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Contouring Considerations

What is Contouring?

Contouring a part means creating a fine finish on an irregular or uneven surface. Dissimilar to finishing a flat or even part, contouring involves the finishing of a rounded, curved, or otherwise uniquely shaped part.

Contouring & 5-Axis Machining

5-axis machines are particularly suitable for contouring applications. Because contouring involves the finishing of an intricate or unique part, the multiple axes of movement in play with 5-axis Machining allow for the tool to access tough-to-reach areas, as well as follow intricate tool paths.

 Recent Contouring Advances

Advanced CAM software can now write the G-Code (the step-by-step program needed to create a finished part) for a machinists application, which has drastically simplified contouring applications. Simply, rather than spend several hours writing the code for an application, the software now handles this step. Despite these advances, most young machinists are still required to write their own G-Codes early on in their careers to gain valuable familiarity with the machines and their abilities. CAM software, for many, is a luxury earned with time.

Benefits of Advanced CAM Software

1. Increased Time Savings
Because contouring requires very specific tooling movements and rapidly changing cutting parameters, ridding machinists of the burden of writing their own complex code can save valuable prep time and reduce machining downtime.

2. Reduced Cycle Times
Generated G-Codes can cut several minutes off of a cycle time by removing redundancies within the application. Rather than contouring an area of the part that does not require it, or has been machined already, the CAM Software locates the very specific areas that require machining time and attention to maximize efficiency.

3. Improved Consistency
CAM Programs that are packaged with CAD Software such as SolidWorks are typically the best in terms of consistency and ability to handle complex designs. While the CAD Software helps a machinist generate the part, the CAM Program tells a machine how to make it.

Contouring Tips

Utilize Proper Cut Depths

Prior to running a contouring operation, an initial roughing cut is taken to remove material in steps on the Z-axis so to leave a limited amount of material for the final contouring pass. In this step, it’s pivotal to leave the right amount of material for contouring — too much material for the contouring pass can result in poor surface finish or a damaged part or tool, while too little material can lead to prolonged cycle time, decreased productivity and a sub par end result.

The contouring application should remove from .010″ to 25% of the tool’s cutter diameter. During contouring, it’s possible for the feeds to decrease while speeds increases, leading to a much smoother finish. It is also important to keep in mind that throughout the finishing cut, the amount of engagement between the tool’s cutting edge and the part will vary regularly – even within a single pass.

Use Best Suited Tooling

Ideal tool selection for contouring operations begins by choosing the proper profile of the tool. A large radius or ball profile is very often used for this operation because it does not leave as much evidence of a tool path. Rather, they effectively smooth the material along the face of the part. Undercutting End Mills, also known as lollipop cutters, have spherical ball profiles that make them excellent choices for contouring applications. Harvey Tool’s 300° Reduced Shank Undercutting End Mill, for example, features a high flute count to benefit part finish for light cut depths, while maintaining the ability to reach tough areas of the front or back side of a part.

Fact-Check G-Code

While advanced CAM Software will create the G-Code for an application, saving a machinist valuable time and money, accuracy of this code is still vitally important to the overall outcome of the final product. Machinists must look for issues such as wrong tool call out, rapids that come too close to the material, or even offsets that need correcting. Failure to look G-Code over prior to beginning machining can result in catastrophic machine failure and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Inserting an M01 – or a notation to the machine in the G-Code to stop and await machinist approval before moving on to the next step – can help a machinist to ensure that everything is approved with a next phase of an operation, or if any redundancy is set to occur, prior to continuation.

Contouring Summarized

Contouring is most often used in 5-axis machines as a finishing operation for uniquely shaped or intricate parts. After an initial roughing pass, the contouring operation – done most often with Undercutting End Mills or Ball End Mills, removes anywhere from .010″ to 25% of the cutter diameter in material from the part to ensure proper part specifications are met and a fine finish is achieved. During contouring, cut only at recommended depths, ensure that G-Code is correct, and use tooling best suited for this operation.

Why You Should Stop Deburring By Hand

Deburring is a process in which sharp edges and burrs are removed from a part to create a more aesthetically pleasing final product. After milling, parts are typically taken off the machine and sent off to the Deburring Department. Here, the burrs and sharp points are removed, traditionally by hand. However, an operation that takes an hour by hand can be reduced to mere minutes by deburring parts right in the machine with high precision CNC deburring tools, making hand deburring a thing of the past.

