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3-axis CNC Milling Machines include axes that can move along the X-axis, Y-axis, and Z-axis dimensions–pretty basic stuff.

A 4-axis CNC machine adds a rotating A-axis, enhancing the typical three-axis setup. This allows for more complex part geometries and reduces multiple setups.

The 5-axis CNC Milling Machines adds a second rotating axis, providing even more degrees of freedom.

Here is a typical 5-axis layout:

5-Axis Machining

Other 5-axis cnc machine configurations are possible, depending on the type of machine. A machine can utilize a rotation in any two axes, including the A-axis, B-axis, and C-axis.  The rotation of each axis either occurs by the workpiece, or by the spindle.

In this article, we explore how 3-axis, 4-axis, and 5-axis CNC machines work, their benefits, and their applications in manufacturing processes.


Key Takeaways

  • 4-axis CNC milling machines add a rotational axis (A-axis) to conventional 3-axis setups, allowing for the creation of complex geometries in a single fixture setup, thus increasing manufacturing efficiency and precision.
  • 5-axis CNC milling machines add a second rotational axis to the 4-axis milling machine setup.  This allows for even more degrees of freedom.
  • The primary advantage of 4-axis CNC machining over 3-axis machining lies in its ability to produce intricate parts with greater accuracy and fewer setups, which is particularly beneficial for high-volume production and complex designs.  5-axis offers even more of these same advantages over the 4-axis setup.
  • 4-axis and 5-axis CNC machines are widely used in industries like aerospace and healthcare for their ability to perform continuous cutting and create elaborate profiles, reducing part production time and minimizing human error.
  • 5-axis machines are much more expensive and much harder to program than 3- and 4-axis machines.  They must be kept busy, so you need a steady stream of jobs that cater to their advantages to make money with one.




The journey from a solid block of material to a complex part with angled features and precise geometries is a captivating tale of technological prowess. It’s a story that begins with understanding the limitations and capabilities of the machinery involved. In CNC machining, the most common players are 3-axis, 4-axis, and 5-axis CNC milling machines. Each brings its own strengths to the table.

An additional axis is added to the conventional 3-axis setup with 4-axis CNC machining. The presence of an A-axis, which rotates around the X-axis, allows for creation of complex shapes and multiple setups in a single fixture. This key inclusion allows for creating parts with complex geometries within a single setup, eliminating the need for extra setups or meticulous fixture changeovers. For manufacturers dealing with complex parts, 4-axis CNC machines are akin to unlocking a new level of creativity and efficiency.

Understanding 4 Axis CNC Machining

Illustration of a 4-axis CNC machine

Digging deeper, a 4-axis CNC milling machine represents more than a mere incremental upgrade—it revolutionizes the manufacturing processes. At its core, this method adds a rotary axis, termed the A-axis, to the standard X-axis, Y-axis, and Z-axis cnc milling machines are known for. This 4th additional axis introduces a new realm of possibilities, allowing the milling machine to execute complex cutting tool movements along the X, Y, Z, and now A axes. But what does this mean for the machined parts?

With the incorporation of an extra rotary axis, 4-axis CNC machines offer the following advantages:

  • Linear movement of the spindle while simultaneously permitting the workpiece to rotate
  • Facilitation of the creation of complex parts geometries when cnc machining
  • Enhancement of the efficiency of machining parts that require attention from multiple sides
  • A taste of the precision and versatility found in the 5-axis CNC machining process, but with a focus on the rotational movement around a single axis

This capability enriches the machining process and opens up new possibilities for manufacturers.

The inclusion of the 4th axis (A-axis) in CNC milling paves the way for fresh machining processes, including the creation of planar milled profiles. Continuous cutting, indexing, and even the intricate mill-turning are all made possible, granting manufacturers the ability to carve out more intricate milling patterns and manipulate the workpiece in ways that were once considered daunting. It’s a step towards not just simplifying the CNC process, but also elevating the potential for innovation within the industry.

The Difference Between 3 Axis and 4 Axis CNC Machines

Discerning the differences between 3-axis and 4-axis CNC machines is vital for choosing the appropriate tool for each task. While 3-axis machines excel in simpler projects, where operations like drilling and threading holes reign supreme, they fall short on more complex tasks. 3-axis machining is best suited to the manufacture of planar milled profiles, drillings and threaded holes in-line with an axis. Undercut features are possible with the use of T-slot cutters and Dovetail milling cutters. Their inability to cut curved surfaces or create intricate complex parts geometries without multiple setups limits their application to moderately complex parts at best.

