What is CNC machine tending? The easy guide

October 18, 2023
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CNC machine tending: At a glance

Need the TL;DR version? We’ve got you covered: 

  • Basics of CNC machines: Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines are automated, precision tools used widely for tasks needing high accuracy and consistency.
  • The essence of machine tending: Machine tending, traditionally done by humans, now often utilizes automation to improve safety, consistency, and efficiency.
  • The process: Robots with specialized tools manage tasks such as loading materials, inserting parts, changing tools, removing finished parts, and performing basic quality checks. Safety features include collision detection and emergency stops, with software for data and production analysis.
  • Benefits: Automation in CNC machine tending optimizes scheduling and batch processing, reduces waste, enhances energy efficiency, facilitates quick changeovers, and improves safety by assigning hazardous tasks to robots.
  • Challenges and considerations: Initial costs for automation, training, and system integration need careful ROI analysis. Workers may require new skills, existing machines might need modifications, other production areas could be highlighted for optimization, and adherence to safety standards is critical.

The basics of CNC machines

Before diving into CNC machine tending, it's important to understand what a CNC machine is and what it does: 

  • CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, and these machines are essentially automated tools driven by computer programming. You'll find CNC machines in various forms, from milling machines to laser cutters and even 3D printers.
  • CNC machines excel at tasks that require high levels of precision and repeatability. For instance, if you need to drill holes in a metal sheet and each hole must be exactly 2 inches from the other, a CNC machine is your go-to tool.

These machines aren't just confined to heavy-duty manufacturing; you'll also find them in woodworking, metal fabrication, and even the aerospace sector. 

‍What is machine tending?

Machine tending is the practice of overseeing machines as they carry out tasks. Traditionally, this job fell on human workers who would load raw materials into a machine, start the operation, and then remove the finished product.

Let’s take a look at the difference between humans and machines: 

  • The role of a machine tender is usually very hands-on. They were responsible for loading and unloading parts, initiating machine cycles, and monitoring the process for errors. Often, this meant workers needed to be present throughout the entire production process, demanding a considerable time investment.
  • Automation technology has started to take on many of these roles, doing the same tasks but without breaks, errors due to fatigue, or the need for lunch hours. However, this doesn't mean it's lights-out for human workers. While machines can do a lot, they can't yet replicate human judgment.

    For example, when unforeseen issues arise — like a jam or a sudden machine failure — human oversight is crucial for quick resolution. 

So, in most setups, you'll find a human operator working alongside automated systems, each doing what they're best at. It's about combining the strength of machines with human oversight and decision-making skills.

How CNC machine tending works

When we talk about CNC machine tending, we're essentially discussing a specialized form of automation tailored to interact seamlessly with CNC machines. This involves a variety of processes, from the moment raw material is fed into the machine until the finished product is out. 

The devil is in the details, so let's break down how each aspect comes together:

  • Initial setup and calibration: Before you let robots and CNC machines start working together, there's a period of setup and calibration. The robot must be accurately positioned relative to the CNC machine to ensure flawless operation.

    Based on the task (gripping, suction, etc.), the right end-effector (the tool at the robot's arm that interacts with the material) is selected and installed.
  • The workflow: The robot picks up the raw material from a feeder system, aligns it precisely, and inserts it into the CNC machine. Some parts require specific orientations for different machining processes.

    Here, the robot may need to rotate or flip the material between operations. Once loaded, the robot signals the CNC machine to initiate its programmed cycle.
  • During operations: If multiple tools are used, the human worker or the robot can change them out. If you want the robot to handle this part, you can pre-program it to be triggered by specific machine states.

    During operations, the system also monitors for anomalies using sensors and cameras. They try to detect things like tool wear or failure and can alert a human operator when something's off.
  • Post-operation: More advanced robotic setups use sensors to carry out immediate post-machining quality inspections. Then, the finished part is removed from the CNC machine by the robot and placed in a designated area for human inspection or further automation.
  • Safety measures: Most modern systems come equipped with collision detection to pause operations if an unexpected object (like a stray tool or a human hand) is detected. They also have easy-to-access emergency stop mechanisms that allow human operators to instantly halt operations if needed.
  • Software integration: This is not always a standalone system. CNC machine tending often integrates with Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) or other factory-wide software for real-time data sharing and analytics. This provides up-to-the-minute information on machine status, production rates, and more.

    It also helps in predicting when the CNC machine or the robot might need servicing, avoiding unexpected downtimes.

