CNC machining tolerance design

Understanding CNC Machining Tolerances: Tips for Designers and Engineers

Table of Contents

Introduction to CNC Machining Tolerances:

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining is a highly precise and adaptable manufacturing process used to create a wide range of complex parts and components.

One crucial aspect of CNC machining is tolerances, which refer to the allowable variation in dimensions and geometric features of the manufactured parts.

Tolerances are crucial in ensuring that the finished items fulfill the necessary requirements and perform as planned.

Tolerances are specified as numerical values and are essential for maintaining the quality, functionality, and interchangeability of parts in various industries, including aerospace, automotive, electronics, medical, and more.

CNC machines can achieve remarkable precision, but it is crucial to understand the limitations of the manufacturing process and set appropriate tolerances for the parts being produced.


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Factors Influencing CNC Machining Tolerances:

Machine Capabilities:

The precision and accuracy of CNC machines vary based on their design, construction, and capabilities.

High-end machines with advanced features can achieve tighter tolerances compared to standard machines.

Material Properties:

The type of material being machined can impact the achievable tolerances. Some materials, like metals and alloys, tend to hold tighter tolerances compared to more challenging materials like composites or certain plastics. 

Part Complexity:

The complexity of the part’s geometry and the number of features to be machined can influence the tolerances.

Parts with intricate designs may have looser tolerances to ensure manufacturability.

Tooling and Fixturing:

The quality and precision of cutting tools and fixturing systems play a vital role in achieving desired tolerances.

Proper tool selection and maintenance are crucial for consistent results.

What Are Standard Machining Tolerances?

Standard machining tolerances vary depending on the specific industry, part complexity, and material used.

There is no universal set of standard tolerances that applies to all machining processes.

Instead, industry standards, customer requirements, and engineering considerations define the tolerances for individual projects.

The following are some general guidelines for standard machining tolerances, but keep in mind that these can vary widely:

General Machining Tolerances:

For common machining processes like milling, turning, and drilling, typical tolerances can be in the range of ±0.1 mm to ±0.05 mm (or ±0.004 inches to ±0.002 inches).

These tolerances are often used for relatively straightforward features and dimensions.

Tighter Tolerances:

Some industries, such as aerospace or medical, may require more precise parts. In such cases, tighter tolerances in the range of ±0.025 mm to ±0.005 mm (or ±0.001 inches to ±0.0002 inches) might be necessary for critical features.

Geometric Tolerances:

For geometric dimensions like straightness, flatness, circularity, and perpendicularity, the standard tolerances are usually specified in terms of micrometers or microns.

Typical values for geometric tolerances can be in the range of 0.02 mm to 0.005 mm (or 0.001 inches to 0.0002 inches).

Hole and Shaft Tolerances:

When dealing with fits and assemblies, hole and shaft tolerances are crucial. Common fits like H7/p6 or H8/p7 follow ISO standards, where the tolerance range can be between 0 and -0.025 mm (or 0 and -0.001 inches) for the hole and between +0.025 mm and 0 (or +0.001 inches and 0) for the shaft.

Surface Roughness:

Surface finish is often specified separately from dimensional tolerances. The Ra (Roughness Average) value is commonly used to describe amount of the surface roughness.

Typical Ra values for machined surfaces can range from 0.8 micrometers (μm) to 3.2 μm (or 32 micro-inches to 125 micro-inches).

It’s crucial to note that these standard machining tolerances are not exhaustive and can differ significantly based on the specific application, the manufacturer’s capabilities, and the part’s functional requirements.

Additionally, more advanced machining techniques and equipment might allow for even tighter tolerances, but these may come at a higher cost.

When designing a part for CNC machining, it’s essential to work closely with the machining vendor to understand their capabilities and set appropriate tolerances to meet the functional requirements while ensuring cost-effectiveness.

The manufacturer’s experience and expertise will play a significant role in determining the achievable tolerances for a particular project.


Common Types of Tolerances in CNC Machining:

In CNC machining, many types of tolerances are used to control the dimensions and features of the machined parts.

Each kind of tolerance has a specific function and guarantees that the finished product complies with the necessary requirements.

