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Machining Precious Metals

Precious metals can be particularly difficult to machine due to their wide range of material properties and high cost if a part has to be scrapped. The following article will introduce these elements and their alloys as well as provide a guide on how to machine them effectively and efficiently.

About the Elements

Sometimes called “noble” metals, precious metals consist of eight elements that lie in the middle of the periodic table (seen below in Figure 1). The eight metals are:

  1. Ruthenium (Ru)
  2. Rhodium (Rh)
  3. Palladium (Pd)
  4. Silver (Ag)
  5. Osmium (Os)
  6. Iridium (Ir)
  7. Platinum (Pt)
  8. Gold (Au)

These elements are some of the rarest materials on earth, and can therefore be enormously expensive. Gold and silver can be found in pure nugget form, making them more easily available. However, the other six elements are typically found mixed in the raw ore of the four metals they sit below on the periodic table: Iron (Fe), Cobalt (Co), Nickel (Ni), and Copper (Cu). These elements are a subset of precious metals and are generally called Platinum Group Metals (PGM). Because they are found together in raw ore, this makes mining and extraction difficult, dramatically increasing their cost. Because of their high price tag, machining these materials right the first time is incredibly important to a shop’s efficiency.

machining metals

Figure 1: Periodic table with the 8 precious metals boxed in blue. Image source: clearscience.tumblr.com

Basic Properties and Compositions of Precious Metals

Precious metals have notable material properties as they are characteristically soft, ductile, and oxidation resistant. They are called “noble” metals because of their resistance to most types of chemical and environmental attack. Table 1 lists a few telling material properties of precious metals in their elemental form. For comparison purposes, they are side-by-side with 6061 Al and 4140 Steel. Generally, only gold and silver are used in their purest form as the platinum group metals are alloys that consist mainly of platinum (with a smaller composition of Ru, Rh, Pa, Os, Ir). Precious metals are notable for being extremely dense and having a high melting point, which make them suitable for a variety of applications.

Table 1: Cold-worked Material Properties of Precious Metals, 4140 Steel and 6061 Aluminum 

precious metals

Common Machining Applications of Precious Metals

Silver and gold have particularly favorable thermal conductivity and electrical resistivity. These values are listed in Table 2, along with CC1000 (annealed copper) and annealed 6061 aluminum, for comparison purposes. Copper is generally used in electrical wiring because of its relatively low electrical resistivity, even though silver would make a better substitute. The obvious reason this isn’t the general convention is the cost of silver vs. copper. That being said, copper is generally plated with gold at electrical contact areas because it tends to oxide after extended use, which lowers its resistivity. As stated before, gold and the other precious metals are known to be resistant to oxidation. This corrosion resistance is the main reason that they are used in cathodic protection systems of the electronics industry.

Table 2: Thermal Conductivity and Electrical Resistivity of Ag, Au, Cu, and Al 

machining metals

Platinum and its respective alloys offer the most amount of applications as it can achieve a number of different mechanical properties while still maintaining the benefits of a precious metal (high melting point, ductility, and oxidation resistance). Table 3 lists platinum and a number of other PGMs each with their own mechanical properties. The variance of these properties depends on the alloying element(s) being added to the platinum, the percentage of alloying metal, and whether or not the material has been cold-worked or annealed. Alloying can significantly increase the tensile strength and hardness of a material while decreasing its ductility at the same time. The ratio of this tensile strength/hardness increase to ductility decrease depends on the metal added as well as how much is added, as seen in Table 3. Generally this depends on the particle size of the element added as well as its natural crystalline structure. Ruthenium and Osmium have a specific crystal structure that has a significant hardening effect when added to platinum. Pt-Os alloys in particular are extremely hard and practically unworkable, which doesn’t yield many real-world applications. However, the addition of the other 4 PGMs to platinum allow for a range of mechanical properties with various usages.

Table 3: PGM material properties (Note: the hardness and tensile strength are cold worked values) 

machining metals

Platinum and its alloys are biocompatible, giving them the ability to be placed in the human body for long periods of time without causing adverse reactions or poisoning. Therefore, medical devices including heart muscle screw fixations, stents, and marker bands for angioplasty devices are made from platinum and its alloys. Gold and palladium are also commonly used in dental applications.