Enter the 4-axis CNC machine, with its additional rotary axis, known as the A-axis or 4th axis. This A-axis enables the machine to produce more complex parts with greater precision than its 3-axis counterpart. The rotary A-axis allows both the workpiece and the cutting tool to engage in a dance of movement that results in angled features and complex profiles like cam lobes. Such capabilities are especially beneficial in high-volume production settings, where the increased setup efficiency of 4-axis machines can lead to significant time and cost savings.

Nevertheless, these advanced capabilities come with a higher price tag. While 4-axis machines may be more suitable for complex and high-precision tasks, 3-axis machines hold their ground as the go-to option for smaller businesses and simpler projects due to their ease of use, programming simplicity, and lower cost. The choice between the two ultimately boils down to the specific needs of the project at hand and the desired level of complexity in the machined parts.

How the Fourth Axis Enhances Machining Processes

Illustration of continuous cutting with the A-axis

Integrating a 4th axis in CNC machining process bestows manufacturers with a new capability: uninterrupted cutting along arcs and creation of intricate profiles. The A-axis, which allows the spindle to rotate around the X-axis, is the key to unlocking this potential. In practical terms, the fourth axis facilitates the machining of angled features and elaborate arcs like helixes, which can be particularly useful for aerospace components and intricate art pieces.

Indexing is another area where the fourth axis shines. By locking the rotary A-axis in place, the cutting tool can move along the other three axes, improving access to the workpiece and significantly reducing cycle times. This capability is invaluable when creating elements like threaded holes in line with the horizontal plane, which would otherwise require multiple setups and alignments. The linear directions offered by this process enhance the precision and efficiency of the cutting tool.

Furthermore, the 4th axis introduces mill-turning to the CNC milling world, blending the precision of milling with the rotational capability of turning. This combination allows for the creation of precision parts with complex geometries that would be challenging to achieve with a traditional 3-axis machine. The ability to rotate the workpiece during the milling process means that intricate patterns and details can be etched into the surface with a high degree of accuracy and efficiency.

Key Components of a 4 Axis CNC Machine

The key components of a 4-axis CNC machine work together to manufacture the required machined parts. Among these critical elements are fixtures like chucks or faceplates, which securely hold the workpiece in place during the rigorous machining process. These fixtures are designed to withstand the forces exerted during milling and ensure that the workpiece remains stable for precise cutting.

Vertical machining is a standard feature in 4-axis CNC machines, where the spindle movement is primarily along the Z-axis. This configuration is integral to the machine’s ability to perform complex machining tasks. The vertical orientation allows for better chip evacuation and provides a clear path for the cutting tool to engage with the material. It’s a setup that’s as efficient as it is effective, ensuring that each pass of the tool is as accurate as the last.

These components collectively orchestrate movement within the 4-axis CNC machine, enabling precise manipulation of the workpiece along the following axes:

  • X-axis
  • Y-axis
  • Z-axis
  • A-axis (rotation)

The result is a machine that can perform complex cuts with precision, making it an indispensable tool in the modern manufacturing landscape.

Applications of 4 Axis CNC Machining

Illustration of 4-axis CNC machining in aerospace industry

4-axis CNC machines boast capabilities that transcend the boundaries of a single industry. In fields like aerospace and healthcare, where complex geometries and rotational features are commonplace, 4-axis machining is invaluable. Components such as turbine blades, which require precise arcs and helixes, illustrate the intricate work that these machines are capable of producing.

Furthermore, 4-axis CNC machining is often the method of choice when it comes to creating parts with cut-outs and holes on the sides or those made on cylinders. This ability to achieve complex part designs without the need for convoluted fixtures makes 4-axis machines a favorite in industries like oil and gas, military, and construction. Being able to make parts using single fixture setup results in real cost savings.  The versatility of these machines allows them to adapt to the unique challenges presented by each sector, whether it’s crafting a part that must endure extreme pressures or one that demands the utmost precision.

The advantage of using 4-axis CNC machines in production is not limited to their geometric capabilities; they also streamline the manufacturing process. By performing multiple operations in a single clamping, these machines reduce part production time and minimize the risk of human error. It’s a testament to the efficiency and reliability that 4-axis machining brings to the table in a wide array of applications.

