Automatic Lathe: Basics You Should Know

As a machinist, I am constantly exploring advancements in technology and the impact they have on my profession. One of the most important tools used in today’s industry is the automatic lathe. This machine has come a long way since its inception and plays a crucial role in the mass production of precision parts.

Before discussing the advantages of automatic lathes, it is essential to understand their basic working principle. These machines are designed to turn and shape metal or other materials by holding and rotating workpieces while various cutting tools are pressed against them at different angles.

In contrast to manual lathes, which require frequent adjustments from the operator, automatic lathes are much more efficient and precise, as they use computer programs and automation to perform continuous cutting operations with minimal intervention. This enables the production of identical parts with high accuracy in a shorter amount of time.

In today’s competitive manufacturing landscape, time and efficiency are of utmost importance. The automatic lathe not only serves to boost these factors in any production process but also significantly reduces the margin of error. The combination of accuracy, speed, and consistency offered by these machines makes them an indispensable asset in multiple industries, from aerospace to automotive, medical, and beyond.

What is Automatic Lathe?

The automatic lathe is a high-performance, high-precision, low-noise machine that uses a cam to control its machining program.

Automatic Lathe Machine

In addition, there are other types of automatic lathes such as CNC automatic lathes and pneumatic automatic lathes, as well as core-style automatic lathes. The fundamental feature of these machines is that they can continuously produce the same product for a long time after proper setting and training.

These automatic lathes are ideal for processing and manufacturing precision parts made of materials such as copper, aluminum, iron, and plastic. They are suitable for various industries, including instruments, watches, clocks, automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, glasses, stationery, hardware and bathroom fixtures, electronics, connectors, computers, mobile phones, electromechanical, and military, to produce small parts in bulk, especially for complex parts.

History of Automatic Lathes

Development Timeline

As an enthusiast in the world of manufacturing, I have always been fascinated by the automatic lathe. My research on their history reveals that the very first fully automated lathe, known as the screw-cutting lathe, was developed by Henry Maudslay in 1797. This invention marked the beginning of the industrial revolution, and revolutionized the manufacturing process.

In the 19th century, further advancements were made with the introduction of turret lathes, which allowed multiple tools to be used at the same time. In the 20th century, computer numerical control (CNC) technology emerged, which greatly improved the accuracy, efficiency, and productivity of automatic lathes.

Key Innovators

Many individuals contributed to the development of automatic lathes, as I discovered throughout my research. Maudslay, as I already mentioned, created the first fully automated lathe, thus laying the foundation for future innovations.

Another key innovator is James Nasmyth, who, in 1840, devised a way to hold the cutting tool on the sliding headstock of the lathe, allowing for more accurate and precise machining. This invention became known as the Nasmyth lathe.

Later, the American machinist Francis A. Pratt designed the revolutionary turret lathe in 1860. This design made it possible for multiple tools to be used simultaneously, enabling more efficient production.

Finally, the introduction of CNC technology by John T. Parsons in the 1940s took automatic lathes to new heights. His innovation enabled automatic lathes to perform even more complex operations and produce parts with incredible accuracy.

To sum it up, the history of automatic lathes has seen a consistent progression in design and capability, with each invention building upon previous advances. This has allowed for a more efficient machining process and revolutionized the world of manufacturing.

Features of Automatic Lathe

The machine tool is equipped with automatic processing, boasts a fast processing speed, can handle complex parts in a single operation, is accurate and reliable in its processing, features automatic feeding, automatic material shutoff, and offers high production efficiency.

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Components and Functions


In an automatic lathe, the spindle plays a critical role for me. It holds the workpiece securely and rotates it at varying speeds during the machining process. My spindle supports the workpiece by ensuring that it stays in place and experiences consistent force, which ultimately results in higher precision and finer finishes.


Another important component of my construction is the carriage. It enables the cutting tools to move along the workpiece as needed, facilitating multiple operations like turning, threading, and facing. The carriage has a saddle and an apron, which support the cross-slide and hold the cutting tools. With their combined efforts, I can perform quick and accurate machining operations on the workpiece.

Tool Holders

Tool holders are essential parts of my setup that securely hold and position the cutting tools. They accommodate various types of cutting tools, like drills, taps, and dies, allowing me to perform a wide range of tasks. Tool holders have the critical responsibility of ensuring that the cutting tools are optimally positioned and engaged with the workpiece, enabling me to achieve precise and consistent results.