Pt-Ir alloys are noticeably harder and stronger than any of the other alloys and make excellent heads for spark plugs in the automobile industry. Rhodium is sometimes added to Pt-Ir alloys to make the material less springy (as they are used as medical spring wire) while also increasing its workability. Pt and Pt-Rh wire pairs are extremely effective at measuring temperatures and are therefore used in thermocouples.

Machining Precious Metals

The two parameters that have the most effect when machining are hardness and percent elongation. Hardness is well-known by machinists and engineers across the manufacturing industry as it indicates a material’s resistance to deformation or cutting. Percent elongation is a measurement used to quantify material ductility. It indicates to a designer the degree to which a structure will deform plastically (permanently) before fracture. For example, a ductile plastic such as ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) has a percent elongation of 350-525%, while a more brittle material such as oil-quenched and tempered cast iron (grade 120-90-02) has a percent elongation of about 2%. Therefore, the greater the percent elongation, the greater the material’s “gumminess.” Gummy materials are prone to built-up edge and have a tendency to produce long stringy chips.

Tools for Precious Metals

Material ductility makes a sharp cutting tool essential for cutting precious metals. Variable Helix for Aluminum Alloy tools can be used for the softer materials such as pure gold, silver, and platinum.

machining metals

Figure 2: Variable Helix Square End Mill for Aluminum Alloys

Higher hardness materials still require a sharp cutting edge. Therefore, one’s best option is to invest in a PCD Diamond tool. The PCD wafer has the ability to cut extremely hard materials while maintaining a sharp cutting edge for a relatively long period of time, compared to standard HSS and carbide cutting edges.

machining metals

Figure 3: PCD Diamond Square End Mill

Speeds and Feeds charts:

machining metals

Figure 4: Speeds and Feeds for precious metals when using a Square Non-ferrous, 3x LOC

 

machining metals

Figure 5: Speeds and Feeds for precious metals when using a 2-Flute Square PCD end mill

 

How Material Specific Tooling Pays Off

A machinist is faced with many questions while selecting the proper tool for their job. One key decision that must be made is whether a material specific tool is appropriate and necessary for the application that’s going to be performed – whether the benefits of using this type of tool outweigh the higher price tag than that of a tool designed for use in a variety of materials. There are four main categories to consider when deciding whether a material specific tool is your best bet: internal tool geometry, coatings, material removal rates (MRR), and cost.

When to Utilize Material Specific Tooling

Are you a machinist in a shop that deals primarily with one type of material? Or, do you generally change materials frequently throughout the day? Further, how many parts do you make at a time? These are questions you must ask yourself prior to making a tooling decision.

Material Specific Tooling is best utilized where several parts are being machined of the same material. For instance, if your shop is machining 1,000 plastic parts, it would be in your best interest to opt for a tool designed for this material as your tooling would not only last longer but perform better. If machining flexibility is paramount for your shop, if you’re only machining a few parts, or if part finish is not of high importance, a regular end mill may suffice.

Pros and Cons of Material Specific Tooling

There are pros and cons to purchasing a Material Specific Tool.

Pros:

  • Tool geometry designed for the material you’re working in to achieve the best results.
  • Coating optimized for the material you’re cutting.
  • More aggressive speeds and feeds, and boosted MRR as a result.
  • Increased tool life.

Cons:

  • Higher upfront cost, though long term savings are possible if used in proper situations.
  • Less opportunity for flexibility. While most end mills may be suitable for use in many jobs and many machines, Material Specific End Mills are engineered for use in specific materials

Special Benefits of Material Specific Tooling

A Unique Internal Tool Geometry

Many manufacturers supply tooling designed for use in specific material buckets. For instance, Harvey Tool has distinct catalog sections for material specific tooling for Hardened Steels, Exotic Alloys, Medium Alloy Steels, Free Machining Steels, Aluminum Alloys, Plastics, Diamond Tooling for Non-Ferrous Materials, and Composites. The special geometry of tools found in these sections is optimized to allow the tool to perform optimally in its select material group.

