities of CNC milling to a lathe. Also known as “driven tools,” live tooling began appearing on CNC machines in the 1980s. While the lathe will continue to turn parts by rotating the workpiece and using a static cutting tool, the machine shop can configure live tooling attachments for axial and radial cutting.

Typically the tools are mounted on a disc turret and powered by servos for indexing and operation, driven by the same CNC G-code data that drives the lathe. Once the spindle comes to a stop, the live tooling performs its operations while the workpiece remains oriented to the main spindle. Instead of the spindle spinning the workpiece, a cutting tool spins like a regular milling tool.

The types of tools used by the live tooling attachments will vary depending on the project’s requirements, just like a regular CNC mill. Additionally, machine shops can configure live tooling with speed increasers or gear reducers to increase the tool’s torque. They can also configure live tooling with or without internal coolant capabilities. Thus, several key benefits come from using CNC lathes configured with live tooling.

Benefits of Using Live Tooling on a CNC Lathe

Machine shops enable live tooling to increase the usefulness of a CNC lathe and the overall precision of part fabrication. A shop can set up a single machine to do what used to involve a secondary process on a mill to cut, drill, tap, or deburr. For instance, when working on the outer diameter of a part that needs a drilled and tapped hole, using a lathe without live tooling would require moving the part over to a mill. A machinist would then have to take all the necessary steps to secure a new workholding while maintaining tight tolerances. Not only does live tooling decrease the time it takes to produce the part, but it also eliminates the setup time required for the second machining operation.

But increased production efficiency isn’t the only benefit that live tooling provides. Here are some additional benefits of live tooling CNC lathes available today:

  • Improved tool clearances
  • Better cutting performance
  • Extended cutting depths
  • Greater accuracy

Live tooling has grown in its capabilities over the years and can offer its users more benefits now than ever before. These improvements credit the improved gearing and bearings resulting in higher speeds and greater torque available for the tools, plus many other enhancements. However, the best source of information about the benefits of live tooling comes from the machine shops that use them regularly.

Learning More About Live Tooling from Your Local CNC Machine Shop

Every day live tooling configured CNC lathes turn precision parts. Original equipment manufacturers rely on the capabilities of machine shops that use live tooling, and the machine shops rely on the versatility live tooling gives them. These shops can provide you the most detailed information about how their lathes and live tooling will produce a precise part for you more efficiently than a traditional lathe.

At Plethora, we specialize in manufacturing precision parts using the industry's most advanced CNC machining equipment and software. We feature CNC lathes configured with live tooling and skilled machinists to operate them. Plethora is an ISO 9001 certified shop supporting the primary goal of manufacturing your parts to the highest level of quality. Our online DFM and quoting systems will immediately receive your data to begin working with you on your next project. To get started, upload your design files to Quote My Part or call us at 415-726-2256.Quote My Part


The Plethora Team

The Plethora team is your go-to CNC manufacturer for hardware done right the first time. We have the tools and experience needed to create high quality custom parts quickly and with precision, whether you need a prototype or production run.

Topics: materials, Design, Manufacturing, finishing, CNC machining, Quality, Prototyping, Live tooling