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Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymers (CFRP): Running Parameters, Tool Life, & Safety Tips


Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymers (CFRP) is a collection of carbon fibers that, when bound together via resin, creates a material with a wide range of application possibilities. It’s strong, durable, and resistant to corrosion, making it an advantageous material for use in several advanced industries, including the aerospace and automotive industries. Despite its unique abilities, however, machining CFRP is not without its set of challenges, all of which machinists must be cognizant of to achieve desired results. Once CFRP is properly understood and the right cutting tool is selected for the job, the next step is to properly set running parameters for your application.

Square piece of cfrp laminate carbon fiber material

Running Parameters

Comparison of Metal Machining vs Composite Machining

When machining CFRP, the suggested running parameters are to have a high RPM with low feed rates. Feed rates will need to be adjusted to account for heat minimization, while RPMs may need to be dialed back to prevent excessive fraying, tearing, or splitting of fibers when cutting.

In metal machining, the tool cuts away at material, forming chips. This is possible due to the formation of the metal having natural fracture and stress lines that can be wedged by the cutting tool to create a chip. Unlike metals, machining carbon fiber does not peel away material but rather fracture and break the fibers and resin.

Milling vs Drilling Carbon Fiber

Composite holemaking or drilling is found to be more challenging than milling carbon fiber. It generates more dust due to the drilling speed. Using specific tooling for composites will be crucial in effective drilling. When machining holes, the carbon fiber will relax, creating undersized holes which requires extensive adjustments that are best automated for efficiency.

For help mitigating the challenges of composite holemaking, read Overcoming Composite Holemaking Challenges and browse CoreHog’s offering of drills, specially engineered to mitigate all-too-common holemaking headaches. To achieve better finish and avoid delamination, it is recommended to utilize conventional milling over climb milling within composites contrary to what is recommended in metal machining.

Combination of corehog specific cfrp drills including helical step, dagger, 8 facet, and tapered drill reamer

Within the aerospace industry, drilling is the most common application in machining. Like milling, performing operations such as pecking may be preferred even with increased cycle time if it reduces any chances of error that result in scrapping of the part.

Running Parallel to Grain of Fibers

While every part is different, there is a method for reducing fraying, chipping, or delamination by cutting parallel to the fiber direction when possible. This can be like cutting along the grain of wood instead of cutting perpendicular or at an angle to the grain.

Coolant Applications

The use of coolant when machining CFRP can either benefit or negatively affect the part depending on the application. The preferred coolant of choice for machining carbon fiber is typically using water or a water-soluble coolant. This is due to composites having a porous surface that could allow contaminates to enter the part itself. By using water, it prevents any issues after machining where adhesives or paint may need to be applied to the part that otherwise would not have adhered properly with contaminates present.

cnc machine looking through glass window focusing on a tool in the cut with external coolant spraying the workpiece

High Scrapping Costs

Many composite parts are unique in shape and size with custom molded designs that create a large initial cost prior to the machining stage. After the part is molded near to its shape, machining is often used to finish the part or drill holes where needed to finalize the part.

Importance of Considering Machining Challenges to Avoid Scrapping

Having a set process that is consistent and reliable is important in helping to prevent scrapping. Eliminating human error with machines that can monitor the entire process while automating tool changes when tools are worn, avoids issues before they can happen. A key factor is ensuring the setup is correct, having the right tooling, tool path, and coolant option to perform the operation effectively and accurately. With some parts serving critical functions and with a high cost, there is no exception for poor finish or incorrect cuts emphasizing the importance of having a procedure that gets the job done the right way.

Composite Cutting Tool Life Management

Wear Rate & its Effects 

Due to carbon fiber’s abrasion on the cutting tools, a rapid decrease in cutting quality will occur as soon as the tool begins to dull. Fibers will be grabbed instead of fractured, causing fraying and damage to the part. Therefore, tool life should be vigilantly monitored to replace the tool before reaching the point of dullness.

Developing a Process for Success

Unlike metal machining where tools may be utilized until they show signs of wear, this method would be unideal for CFRP as the highly expensive part could be ruined or damaged causing scrapping costs and time. It is good practice to take preventative measures by taking note of typical wear of your tools and using that information to set tool changes before it dulls. Noting tool changes and having high interval checks on cutting and dimension quality will aid in avoiding poor finish or scrapping. Some machines are equipped with tool life management systems which will greatly reduce the chances of having to scrap a part because of tool dullness.

Safety Practices When Machining CFRP

Being that chips are not formed when machining CFRP, and instead, the material is fractured, it creates dust that can spread throughout the air and other surfaces. Not only does this cause hazardous conditions for anyone nearby who may inhale the dust, but the dust is also conductive, which can ruin electronics. To avoid these issues, two different extraction methods can be used depending on the needs of the application.

Wet vs Dry Extraction

The two options for dust extraction are using coolant (wet) or vacuuming (dry). Choosing between the two is dependent on the application, but mostly dictated by the size of the application. Smaller scale machining can be contained through vacuuming, but larger applications would require coolant as vacuuming a large area may be challenging. If a lot of heat will be generated, then it is necessary to have a water-soluble coolant. This would also benefit the use of diamond tooling as they will wear faster at lower temperatures in comparison to carbide tooling. Another would be the dust collection would remain contained with the liquid preventing any airborne exposure.

Disposal Considerations

One benefit of vacuuming over coolant is the disposal process. After machining, the coolant/dust mix would require post-treatment to remove excess water before being transferred to a landfill. This would incur additional costs to the process which may cause some to lean towards vacuuming if heat is not an issue.

Conclusion

With CFRP’s wide range of uses and desirable mechanical properties for its applications, comes the effect of its challenges in machining and high cost of scrapping. Refining this process will be essential for the growing demand of carbon fiber machining in the near future. For more information on CFRP, specifically related to material properties and tool selection, read In the Loupe’s complementary post “Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymers (CFRP): Material Properties & Tool Selection”.

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