Turning Centers vs. Lathes in Modern Manufacturing

Posted on Sep 28, 2019

Turning Center

A CNC Turning centers and a lathe look somewhat similar. They both perform turning operations to process workpieces, but there are some significant differences between the two. After reading this article you will definitely not feel confused anymore when talking about lathes and turning centers.

CNC Turning centers and lathes look somewhat similar. No wonder, since the turning center evolved from the traditional lathes. They both perform turning operations to process workpieces, but there are some significant differences between the two. The addition of CNC increased precision turning and contouring operations, better repeatability, and productivity. Also, it is much easier to control a CNC turning center even though the processes are more complex Knowing the difference between a turning center and a conventional lathe is essential to choosing the right machine for your manufacturing purposes. After reading this article you will know everything that separates a lathe from a full-fledged turning center and vice versa.

1. Turning Center Basics

Although they might look alike, horizontal CNC turning centers are an evolutionary leap from the lathe machines of the past. Conventional lathes, by definition, are 2-axis machines. Over time lathes became more complex with 3-axis, 4-axis, and 5-axis capabilities and thereby transitioned into the era of turning centers.

While there is no formal distinction, a lathe is typically used to refer to simpler machines, like those that only perform turning operations with usually just X and Z axes. A turning center, on the other hand, will likely integrate milling, drilling, and sub-spindle capabilities and include a Y-axis. Today, the terms can be used interchangeably.

What is CNC Turning?

CNC Turning is a manufacturing process where the material is removed from a usually bar-like workpiece by driving a cutting tool into it. The workpiece is clamped into a chuck that is rotated via a spindle. The turning center removes material bit by bit (or cut by cut) and forms the desired shape. CNC turning is also called subtractive machining. Some advanced turning centers not only perform turning but also milling operations if they have additional axes.

Turning Center Machining
Fig.1 Close-up of Turning Center Machining Workpiece

:: Read More: Turning Center and the Corresponding Machining

2.What makes a Lathe a Turning Center?

There is no definite rule but usually, CNC turning centers are more complex machines with a full enclosure to protect the operator and the environment. Also, the bed, tailstock, and carriage, three of the most important components of a turning center, are normally separate parts for a CNC turning center. This allows the operator to adjust the position of the tailstock without affecting the carriage and turrets.

As far as practical applications are concerned, the two are mechanically the same. Many people who work in the manufacturing industry, even those who have been working for many years, have difficulty understanding the difference between CNC turning centers and CNC lathes. After all, both can be used as tool components, bushings, adapters, and threaded inserts. Automotive, agricultural, and construction applications (such as conveyors, casters, etc.) all require one of the two and are generally versatile. Some differences between CNC turning centers and CNC lathes include:

  • CNC turning centers pay more attention to efficient production, so they produce more parts per day than CNC lathes.
  • The CNC turning center is more efficient and allows you to produce more.
  • The CNC turning center structure is enclosed, coolant and one or more tool changers can be used. Likewise, CNC turning centers also have or may additionally have chip conveyors.
  • CNC turning centers are often more expensive, larger, stronger, and heavier.

What is a CNC Lathe Machine?

Lathes can usually only turn while turning centers are more advanced and versatile machine tools. Turning is only one of the cutting modes a turning center can perform to machine a workpiece. It can also conduct operations such as drilling, threading, knurling, and facing, just to name a few.

What is a Turning Center Machine?

Turning Center YCM
Fig.2 YCM TC-46 Turning Center

Precision turning centers have many advantages over lathes regarding machining. These types of machines can be divided into two types, horizontal and vertical, of which the horizontal structure is more common in machining applications. Compared with lathes, CNC turning centers can produce more parts per day.

Turning centers are more efficient in design and production. The turning center can be equipped with one or two spindles. Depending on the machining speed, tooling options, and power, there are various types of turning centers to choose from. The turning center has many advantages over lathes because it can provide a variety of options while providing the desired shape for the workpiece.

3. Turning Center Components

Below we have compiled basic characteristics of the most common end mill bits. This is not an exhaustive list. There are more specialized end mills for custom applications.