Types of Automatic Lathe

Precision Type Automatic Lathe

The precision automatic lathe can be classified into material-moving type and tool-moving type.

In the material-moving process, the workpiece is held in place by the clamp while the material moves forward and the tool remains stationary. The part is machined through the linear motion or rocking motion of the cutting tool.

In the tool-moving process, the workpiece is secured with a simple clamp, and the workpiece is machined by moving the cutting tool’s front and rear.

The cam-controlled knife-type automatic lathe is equipped with five knives.

The tool holder is in the order of No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 knife.

Each set of tool holders can hold 1-2 knives.

No. 1 and No. 5 are for turning outer diameters, while Nos. 2, 3, and 4 are mainly used for grooving, chamfering, cutting, etc.

Two tail shafts, two drills, one tap and one die can be cut simultaneously, and simultaneous tapping, milling, die-cutting, embossing, etc. can be performed.

Complex parts can be processed in one operation without manual intervention. The outer circle, spherical surface, conical surface, arc surface, step, slotting, embossing, drilling, tapping, die-cutting processes can all be completed in one go.

High dimensional accuracy control: The machine tool spindle accuracy is up to 0.003mm, and the slider fine-tuning is controlled by a micrometer for size control accuracy of up to 0.005mm. The spindle speed is 2000-8000RPM.

The cutting knife-feeding amount can be controlled to a minimum of 0.005. The roughness of the parts (copper) can be as small as Ra0.04-0.08.

Automatic feeding: The feeding mechanism automatically feeds the spindle and the automatic parking alarm is triggered when processing is completed, achieving fully automated manufacturing without manual inspection.

The operator can run multiple machines at the same time.

High production efficiency: The machine uses cam control for the processing process. One machining process is completed with each revolution of the cam. The cam speed is adjustable from 1.0-36 rpm, and can process about 30 parts per minute depending on the machining parts.

With five knives that can be cut simultaneously, the machining efficiency is very high, surpassing that of general CNC computer lathes and instrument lathes.

Feeding automation and automatic cutting of cutting tools are controlled by cams.

Cam Type Automatic Lathe

Cam Type Automatic Lathe uses two types of cams:

One of them is cylindrical in shape. The cam is machined into various shapes on its end faces and then rotated. The rotation of the cam is transformed into a linear motion of the tool holder through a transmission link and rocker arm. This cam is referred to as a bowl cam and is mainly used for cutting the axial direction of the workpiece.

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The other cam is circular plate-shaped. The outer circumference is machined into the desired shape, and then the rotary motion of the cam is transformed into a linear motion of the cutter through a transmission rod connected to the tool holder. This cam is mainly used for the radial cutting direction of the workpiece.

By combining the left and right and front and back movements of the two cams, the tool can be tilted or curved.

Long-Axis Automatic Lathe

The long-axis automatic lathe is an updated version of the traditional knife-type automatic lathe, with simplification and modification. It does not include a tapping part and has an extended material section, making it suitable for simple long-axis products without tapping.

The product length has been increased from the traditional 60mm to 400mm. The simplification of some functions reduces the overall cost, providing great convenience for customers with long-term simple long-axis products.

Simple Style Automatic Lathe

The simple style automatic lathe is based on the traditional knife-type automatic lathe and has been streamlined by removing the knife and tapping parts. It is suitable for producing simple products that do not require tapping.

As a result of the streamlining of certain functions, the overall cost is reduced. This provides a more cost-effective solution for customers who produce simple products on a long-term basis.

Programmable Air Pressure Type

The Program-Controlled Pneumatic Automatic Lathe is a type of pneumatic automatic lathe that replaces the traditional cam-type automatic lathe. Its control system is programmable, hence the name Program-Controlled Pneumatic Automatic Lathe.

This machine tool is equipped with 4 to 6 independent tool holders, each of which can hold multiple tools. The advance and retreat of the guide rail are controlled by a cylinder, with a specialized dampening cylinder used for steady speed control. This allows for seamless switching between fast forward, fast reverse, and slow, steady speeds.

All of the tool holders offer a variety of operating modes and combinations, allowing for most turning operations to be completed in a single work cycle. This machine tool is ideal for customers who require multiple varieties, specifications, medium to large batch sizes, and certain precision standards. It can process all types of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, as well as various engineering plastics.