High Precision Tools

Hand deburring tools often have a sharp hook-shaped blade on the end, which is used to scrape/slice off the burrs as it passes along the edge of the part. These tools are fairly simple and easy to use, but much less efficient and precise than CNC deburring tools.

hand deburring

Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/03/Deburring_tool.jpg

CNC deburring tools are also held to much tighter tolerances than traditional hand-deburring tools. Traditional cylindrical deburring tools typically have a diameter-tolerance window of +/- .008 versus a CNC deburring end mill which has a diameter tolerance of +/-.0005. The tighter tolerance design eliminates the location issues found in traditional deburring tools with loose tolerances, allowing them to be programmed like a traditional end mill.

While hand deburring tools often have just a single blade, CNC deburring tools feature double cut patterns and a high number of flutes. The double cut pattern contains both right hand and left hand teeth, which results in an improved finish. These tools leave completed parts looking far superior to their hand-deburred counterparts, with more consistent and controlled edge breaks. Additionally, there is a large variety of CNC deburring tools available today which can take full advantage of multi-axis machines and the most complex tool paths. For example, Harvey Tool’s 270° Undercutting End Mill is a great choice for multi-axis and more complex deburring options. Further, Deburring Chamfer Cutters are multi-use tools that can perform both chamfering and deburring accurately with no need for a tool change.

cnc deburring

Reduce Production Costs and Increase Profits

Having an entire department dedicated to deburring can be costly, and many smaller businesses may have pulled employees off other jobs to help with deburring, which hampers production. Taking employees off the deburring station and asking them to run more parts or man another department can help keep labor costs low while still increasing production rates.

cnc deburring

Stop Deburring By Hand and Increase Your Profits

By deburring right in the CNC machine, parts can be completed in one machining operation. The double-cut pattern found on many deburring tools also allows for increased speeds and feeds. This helps to reduce cycle times even further, saving hours of work and increasing production efficiency. Deburring in the machine is a highly repeatable process that reduces overall cycle times and allows for more efficient finishing of a part. In addition, CNC machines are going to be more accurate than manual operations, leading to fewer scrapped parts due to human error and inconsistencies.

Simply put, the precision and accuracy of the CNC machine, along with the cost and time savings associated with keeping the part in the machine from start to finish, makes deburring in the CNC machine one of the easiest way to increase your shop’s efficiency.

The Advances of Multiaxis Machining

CNC Machine Growth

As the manufacturing industry has developed, so too have the capabilities of machining centers. CNC Machines are constantly being improved and optimized to better handle the requirements of new applications. Perhaps the most important way these machines have improved over time is in the multiple axes of direction they can move, as well as orientation. For instance, a traditional 3-axis machine allows for movement and cutting in three directions, while a 2.5-axis machine can move in three directions but only cut in two. The possible number of axes for a multiaxis machine varies from 4 to 9, depending on the situation. This is assuming that no additional sub-systems are installed to the setup that would provide additional movement. The configuration of a multiaxis machine is dependent on the customer’s operation and the machine manufacturer.

Multiaxis Machining

With this continuous innovation has come the popularity of multiaxis machines – or CNC machines that can perform more than three axes of movement (greater than just the three linear axes X, Y, and Z). Additional axes usually include three rotary axes, as well as movement abilities of the table holding the part or spindle in place. Machines today can move up to 9 axes of direction.

Multiaxis machines provide several major improvements over CNC machines that only support 3 axes of movement. These benefits include:

  • Increasing part accuracy/consistency by decreasing the number of manual adjustments that need to be made.
  • Reducing the amount of human labor needed as there are fewer manual operations to perform.
  • Improving surface finish as the tool can be moved tangentially across the part surface.
  • Allowing for highly complex parts to be made in a single setup, saving time and cost.

9-Axis Machine Centers

The basic 9-axis naming convention consists of three sets of three axes.

Set One

The first set is the X, Y, and Z linear axes, where the Z axis is in line with the machine’s spindle, and the X and Y axes are parallel to the surface of the table. This is based on a vertical machining center. For a horizontal machining center, the Z axis would be aligned with the spindle.

Set Two

The second set of axes is the A, B, and C rotary axes, which rotate around the X, Y, and Z axes, respectively. These axes allow for the spindle to be oriented at different angles and in different positions, which enables tools to create more features, thereby decreasing the number of tool changes and maximizing efficiency.

Set Three

The third set of axes is the U, V, and W axes, which are secondary linear axes that are parallel to the X, Y, and Z axes, respectively. While these axes are parallel to the X, Y, and Z axes, they are managed by separate commands. The U axis is common in a lathe machine. This axis allows the cutting tool to move perpendicular to the machine’s spindle, enabling the machined diameter to be adjusted during the machining process.

A Growing Industry

In summary, as the manufacturing industry has grown, so too have the abilities of CNC Machines. Today, tooling can move across nine different axes, allowing for the machining of more intricate, precise, and delicate parts. Additionally, this development has worked to improve shop efficiency by minimizing manual labor and creating a more perfect final product.