Advantages of Using 4 Axis CNC Machines

Illustration of high precision parts machined with 4-axis CNC

The benefits of 4-axis CNC machines include:

  • Precision in the parts they produce
  • Ability to cut complex geometries and angled features
  • Elimination of the need for additional setups, saving time and reducing potential errors
  • More efficient cutting and a smoother transition between machining operations

One of the standout benefits of 4-axis CNC machines is their ability to maintain tighter tolerances. By manipulating both the workpiece and the cutting tool, these machines can hold tight tolerances between features on different sides of the part. This is particularly important in medium production volumes with complex designs, where maintaining consistency across multiple pieces is paramount.

Moreover, the benefits of 4-axis CNC machines include:

  • Reduction in fixture change-overs
  • Ability to machine parts at various angles
  • Minimization of downtime
  • Enhancement of overall precision of the final product
  • Possibility to machine more parts in a single setup

As a result, 4-axis CNC machines find their sweet spot in the balance between cost and functionality, providing a level of precision that is difficult to achieve with fewer axes, yet without the higher costs associated with 5-axis machines.

Choosing Between 3 Axis, 4 Axis, and 5 Axis CNC Machines

The decision to use a 3-axis, 4-axis, or 5-axis CNC machine is one that hinges on several factors: the complexity of the part, the production volume, and the project’s budget. While 3-axis machines are the most cost-effective and suitable for simpler projects and small businesses, 4-axis machines strike a balance, offering advanced capabilities for more complex designs at medium production volumes.

For projects demanding the highest level of complexity and precision, 5-axis CNC machines are the gold standard. These machines offer several advantages:

  • They allow for the cutting tool to approach the workpiece from virtually any angle, facilitating the creation of highly intricate 3D shapes.
  • The ability to execute complex cuts with a single setup dramatically reduces the need for multiple machine setups.
  • They increase the precision of the final product.

Selecting the right CNC machine for the task has a crucial impact on the project’s quality, efficiency, and profitability. Understanding the strengths and limitations of each type of machine is essential to making an informed choice that aligns with the specific needs of the manufacturing process.

Common Challenges and Solutions in 4 Axis CNC Machining

Despite the numerous advantages offered by 4-axis CNC machines, they also pose distinct challenges. One of the most significant is ensuring the accuracy and precision of the machined parts. The additional rotary A-axis requires careful calibration and control to maintain the high precision that these machines are known for. Any misalignment or inaccuracy in the A-axis can lead to errors in the final product, making accuracy a top priority for operators.

The ability to maintain this precision results in less scrap and higher profitability, especially for projects where high precision is paramount. By reducing the margin of error, manufacturers can ensure that every piece meets stringent quality standards, which is essential in industries such as aerospace and healthcare, where the slightest deviation can have significant consequences.

To overcome these challenges, manufacturers must:

  • Invest in skilled operators
  • Ensure that their machines are well-maintained and calibrated
  • Implement regular maintenance and calibration routines to prevent inaccuracies and extend the life of the machinery
  • Choose the right CAM software that can effectively manage the complexities of 4-axis machining

By following these steps, manufacturers can optimize the machining process and achieve the desired results.

It should also be noted that large parts may be less feasible with 4 axis cnc machining.  They may not be enough room on the table for large parts and the 4th axis.


In summary, the world of CNC machining is vast and varied, with each axis adding a layer of complexity and capability to the manufacturing process. 4-axis CNC machines represent a significant leap forward in the realm of precision machining, providing the ability to create complex parts with greater efficiency and accuracy. As we’ve explored, these machines offer a myriad of advantages, from reduced setup times to tighter tolerances, making them a prime choice for industries requiring intricate and precise components. With the right knowledge and tools, 4-axis CNC machining can be a transformative force in your manufacturing endeavors.

Frequently Asked Questions

No, 4-axis CNC machines do not provide the same level of complexity as 5-axis machines due to their limited cutting tool approach angles.  Aim for a 5-axis machine for the highest precision and complexity in designs.

Yes, 4-axis CNC machines can be suitable for small businesses with medium production volumes and complex designs, but for simpler projects and smaller budgets, 3-axis machines may be a better fit.

4-axis CNC machining is best suited for parts that require complex geometries, such as arcs and helixes, or those needing features on multiple sides of the part.  This allows for greater versatility and precision.

Manufacturers ensure the precision of 4-axis CNC machines by calibrating the rotary axis, conducting regular maintenance, and utilizing advanced CAM software to handle the complexities of 4-axis machining.


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