For instance, a machinist may be faced with a dilemma while preparing to machine a plastic part. While an end mill found in Harvey Tool’s Miniature End Mill section could certainly machine this material, Harvey Tool’s end mill offering designed to machine plastics feature a high rake, high relief design. This is ideal for plastics because you want to effectively cut and form chips while the strength of the tool is less of a concern. The high rake and high relief creates a sharp cutting edge that would quickly break down in metals. However, in plastics, this effectively shears the material and transfers the heat into the chip to produce a great finish in your part.

material specific tooling

Harvey Performance Company, LLC.

Specific Coatings & Substrates for Optimal Performance

One key benefit of opting for a material specific tool is the ability to utilize the best coating option available for that material. Tool coatings serve many functions, including improved lubricity, increased tool life, and a higher-quality part finish. In addition, coated tools can typically be run around 10% faster than uncoated tools.

While many manufacturers will specially coat a standard end mill at your request, this takes added time and cost. In its Material Specific catalog sections, Harvey Tool offers coated tools stocked and ready to ship. For instance, their Hardened Steels and Exotic Alloys categories utilize AlTiN Nano coating. This is a unique nanocomposite coating that has a max working temperature of 2,100° F and shows improved performance in materials such as Hardened Steels, Titantium Alloys, and Inconel, among others.

Increased Material Removal Rates

Because Material Specific Tooling features optimal tool geometry for a job, running parameters are generally able to be more aggressive. Any machinist knows that Material Removal Rates (MRR), is the metric that’s most closely related to shop efficiency, as the more material removed from a part in a given period of time, the faster parts are made and the higher the shop output.

The following example compares running parameters of end mills from Harvey Tool’s Miniature End Mill and Material Specific End Mill Sections. You can notice that while key geometries between the two tools are identical, and are in use in the same material with the same operation, the chip load (+25%), linear feed rate (+33%), and depth of cut (+43%) are boosted. This allows for more material to be removed in a shorter period of time.

Miniature End Mill

Part Number: 836408

Description: 3 Flute 1/8 inch diameter 3x LOC Square Stub & Standard

Material: 6061 Aluminum

Application: Slotting

Speed: 10,000 RPM

Chip Load: .00124 IPT

Linear Feed: 37.2 IPM

DOC: .04375

material specific tooling

Harvey Performance Company, LLC.

 

Material Specific End Mill

Part Number: 942308

Description: 3 Flute 1/8 inch diameter 3x LOC Square Variable Helix for Aluminum Alloys

Material: 6061 Aluminum

Application: Slotting

Speed: 10,000 RPM

Chip Load: .00165 IPT

Linear Feed: 49.5 IPM

DOC: .0625

material specific tooling

Harvey Performance Company, LLC.

Extensive Cost Savings

The following chart displays a cost analysis breakdown between a tool found in the Miniature End Mill section, item 993893-C3; and a tool found in the Material Specific End Mill section, item 933293-C6. When compared for the machining of 1,000 parts, the overall savings is nearly $2,500.

material specific tooling

Material Specific Tooling Summarized

In conclusion, Material Specific End Mills have many benefits, but are best utilized in certain situations. While the initial cost of these tools are higher, they can work to save your shop time and money in the long run by lasting longer and producing more parts over a given period of time.

Ideal Tooling for Machining Composites

Composite Materials

A material is classified as a composite if it is made up of at least two unique constituents that when combined yield beneficial physical and mechanical properties for a number of different applications. A binding agent that is the matrix material is filled with either particles or fibers of a second material that act as reinforcements. The combination of strength, weight, and rigidity make composites extremely useful for the automotive, aerospace, and power generation industry. Often the matrix material of particulate-reinforced composites is some form of plastic, and the reinforcement material is either glass or carbon particles. These are sometimes called “filled plastics,” and are typically very abrasive materials. Many composites are layered with varying fiber orientations, which increase the strength of the material and are called fiber-reinforced composites.