Below are the main types of tolerances in CNC machining:

Dimensional Tolerances:

The dimensions and placement of features on a part are governed by dimensional tolerances. They define the acceptable deviation from the specified dimensions.

For example, if a hole is designed to have a diameter of 10 mm with a tolerance of ±0.1 mm, the acceptable range for the hole’s diameter would be 9.9 mm to 10.1 mm.

Geometric Tolerances:

The shape, orientation, and position of features on a part are all governed by geometric tolerances. They ensure that the part’s geometric features align with the intended design.

Geometric tolerances include:

  • Straightness: Assures a surface or line is straight and not curved or bent.


  • Flatness: Ensures a surface is flat and not curved or warped.


  • Circularity: Ensures that a circle’s form is maintained, and it is not out-of-round.


  • Cylindricity: Ensures that a cylindrical feature maintains its uniform diameter along its axis.


  • Parallelism: Enables the parallel alignment of two surfaces or axes.


  • Perpendicularity: Guarantees that two surfaces or axes are at a right angle to one another.


  • Angularity: Ensures an angle between two features is within specified limits.

Angularity A

Positional Tolerances:

Positional tolerances regulate where features are located in relation to a certain reference point or datum.

They define the allowable deviation from the ideal position. Positional tolerances are essential for ensuring proper alignment and assembly of parts.

Concentricity and Symmetry Tolerances:

Concentricity ensures that two features share the same center point or axis. Symmetry tolerances control the symmetry of a feature relative to a reference plane or axis.

Runout Tolerances:

Runout tolerances control the total indicator runout (TIR) of a rotating feature, such as a shaft or flange. It ensures the feature does not deviate excessively while rotating.

Surface Finish Tolerances:

Surface finish tolerances specify the roughness of a machined surface. They are expressed in terms of Ra (roughness average) or other surface roughness parameters.

Profile Tolerances:

Profile tolerances control the complex shape of a feature, defining the allowable deviation from the ideal profile.

Circular Runout and Total Runout Tolerances:

These tolerances control the circular and total runout of a feature, respectively. They ensure that a feature does not deviate from its intended circular path.

It’s important to note that the selection of appropriate tolerances depends on the part’s function, the material being used, the CNC machine’s capabilities, and the specific requirements of the application.

Properly defining tolerances is crucial for ensuring the successful manufacture and assembly of precision parts in CNC machining processes.

Why It’s Important to Understand Machining Tolerances:

Understanding machining tolerances is crucial for several reasons, both from the perspective of designers and manufacturers.

Below are some common reasons why it’s important to have a good understanding of machining tolerances:

Functional Fit and Assembly:

Tolerances ensure that the machined parts fit together and function as intended. Parts with tight tolerances are critical in applications where precision and accuracy are paramount, such as aerospace, automotive, and medical industries.

Properly defined tolerances prevent interference, misalignment, or improper functioning when assembling components.

Quality Control:

Tolerance is very important in any manufacturing industry to achieve high-quality products. It allows manufacturers to inspect and measure parts accurately to ensure they meet the required specifications.

Deviations beyond specified tolerances may indicate defects or problems with the machining process.


Tighter tolerances generally lead to higher manufacturing costs due to the need for more precise machines, tooling, and increased inspection.

By understanding the functional requirements of the part and the application, designers can specify tolerances that balance performance and cost-effectiveness.


In mass production, understanding tolerances ensures that parts are interchangeable and can be used in assemblies without the need for individual fitting or adjustments.

This promotes efficiency and reduces production time.

Material Selection:

Tolerances can affect the choice of materials. For example, materials with higher dimensional stability might be required to meet tight tolerances, impacting the overall cost and manufacturability.

Process Capability:

Manufacturers need to be aware of the machining capabilities of their equipment and processes.

Understanding tolerances helps them select appropriate equipment and machining methods to achieve the desired precision.

Design Optimization:

Knowledge of tolerances allows designers to optimize part designs by considering the required tolerances at an early stage.

Compliance with Standards and Regulations:

Many industries have specific standards and regulations that dictate acceptable tolerances for certain applications.

Understanding these standards is essential to ensure compliance and avoid costly rejections or rework.