Benefits of CNC machine tending in manufacturing

Streamlined operations

  • Job scheduling: In a manual setup, scheduling machines involves a lot of guesswork and adjustments. With CNC machine tending, integrated software can optimize the schedule, minimizing machine idle time and thus reducing lead time.
  • Batch processing: Instead of running individual units one by one, CNC machine tending allows you to set up automated batch processing. This is particularly useful for 'lights-out' manufacturing scenarios where production continues unabated overnight.

Quality control

  • Online quality checks: Automated tending systems can integrate sensors or cameras to inspect parts right after they're machined. This immediate feedback loop allows for quick adjustments, practically eliminating a separate QC stage that would otherwise slow down production.
  • Material waste reduction: By optimizing machining processes, the system can often reduce the amount of raw material waste. For businesses where materials are a significant cost, this can be a game-changer.

Cost savings

  • Energy efficiency: Modern automated systems can adjust power usage based on real-time needs. For example, if a machine doesn't need to operate at full speed, the system can reduce its power draw, lowering energy bills over time.
  • Predictive maintenance: By monitoring wear and tear on machine parts in real time, the system can predict when maintenance is due. This prevents unexpected downtime, which can be incredibly costly in high-paced manufacturing environments.


  • Quick changeovers: Traditionally, changing from one product line to another could take hours of manual setup. With CNC machine tending, software-driven changeovers can often be executed in a fraction of that time, making it easier to handle diverse product lines.
  • Small-batch efficiency: For manufacturers who produce custom, small-batch items, CNC machine tending can drastically reduce setup time, making it economically feasible to produce small quantities.


Hazardous material handling: In processes where toxic or hot materials are involved, robots can be equipped with special end-effectors designed for safe handling, reducing health risks to human operators.

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Challenges and considerations in CNC machine tending

CNC machine tending brings a lot of benefits to the table, but it's not a plug-and-play solution. 

Some specific challenges and considerations need to be addressed to make the most out of your investment: 

  • Consider the initial investment and ROI: Implementing high-quality robots, specialized end-effectors, and integration software carries a significant upfront cost; factor in additional ongoing expenses like training, system maintenance, and updates when conducting an ROI analysis to ensure long-term financial viability.
  • Skill requirements extend beyond hardware: Proficiency in the software controlling the robot is as crucial as hardware understanding; workers accustomed to manual machine tending may need additional training to effectively operate, troubleshoot, and maintain an automated system.
  • Integration complexity may necessitate modifications: Your existing CNC machines might not be directly compatible with new automated tending systems, potentially requiring hardware or software modifications; it's essential to double-check compatibility with the robot manufacturer, even if the tending system includes built-in relays and integration features.
  • Process optimization may have ripple effects: Automating one aspect of manufacturing could expose inefficiencies in other stages of your production line; be prepared to review and potentially revise additional steps to maximize the benefits of automation.
  • Safety and regulation compliance are paramount: Adhering to safety standards and regulations governing the use of robotic systems in manufacturing environments is non-negotiable, even though a time-consuming process; remember, human oversight remains essential for tasks like emergency shutdowns and complex decision-making that are beyond the current capabilities of robots.
  • Your existing CNC machines may not be immediately compatible with new automated tending systems: So, you might require additional hardware or software modifications. Many automated tending systems come with signaling your CNC machine, but you’ll want to double-check compatibility with the robot manufacturer.

Summing up 

From initial setup to workflow and safety measures, understanding the nitty-gritty details of CNC machine tending can help you make an informed decision for your manufacturing operations. 

While the initial investment and training can be substantial, the long-term gains in productivity, reduced waste, and improved quality can offer a compelling return on investment.

Next steps

RO1 by Standard Bots comes with everything you need to automate your machine tending applications on popular mills from Haas, Mazak, and more.

  1. Affordable automation: RO1 is significantly more affordable than competing robots in its class and is available with both a 30-day on-site trial and ongoing leasing options.
  2. Class-leading capability: RO1 leads its class with an impressive 18 kg payload, boasts a joint speed that's over twice as fast as the competition at 435 degrees per second, and offers superior precision with a repeatability of +/- 0.025mm.
  3. Full machine tending solution: RO1 comes pre-packed with every accessory and gripper you need, alongside a simple configuration wizard and simulator — meaning your robot can be up and running within hours.

Speak with our solutions engineers today and get tailored advice on automating your machine shop with RO1.

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