The Bed

The bed is the base of any machine tool and that is also true for the lathe and turning center. The other components of the turning center are mounted onto the bed, such as headstock, tailstock, slideways/cross slide. The rigidity of the bed is very important for machining accuracy, which is why it is often just one-piece cast iron. The turret and other components ride along the slideways or box ways alongside the bed.

The Carriage

The carriage is the component that provides support for the turret with the cutting tools the guideways and the feeding mechanism that is used to move the cutting tool against the workpiece. Its main parts are the saddle, cross-slide, and of course, the turret. Turning centers with live (driven) tool turrets can perform additional milling operations which makes them even more flexible.

The Headstock

turning center headstockThe headstock incorporates the main spindle with the jaw chuck that holds the workpiece in place. The maximum diameter of the workpiece is determined by the spindle bore size. Traditionally, the headstock is located on the left side of the turning center. If you are using a chuck then the headstock can handle larger workpieces than could be fed through the spindle but you will be limited to automated part handling.

The Tailstock

turning center tailstockThe tailstock is located opposite of the headstock, usually on the right side of the turning center’s worktable. The main function of the tailstock is to give support to longer workpieces during the cutting operation. Therefore its position can be adjusted along the x-axis (also called lateral axis).

The Turret

turning center headstockThe turret of a turning center holds multiple cutting tools and changes them if necessary by rotating around its axis. It is a small automatic tool changer.

If you want to learn more, this video introduces a turning center and its components in all detail:


4. Horizontal vs. Vertical Turning Center

The vast majority of turning centers are of the horizontal type. That means that the main spindle is aligned parallel to the ground or the worktable, just like with a traditional lathe. Vertical turning centers are typically called vertical turret lathe or VTL. With this type of turning center, gravity pulls the chips away from the workpiece. The vertical turning center o a vertical lathe is a horizontal lathe that is tilted by 90 degrees (except for the worktable). With such a setup the headstock is on the floor and the faceplate turns into a horizontal rotating table.

Vertical turning centers are better when it comes to machining large and heavy workpieces. Gravity, in this case, helps to keep the heavy workpiece within the holders or clamps. However, chip accumulation can be a problem that requires cleaning the work area from time to time.

 Horizontal Turning Center
Fig.3 Horizontal Turning Center

Multi-axis Turning Centers

Precision turning centers have multiple uses with using live tools such as milling, turning, tapping, drilling, reaming, so they are called turning centers. A precision turning machine equipped with milling accessories can be called a turning center. Machines with more than two axes are called 3, 4, and 5 axis machines, or if they match the configuration of the machining center, they are named 3 axes. It is a multi-function machine that can use various accessories and live tools to perform different operations.

The CNC turning center is basically a CNC lathe with some accessories and additional functions. It may include milling functions, axial and radial live tools, dual spindles, part catcher, and other enhancements so that using multiple machines can be avoided.

5. Turning Center Applications and Advantages

CNC turning centers have a wide range of applications in all kinds of industries such as Aerospace, automotive, medical, oil, and so on. They are especially suitable for machining high-precision metal parts, bars, tubes, gears, etc. Turning centers with live tooling and additional axes are even capable of performing mill, drill bore, turn, and tap operations in all forms and shapes.

Turning Center Advantages

  • Spindles with high torque and speed ensure fast, accurate, and aggressive metal removal
  • Second spindles offer rear finishing or sequential part processing
  • Rotary tool spindles ensure milling, drilling, and tapping performance in the machining center
  • Double spindle and double turret configurations provide innovative parts machining options
  • Full-circumference headstock brakes design
  • The Y-axis function offers a larger machining range for part geometry
  • Strong, built-in NC-controlled tailstock allow for automated processes
  • Hybrid roller guides provide durability and reliability for long-term accuracy
  • Optional deep hole drilling in boring bars ensures extremely productive machining
  • User-friendly, high functionality CNC control simplifies programming and increases productivity
  • Compliance of the bar feeder, gate loader, and articulated robot increases production and allows switching off lighting

Learn more about Turning Centers and Lathes on IMTS

You can find many turning center and lathe manufacturers in the IMTS supplier database. If you want to learn more about end turning centers in general, make sure to check out our other blog entries.

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