Communication and Collaboration:

Clear communication of tolerances between designers and manufacturers is essential for successful project execution.

A common understanding of tolerances helps minimize errors, misunderstandings, and delays.

Customer Satisfaction:

Meeting the specified tolerances ensures that the final product performs as expected and meets the customer’s requirements.

Every satisfied customer will give repetitive business in the future.

In summary, machining tolerances are critical for ensuring parts meet the required specifications, fit together correctly, and perform as intended.

They play a vital role in achieving quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction in the manufacturing process.

CNC machining tolerance design

Tips for Designers and Engineers for Tighter CNC Machining Tolerances:

Achieving tighter CNC machining tolerances requires attention to detail, advanced equipment, and precise control of the machining process.
Below are some tips and tricks to achieve tighter tolerances in CNC machining:

  1. Choose the Right CNC Machine: Select a CNC machine with high precision and accuracy. Machines equipped with advanced controls, linear motors, and high-quality ball screws can deliver tighter tolerances.
  2. Rigorous Calibration: Regularly calibrate the CNC machine to ensure its accuracy. Periodic calibration helps maintain consistent performance and reduces deviations.
  3. Use of High-Quality Tooling: While CNC machining, it’s better to use high-quality tools. Sharp and well-maintained tools minimize tool wear and deliver better results.
  4. Optimize Cutting Parameters: Adjust cutting speed, feed rate, and depth of cut to find the optimal balance between material removal rates and precision
  5. Control Thermal Effects: Temperature fluctuations can affect machining accuracy. Maintain stable temperature conditions in the machining environment to minimize thermal effects on the part and the machine.
  6. Monitor and Control Vibration: Vibration during machining can lead to inaccuracies. Implement vibration damping techniques, such as adding mass to the machine or using damping materials, to minimize vibration.
  7. Improve Fixturing and Workholding: Properly secure the workpiece with high-quality fixturing to prevent movement or deflection during machining. Solid and precise work holding is critical for achieving tight tolerances.
  8. Advanced Tool Path Generation: Utilize advanced CAM software that generates optimized tool paths to minimize tool deflection and vibration. This can improve accuracy, especially for complex geometries.
  9. On-Machine Probing: Implement on-machine probing to verify part dimensions during the machining process. Probing allows for in-process measurement and immediate feedback for corrective actions.
  10. Post-Process Inspection: Conduct thorough post-process inspections using coordinate measuring machines (CMM) or other precision measuring instruments. Inspecting critical dimensions ensures that parts meet the desired tolerances.
  11. Improve Material Selection: In some cases, choosing materials with better dimensional stability can help achieve tighter tolerances. Consider the thermal expansion coefficient and other material properties.
  12. Iterative Approach: For demanding projects, use an iterative approach. Start with conservative tolerances and gradually tighten them based on test parts and feedback from the machining process.
  13. Collaborate with Machining Experts: Work closely with your CNC machining vendor. Their expertise can help you optimize tolerances based on their machining capabilities and experience.
  14. Document and Track: Document all the machining parameters and tolerances used for each project. Track the performance of the CNC machine and its components over time to identify any trends or issues affecting tolerances.

By applying these tips and continuously refining your machining processes, you can achieve tighter CNC machining tolerances, leading to higher precision and improved part performance.


Understanding CNC machining tolerances is essential for designers and engineers to ensure the successful manufacture of precise and functional parts.

By carefully considering functional requirements, industry standards, material properties, and machining capabilities, designers can choose the right tolerances to strike a balance between performance and cost-effectiveness.

Collaborating with experienced CNC machining vendors, using advanced CAM software, and implementing in-process probing and post-process inspections are key strategies for achieving tighter tolerances.

By following these tips, designers and engineers can optimize part designs, enhance manufacturing efficiency, and deliver high-quality products that meet the most demanding requirements in various industries.

Hi there, I'm Gavin Yi

From Yijin Hardware, I’m a product manager and founder with over 10 years of experience in precision manufacturing. We specialize in providing on-demand machining solutions and customized parts. Ask for a quote for your current or future projects now!

Best Regards, Gavin, Founder & Product Manager


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