Proliferation of CNC
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The price of computer cycles fell drastically during the 1960s with the widespread introduction of useful minicomputers. Eventually it became less expensive to handle the motor control and feedback with a computer program than it was with dedicated servo systems. Small computers were dedicated to a single mill, placing the entire process in a small box. PDP-8's and Data General Nova computers were common in these roles. The introduction of the microprocessor in the 1970s further reduced the cost of implementation, and today almost all CNC machines use some form of microprocessor to handle all operations.
The introduction of lower-cost 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.
During the early 1970s the Western economies were mired in slow economic growth and rising employment costs, and NC machines started to become more attractive. The major U.S. vendors were slow to respond to the demand for machines suitable for lower-cost NC systems, and into this void stepped the Germans. In 1979, sales of German machines surpassed the U.S. designs for the first time. This cycle quickly repeated itself, and by 1980 Japan had taken a leadership position, U.S. sales dropping all the time. Once sitting in the #1 position in terms of sales on a top-ten chart consisting entirely of U.S. companies in 1971, by 1987 Cincinnati Milacron was in 8th place on a chart heavily dominated by Japanese firms.
Many researchers have commented that the U.S. focus on high-end applications left them in an uncompetitive situation when the economic downturn in the early 1970s led to greatly increased demand for low-cost NC systems. Unlike the U.S. companies, who had focused on the highly profitable aerospace market, German and Japanese manufacturers targeted lower-profit segments from the start and were able to enter the low-cost markets much more easily.