The abbreviation CNC stands for computer numerical control, and refers specifically to a computer "controller" that reads G-code instructions and drives a machine tool, a powered mechanical device typically used to fabricate components by the selective removal of material. CNC does numerically directed interpolation of a cutting tool in the work envelope of a machine. The operating parameters of the CNC can be altered via a software load program.
CNC was preceded by NC (Numerically Controlled) machines, which were hard wired and their operating parameters could not be changed. NC was developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s by John T. Parsons in collaboration with the [http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/mithistory/histories-offices/servo.html MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory]. The first CNC systems used NC style hardware, and the computer was used for the tool compensation calculations and sometimes for editing.
Punched tape continued to be used as a medium for transferring G-codes into the controller for many decades after 1950, until it was eventually superseded by RS232 cables, floppy disks, and now is commonly tied directly into plant networks. The files containing the G-codes to be interpreted by the controller are usually saved under the .NC extension. Most shops have their own saving format that matches their ISO certification requirements.
The introduction of CNC machines radically changed the manufacturing industry. Curves are as easy to cut as straight lines, complex 3-D structures are relatively easy to produce, and the number of machining steps that required human action have been dramatically reduced.
With the increased automation of manufacturing processes with CNC machining, considerable improvements in consistency and quality have been achieved with no strain on the operator. CNC automation reduced the frequency of errors and provided CNC operators with time to perform additional tasks. CNC automation also allows for more flexibility in the way parts are held in the manufacturing process and the time required to change the machine to produce different components.
In a production environment, a series of CNC machines may be combined into one station, commonly called a "cell", to progressively machine a part requiring several operations. CNC machines today are controlled directly from files created by CAM software packages, so that a part or assembly can go directly from design to manufacturing without the need of producing a drafted paper drawing of the manufactured component. In a sense, the CNC machines represent a special segment of industrial robot systems, as they are programmable to perform many kinds of machining operations (within their designed physical limits, like other robotic systems). CNC machines can run over night and over weekends without operator intervention. Error detection features have been developed, giving CNC machines the ability to call the operator's mobile phone if it detects that a tool has broken. While the machine is awaiting replacement on the tool, it would run other parts it is already loaded with up to that tool and wait for the operator. The ever changing intelligence of CNC controllers has dramatically increased job shop cell production. Some machines might even make 1000 parts on a weekend with no operator, checking each part with lasers and sensors.