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Introducing the Lathe: The Mother of All Machine Tools

6th August 2020 Print

Lathes have been part of the manufacturing ecosystem for millennia, so it is impressive to see that they remain relevant to this day.

With such a venerable history behind them, as well as a wide range of modern applications worth mentioning, it is a good idea to get a handle on why lathes are heralded by many as the mother of all machine tools. To bring you up to speed, here is a look at what lathes bring to the table.

Lathe basics

While you can encounter several varieties of lathe today, the underlying principles by which they operate are effectively identical.

The material which is being worked upon is clamped in a mechanism which allows it to be rotated at high speeds, with a cutting tool then used to manipulate and shape it as it spins. This allows material to be removed in a symmetric fashion quickly and efficiently, as well as with great precision when used by master craftspeople.

Availability & use cases

In the era of the internet, businesses can buy lathes both new and used, with second hand marketplaces like Revelation Machinery making this kind of equipment more accessible than ever before, leveling the playing field.

In terms of the kinds of contexts where lathes are a practical manufacturing option, this also varies wildly. The most compact lathes can be used for very precise work, as might be required when making jewelry, while the larger assemblies are suitable for turning and working much larger pieces, such as in joinery, carpentry and beyond.

Lathe varieties

There are almost too many different kinds of lathe to name or discuss in any detail, but it is still worth learning about the most common types.

Speed lathes, for example, are widely used for woodworking and allow not only for cutting tools to shape materials but also for the sanding and polishing of parts when rotated at high RPMs.

Engine lathes are better suited for use in the manipulation of metal materials, since they are more powerful than wood-centric counterparts and are also used with tougher tools to achieve the desired cuts. Within this category there are several types of engine lathe, some of which are belt-driven while others have direct motor drive at their disposal.

In the past century or so, the rise of the automatic lathe has improved the productivity of these machines and also introduced new challenges in the process. While automation is revolutionizing everything from data analytics to waste management in the modern era, it has been part and parcel of manufacturing since the 19th century thanks to lathes.

Lathe alternatives

While they may still be widely used, lathes are far from the only kind of manufacturing equipment available and indeed they have been superseded in some instances.

For example, computer-controlled milling machines have risen to prominence and usurped lathes at the higher end of the manufacturing food chain. Likewise additive manufacturing using 3D printers poses a separate challenge to traditional techniques.

Even so, lathes look set to remain in play for the foreseeable future, as they are also capable of evolving to meet new needs.

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