The machine features four feeding modes: bar mode, material mode, manual feeding mode, and post-material feeding mode. All control of the machine tool is managed through microcomputer programming, with various operation modes and parameters selected through the operation panel knob or button setting mode.

The control system also has self-diagnostics and a comprehensive alarm function, ensuring safe and efficient operation.

Automatic Lathe Operations

As an automatic lathe, I perform various operations on workpieces to shape and form them into desired components. In this section, I will discuss the different operations that I can execute: Turning, Boring, Threading, and Grooving.


The turning operation is one of the most common processes I perform. During turning, I use my rotating chuck to hold the workpiece while my cutting tool moves along the surface, removing material to reduce the workpiece’s diameter. This process helps achieve a smooth and accurate surface finish. I am capable of producing different shapes such as straight, tapered, or contoured.


Boring is an operation where I enlarge a hole that has already been drilled or cored. I use single-point cutting tools to enlarge the hole to a precise diameter and depth. My boring head holds these tools and carefully increments the cutting depth to ensure accuracy. Boring allows me to fine-tune the size and improve the surface finish of the hole interior.

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In the threading operation, I form external or internal threads on the workpiece. I use specially shaped threading tools that match the desired thread type, such as metric, unified, or trapezoidal. Threading operations include:

  • External threading: I form threads on the outer surface of the workpiece using a single-point cutting tool or a die.
  • Internal threading: To form threads on the inner surface of a hole, I use a single-point cutting tool or a tap.


Grooving is an operation where I create a narrow channel on the workpiece’s surface. I use my cutting tool, which has a specific shape and size, to remove material and create grooves. These grooves can be straight, curved, or angled, depending on the requirements of the part. Grooving operations are essential for applications such as O-ring seats, oil grooves, and locating points in assemblies.

Selection and Optimization

As an expert in automatic lathes, let me share my knowledge on the selection and optimization of these machines. The process is essential to get the best performance, productivity, and desired outcomes.

Workpiece Material and Dimensions

First, it’s crucial to know the workpiece material and its dimensions. Different materials have unique properties and machineability. I always recommend considering these factors when choosing an automatic lathe:

  • Type of material: Is it ductile or brittle? Metals like aluminum or brass machine easily, while hardened steel or titanium need sturdier lathes.
  • Dimensions: Workpieces with large diameters or lengths require lathes that can handle such sizes not to compromise safety or precision.

Required Tolerances and Finishes

Next, let’s discuss the required tolerances and finishes. The machining accuracy and quality depend on these factors, so I focus on:

  • Tolerances: How tight is the required tolerance? If tight tolerances are needed, then I consider selecting lathes with high precision and smooth motion control capabilities.
  • Surface finishes: The desired surface finish is critical too. For instance, when a polished surface is required, I make sure the lathe can provide it with the right tooling and settings.

In summary, selecting and optimizing an automatic lathe involves considering workpiece materials, dimensions, required tolerances, and finishes. By keeping these factors in mind, I ensure the most efficient, accurate, and safe machining experience possible.

Maintenance and Troubleshooting


In my experience, proper lubrication is vital for maintaining the efficiency and longevity of an automatic lathe. I usually make sure to do the following:

  • Regularly check the oil levels in the gearbox, headstock, and slideways. A low oil level can result in wear and tear of the parts.
  • Always use the correct type of lubricant according to the manufacturer’s recommendation.
  • Clean the oil filter on a regular basis to prevent contaminant buildup, which can affect the smooth operation of the lathe.
  • Monitor the oil pressure and temperature to ensure proper lubrication of all parts.

Tool Wear

When operating an automatic lathe, it’s important for me to pay attention to tool wear since worn-out tools can compromise the quality of the finished product and potentially damage the lathe. Here’s how I typically deal with tool wear:

  • Inspect cutting tools on a regular basis for signs of wear or damage, like chipping or dull edges.
  • Replace cutting tools when they’ve reached the end of their service life to maintain optimal performance.
  • Use appropriate cutting tool materials, such as carbide or high-speed steel, to ensure long-lasting performance.
  • Monitor the cutting speed and feed rate to minimize tool wear and maximize tool life.

In case I encounter any unusual issues during operation, I always refer to the troubleshooting guide provided by the lathe manufacturer. It’s crucial to address problems promptly to prevent further damage and maintain the lathe’s performance.

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