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Differences Between Milling Machines and Lathes

When it comes to custom tool and design processes, two popular options are using milling machines and lathes. Both can provide exceptional custom machining services to achieve the desired results. However, there are some key differences between these CNC machine tools you need to understand to ensure you are using the right machine tools to suit your needs.

Both milling machines and lathes use the process known as subtractive manufacturing. This is where a piece of raw material is shaped and formed into the desired output. For instance, you start with a block of wood and remove various pieces to create a table leg for a piece of furniture.

What Is a Milling Machine?

Milling machines are shorter than lathes but much taller. Some models look like drill presses with a large base and vise grip for holding the material to be manufactured. Other models can be very large and fully enclosed with an access door for adding material and removing the finished product.

Due to this difference in configuration and size, milling machines are better suited to smaller work areas where there is limited space. Regardless of size, most milling machine models are computerized.

This allows the machine operator to program the computer to produce the desired part or component. Some machines also allow you to import designs made in CAD/CAM applications and will convert the design into machine operations.

Smaller milling machines may also offer manual operations when the designer wants to produce one-of-a-kind pieces or other such intricate pieces where they do not want their work easily replicated.

What Functionality Does a Milling Machine Provide?

A milling machine’s functionality involves placing a piece of raw material into the machine and securing it in place. The machine has several different tools that are attached to a rotating head. Some models do require you to stop and start the machine to change tools for different operations and functions.

Once the machine is turned on, the tool starts spinning and moving while the material remains firmly in place. The tool does all the work to remove material and shape it into the desired output. Due to the highly complex operations of milling machines, they can move around the axis to create very precise details.

One minor drawback with some milling machine models is having to stop the machine if you need to mill the top and bottom of the raw material. After the top is milled, then you have to stop the machine, take out the raw material and reposition it so the bottom can then be milled.

However, newer milling machine models now offer multi-task operations where they will mill the component, stop the operation and then automatically turn the material so the bottom of it can also be milled to spec. Multi-task operation milling machines offer even more precision over other milling machine models.

What Types of Components Are Made Using Milling Machines?

Milling machines can perform all of the same processes as lathe, such as sanding, drilling, grooving, threading, and so on. Due to the high-precision of milling machines, essentially, just about any type of subtractive manufacturing can be performed, including:

  • Flattening
  • Rounding
  • Cutting
  • Shaping

As a general rule of thumb, if you can design it and program the milling machine to create your design, there is an endless number of things you can make, although size does matter, as you need to make sure you have the proper clearance.

What Is a Lathe?

A lathe looks like a large bench vise grip that has been lengthened and positioned on top of a workbench. There are many different styles of lathes with various features and options to suit your needs. Some models are designed to be operated manually. Other models are designed to be used with computers and computer programs for automated production processes.


What Functionality Does a Lathe Provide?

A lathe’s functionality involves placing a piece of raw material into the machine. When the machine is turned on, the material spins around. The cutting tool on the lathe does not move. Rather, the material is pressed against the cutting tool to create the desired shape of the component being made.

What Types of Components Are Made Using Lathes?

Since the raw material spins around and the cutting tool does not move, a lathe machine is best for producing cylinder-type and symmetrical-type parts and components. However, lathe machines can also perform other processes such as:

  • Threading
  • Grooving
  • Drilling
  • Parting
  • Boring
  • Sanding
  • Cutting

Lathe machines are well-suited to less detailed-oriented parts and components. When more precision and detail are required, then milling machines might be the better choice.

Difference Between Lathe and Milling Machine CNC Machine Tools

Another key difference between lathes and milling machines is the CNC machine tools configuration. As mentioned, the tools do not move in lathes. As a result, you have to stop and start the lathe each time you want to change to a different tool.

With milling machines, as we mentioned, the tools move around the raw material. As such, you do not necessarily have to stop the machine each time you need to change to a different tool if you have a multi-head tool configuration. With this type of setup, you can load and program each desired tool you need without having to stop the machine.

The design of the tools also varies somewhat. In lathe machines, tools typically only have a single blade since the material is spinning. In milling machines, since the tool is the part spinning, it often has a multi-blade configuration. This configuration allows the milling machine to remove material at a faster rate.

Which One Is Better for Reproducing Accurate Parts and Components?


Both lathes and milling machines can be connected to a computer and have designs programmed. Thanks to computerized technologies and automation, lathes and milling machines can deliver exceptional quality output. Additionally, each one is able to reproduce accurate parts and components that are identical to each other, whether you need a hundred or a million! The first one will be an exact replica of the hundredth or millionth one produced.

How to Decide Which Is Better: Lathes or Milling Machines?

In the end, it really comes down to what types of parts and components you want to design and create. If you have simple designs and cylinder-shaped or symmetrical-shaped parts and components, then a lathe could be the perfect machine. On the other hand, if you have more complex designs with precision detail, then milling machines are the better choice.

Save Money with Custom Machining Services

If you do not want the expense of purchasing, maintaining, and training employees to operate lathes and milling machines, you can save money with our custom machining services. We provide quick and easy access to lathes, milling machines, wax injection tooling, and other manufacturing processes to create the parts and components you require to your exact specifications.

We also offer a wide range of CNC machine tools, custom tool and design services, rapid prototyping, secondary and finishing operations, and more to fit any size project for any size operation. We are ISO-certified and operate a fully temperature-controlled facility to ensure exceptional quality and workmanship you require for your parts and components.

To learn more about our custom machining services, or for help determining whether lathes or milling machines would be better to produce your parts and components, please feel free to contact Laszeray Technology, LLC at 440-582-8430 to speak with one of our knowledgeable and highly skilled technicians today!

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