Common Problems When Machining Composites

  1. Delamination of composite layers
  2. Uncut Fibers
  3. Fiber tear-out
  4. Uneven tool wear
  5. Poor surface finish due to “competing” materials

These problems are all caused by unique conditions created by composite materials, and can be very tricky to correct.  The simple fact of cutting a combination of multiple materials at the same time introduces many factors that make it difficult to strike the right balance of the proper tool for the job and appropriate running parameters.  The following tool styles provide solutions for a wide array of composite concerns.  Composite Drilling Applications can face the same issues, and proper drill choice can help as well.

Straight Flute End Mill

Straight Flute Composite Cutters are designed to prevent delamination of layered materials by applying all cutting forces radially, eliminating axial forces from a typical helical cutting edge. Cutting action is improved with a high positive rake angle for shearing fibers and eccentric relief for improved edge life. Shallow ramping operations can be performed with this tool, but the largest benefits are seen in peripheral milling applications.

straight flute end mill

Compression Cutters

The Compression Cutter consists of an up cut and down cut helix. The top portion of the length of cut has right-hand cutting teeth with a left-hand spiral. The lower portion of the length of cut has right-hand cutting teeth with a right-hand spiral. This creates opposing cutting forces to stabilize the material removal process when cutting layered composites to prevent delamination, fiber pullout, and burs along the surface. Compression of the top and bottom of the workpiece keeps the layered bonded together.

compression cutter end mill

Chipbreaker Cutter

The Chipbreaker Cutter is ideally suited for roughing and profiling composites with a high percentage of fiber fill. The notch-like chipbreakers shear fibers and shorten chips for improved material evacuation. This specialized geometry is great for keeping chips small and avoiding “nesting” of stringy fibrous chips around the cutter.

chipbreaker for composite materials

Diamond Cut End Mill

Diamond Cut Composite Cutters come in two different geometries: End Mill Style and Drill Mill Style. Although the end mill style tool is center cutting, the drill mill style has a 140° point angle, making it more suitable for plunge cutting. This is great for clearing out pockets in the middle of composite sheets.

diamond cut end mill for composites

End Mills for Composites – Diamond Cut – End Mill Style

 

diamond cut drill mill for composites

End Mills for Composites – Diamond Cut – Drill Mill Style

Both the end mill and drill mill style share the same downcut geometry on the outside diameter. This diamond cut tool receives its name from the combination of left-hand and right-hand teeth. The tool is predominantly a downcut style – a geometry that allows for these tools to effectively rough and profile high fiber reinforced or filled composites, breaking up chips and shearing through fibers.

Diamond Cut vs. Chipbreaker Style

The diamond cut tools have a higher flute count, which some may intuitively think would lead to a better finish, but this is not the case as this line of tools contains right-hand and left-hand teeth. There is a trade-off between an increased ability to shear fibers and leaving a poorer finish. The chipbreaker style tool, although not as effective as shearing fibers, is ultimately designed for the same purpose but leaves a better finish as all of the flutes are facing the same direction.

Composite Finisher

The Composite Finisher has optimized geometry for finishing in composite. A slow helix and high flute count for more contact points ultimately renders a smooth finish by minimizing fraying of fiber-reinforced and layered materials.

finishing end mill for composites

Coating or No Coating?

Composite materials, especially those with glass or carbon fiber, can be particularly abrasive and have a tendency to wear down the cutting edge of carbide tools. If one is looking to achieve the best tool life and maintain a sharp cutting edge, then choosing an Amorphous Diamond coated tool is the best option. This thin coating improves lubricity and wear resistance over its uncoated counterpart. Using a tool with CVD diamond coating can be very beneficial in extreme cases, when fiber fill percentage is very large. This is a true diamond coating, and offers the best abrasion resistance, but a slightly less sharp cutting edge as it is a thicker coating. PCD diamond tooling offers the best tool life. If it a solid diamond wafer brazed to a carbide shank, and can maintain the sharpest edge of any diamond tooling. However, PCD is limited to straight flutes, and can come at a higher price.

Composite materials are being increasingly utilized in today’s manufacturing world for their impressive strength to weight ratio. This growth has stimulated innovative techniques of cutting composites seen in the tool choices above. Harvey Tool’s variety of geometries helps any machine shop tackle composite cutting applications and will continue to offer groundbreaking solutions to these types of manufacturing problems.