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Numerical control (NC) refers to the automation of machine tools that are operated by abstractly programmed commands encoded on a storage medium, as opposed to manually controlled via handwheels or levers, or mechanically automated via cams alone.
The first NC machines were built in the 1940s and '50s, based on existing tools that were modified with motors that moved the controls to follow points fed into the system on paper tape. These early servomechanisms were rapidly augmented with analog and digital computers, creating the modern computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine tools that have revolutionized the design process.
In modern CNC systems, end-to-end component design is highly automated using CAD/CAM programs. The programs produce a computer file that is interpreted to extract the commands needed to operate a particular machine, and then loaded into the CNC machines for production. Since any particular component might require the use of a number of different tools - drills, saws, etc, modern machines often combine multiple tools into a single "cell". In other cases, a number of different machines are used with an external controller and human or robotic operators that move the component from machine to machine. In either case, the complex series of steps needed to produce any part is highly automated and produces a part that closely matches the original CAD design.