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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.

Most Common Methods of Tool Entry

Tool entry is pivotal to machining success, as it’s one of the most punishing operations for a cutter. Entering a part in a way that’s not ideal for the tool or operation could lead to a damaged part or exhausted shop resources. Below, we’ll explore the most common part entry methods, as well as tips for how to perform them successfully.


Pre-Drilled Hole

Pre-drilling a hole to full pocket depth (and 5-10% larger than the end mill diameter) is the safest practice of dropping your end mill into a pocket. This method ensures the least amount of end work abuse and premature tool wear.

tool entry predrill

 


Helical Interpolation

Helical Interpolation is a very common and safe practice of tool entry with ferrous materials. Employing corner radius end mills during this operation will decrease tool wear and lessen corner breakdown. With this method, use a programmed helix diameter of greater than 110-120% of the cutter diameter.

helical interpolation

 


Ramping-In

This type of operation can be very successful, but institutes many different torsional forces the cutter must withstand. A strong core is key for this method, as is room for proper chip evacuation. Using tools with a corner radius, which strengthen its cutting portion, will help.

ramping

Suggested Starting Ramp Angles:

Hard/Ferrous Materials: 1°-3°

Soft/Non-Ferrous Materials: 3°-10°

For more information on this popular tool entry method, see Ramping to Success.


Arcing

This method of tool entry is similar to ramping in both method and benefit. However, while ramping enters the part from the top, arcing does so from the side. The end mill follows a curved tool path, or arc, when milling, this gradually increasing the load on the tool as it enters the part. Additionally, the load put on the tool decreases as it exits the part, helping to avoid shock loading and tool breakage.


Straight Plunge

This is a common, yet often problematic method of entering a part. A straight plunge into a part can easily lead to tool breakage. If opting for this machining method, however, certain criteria must be met for best chances of machining success. The tool must be center cutting, as end milling incorporates a flat entry point making chip evacuation extremely difficult. Drill bits are intended for straight plunging, however, and should be used for this type of operation.

tool entry

 


Straight Tool Entry

Straight entry into the part takes a toll on the cutter, as does a straight plunge. Until the cutter is fully engaged, the feed rate upon entry is recommended to be reduced by at least 50% during this operation.

tool entry

 


Roll-In Tool Entry

Rolling into the cut ensures a cutter to work its way to full engagement and naturally acquire proper chip thickness. The feed rate in this scenario should be reduced by 50%.

tool entry

 

Corner Engagement: How to Machine Corners

Corner Engagement

During the milling process, and especially during corner engagement, tools undergo significant variations in cutting forces. One common and difficult situation is when a cutting tool experiences an “inside corner” condition. This is where the tool’s engagement angle significantly increases, potentially resulting in poor performance.

Machining this difficult area with the wrong approach may result in:

  • Chatter – visible in “poor” corner finish
  • Deflection – detected by unwanted “measured” wall taper
  • Strange cutting sound – tool squawking or chirping in the corners
  • Tool breakage/failure or chipping

Least Effective Approach (Figure 1)

Generating an inside part radius that matches the radius of the tool at a 90° direction range is not a desirable approach to machining a corner. In this approach, the tool experiences extra material to cut (dark gray), an increased engagement angle, and a direction change. As a result, issues including chatter, tool deflection/ breakage, and poor surface finish may occur.

Feed rate may need to be lessened depending on the “tool radius-to-part radius ratio.”

corner engagement

More Effective Approach (Figure 2)

Generating an inside part radius that matches the radius of the tool with a sweeping direction change is a more desirable approach. The smaller radial depths of cut (RDOC) in this example help to manage the angle of engagement, but at the final pass, the tool will still experience a very high engagement angle.  Common results of this approach will be chatter, tool deflection/breakage and poor surface finish.

Feed rate may need to be reduced by 30-50% depending on the “tool radius-to-part radius ratio.”

corner engagement

Most Effective Approach (Figure 3)

Generating an inside part radius with a smaller tool and a sweeping action creates a much more desirable machining approach. The manageable RDOC and smaller tool diameter allow for management of the tool engagement angle, higher feed rates and better surface finishes. As the cutter reaches full radial depth, its engagement angle will increase, but the feed reduction should be much less than in the previous approaches.

Feed rate may need to be heightened depending on the “tool-to-part ratio.” Utilize tools that are smaller than the corner you are machining.

corner engagement