What is the lathe used for?

Let’s take a close look at one of the oldest tools invented by man, examining its evolution over time and the different applications.

At some point in human history, shortly after the appearance of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, our ancestors began to instinctively use stones, wood and vegetable fibers to manufacture the first rudimentary tools to be used to obtain food, to build huts and to work the land. The first real technological revolution, however, occurred when man discovered the wheel, from which a series of more or less complex tools were derived, including the lathe.

One of the most curious aspects related to the discovery of the wheel is that its subsequent technological evolution has followed different paths in different parts of the globe.

In Asian, Indo-European, and Mediterranean civilizations, for example, the appearance of the wheel was followed almost immediately by that of the first wagons, used both in the civil and military spheres. The pre-Colombian civilizations that developed in the American continent instead, although they knew the wheel and used it widely for the manufacture of toys, millstones, and above all lathes, they saw their first chariots only after the arrival of the Conquistadores from the European continent.


A bit of history

The first man-made lathes, therefore, date back to prehistory, were mainly used for the working and modeling of clay and were operated manually; it is not possible to identify the precise historical moment in which the lathe began to be modified for uses other than clay processing, the only sure thing is that we must wait until 1453 for the appearance of the first lathe operated by hydraulic force, and therefore capable of a constant rotation movement both in speed and in the application of force. The true potential of this tool, in fact, was fully exploited only when it got to the point of being able to power it.


Manual or motorized

As already mentioned above, the first practical application of the lathe was the modeling of clay for the production of pottery; the lathe, therefore, serves above all to model and this vocation has obviously been transmitted also to modern motorized specimens.

In motorized lathes, the pieces are mounted on the lathe and put into the rotation after which, with the aid of additional tools according to the type of turning operation to be performed, they are processed by removing material from them.

With the lathes it is, therefore, possible to create support columns, such as the legs of chairs and tables, decorative elements, and objects of various types that range from simple tools of daily use up to the turbines used in large motors and energy production plants.

Between a manual and a motorized model, it is immediately obvious that, in terms of versatility of use, the best lathe is the one equipped with the motor, as it makes it possible not only to model but also to engrave, drill, bore, and thread; in fact, the motorized lathe also serves to manufacture screws, nuts, bolts, rivets and a whole series of small metal parts for mechanical and construction uses.

Especially the small models, which are widely used for the machining of parts intended for precision mechanics or model making, and are used not only in the professional field but also for the hobby sector. In addition to the motor, in fact, the dimensions of the lathe also play a decisive role in the versatility of use of this stationary machine because, by varying its dimensions, it can be used by heavy industry up to the simple DIY enthusiast.

It is no coincidence that, in this specific sector, one of the largest market segments is precisely that of lathes produced for hobby and semi-professional use.


The ultra-specialized models

There are also some types of lathe designed to perform a certain operation; these are highly specialized models and consequently they are used only in specific areas of production. The first of these is the potter’s wheel, both in the manual and in the motorized variant, which continues to be produced exclusively for the modeling of clay, clay and ceramic, and is therefore intended for potters, sculptors, and hobbyists.

Other examples of highly specialized lathe, on the other hand, are the copying lathe, the numerical control lathe, and the lathe for phonographic engravings. The “copying” lathe is a particular type designed specifically for the production of identical pieces based on a prototype previously made; the copying lathe has a specific mechanism capable of moving the cutting tool according to a path that corresponds to the profile of the prototype piece, during processing, so as to reproduce the exact shape on the copy piece.

This lathe, therefore, has a seat intended to house the prototype piece and a sensor, of a mechanical or hydraulic type, which slides along its length so as to “read” its shape; the movement of the sensor is then transmitted to that of the trolley on which the tool that will work the copy piece is mounted, placed in turn in a seat parallel to that of the prototype piece.

The numerical control or CNC lathe, which stands for Computer Numerical Control, represents the evolutionary peak reached by this tool. It is in fact a type of machine that can perform all types of processing possible for a lathe, but in a completely automatic way and without the intervention of a human operator. The processing parameters, based on the type of piece desired, are entered in a software that controls all the elements of the machine which, consequently, moves on instructions sent by the computer in real-time on the basis of the signals from the various laser sensors located in the key points of the machine, which constantly monitor the status and progress of the work. In case of errors or other problems, the numerical control lathe also provides the necessary correction autonomously and immediately; given its high efficiency and precision, the numerical control lathe is mainly used in highly specialized sectors, such as the aerospace and heavy industries.

The lathe for phonographic engravings instead, or more simply sound-engraver, is a model used exclusively by the record industry for the production of vinyl records, where it is used to engrave the matrices, or masters, later used for series printing.

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