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Grappling with Graphite: A Machining Guide

Despite being a softer material, graphite is actually one of the most difficult materials to machine. There are many considerations machinists need to make in terms of tooling, coolant use, and personal safety when it comes to machining graphite parts. This “In The Loupe” post will examine graphite’s material properties, the key machining techniques to consider, and tips for properly selecting cutting tools to achieve success in this tricky material.

What is Graphite?

While graphite is an allotrope of carbon, the two terms are not simply interchangeable. Carbon is an element that can form into several different allotropes including graphite, diamond, and fullerite. Graphite happens to be the most stable form of carbon, and is the most common, as carbon naturally occurs as graphite under standard conditions.

Graphite is most recognized for its superior conductivity and resistance to high heat and corrosion. This makes it a common material in high heat, high-pressure situations in the aerospace, electrode, nuclear, energy, and military industries.

graphite cnc material

Even though graphite can handle intense high-pressure situations with ease, it is actually a very soft, abrasive, and brittle material. This can cause serious challenges when machining, as graphite can eat up cutting tools, and severely minimize a tool’s usable life. However, with the proper tooling and techniques, there are ways to optimize graphite machining to be more cost-effective than the competition.

Graphite Machining Techniques

Since graphite is such a soft and brittle material, special consideration needs to be made when machining to avoid chipping it. To get a good cut, it is recommended that you take light chip loads and use lower feed rates in graphite. If you were to take a heavy cut at a fast feed rate, you would start chipping the graphite and could cause it to fracture completely. To give a comparison point, chip loads for graphite are similar to those for Aluminum materials, but with less than half the feed rate.

To give you an idea of speeds and feeds for graphite, here is an example using a 1/4″ Harvey Tool CVD Diamond Coated, 4 flute Square End Mill. If that tool was running at a standard RPM of 12,000 at 780 SFM, the recommended chip load would be .00292 for a feed rate of 140 IPM.

graphite electrode machining

In terms of machine setup, the one major tip to remember is to always avoid using coolant. Graphite is a fairly porous material, and so it can absorb coolant and act as a “coolant sponge,” which will cause problems with finished parts. Inside the machine and on the tooling, the coolant can actually react with the graphite dust and create an abrasive slurry, which will cause problems while machining. A vacuum system is recommended for clearing material while machining graphite. Otherwise, coated tools should be able to run dry.

Another thing to note when machining graphite is that because graphite does not produce chips, but rather a cloud of very abrasive dust, it can be harmful to operators and machines without proper care. Operators should be wearing a protective mask to avoid inhaling the graphite dust. Proper ventilation and maintaining air quality in the shop is also key for the protection of machinists when working in graphite.

Since the graphite dust is also extremely conductive, it can easily damage non-protective circuits inside your CNC machine, which can cause major electrical issues. While coolant is not recommended, a vacuum system can help to remove the dust, keeping it from accumulating too much inside the machine and preventing serious problems.

Cutting Tools for Graphite Machining

As previously mentioned, graphite is a notorious cutting tool-killer due to its extremely abrasive nature. Even the highest quality carbide end mills, if left uncoated, will wear quickly on most graphite jobs. This extreme wear may force a tool change during an operation, which could lead to an imperfection in the part when trying to restart the operation where the worn tool left off.

graphite cutting tools

When selecting a cutting tool for graphite machining, the coating and cutting edge is the most important consideration. Flute count, helix angles, and other key features of the tool geometry ultimately come second to the coating when purchasing tooling for graphite.

For graphite machining, a CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition) diamond coating is recommended whenever possible to maximize tool life and tool performance. These coatings are grown directly into the carbide end mill, improving the hardness and leaving the tool with a coating layer that is 5 times thicker than a PVD Diamond Coating. While not the sharpest edge, the CVD diamond coating provides much longer tool life than other diamond coatings due to the thicker diamond layer.

Even though initial tooling costs may be higher with CVD coated tools versus uncoated tools, since CVD coated tools see considerably longer tool life than uncoated tools, this makes the cost per part shrink significantly. In difficult, abrasive materials like graphite, the uncoated carbide tool will last a short time before the abrasiveness of the graphite completely wears down the cutting edge. Having a CVD coated tool will give you a leg up over the competition, keep your machine running with less downtime for tool changes, and ultimately deliver substantial cost savings.

end mills for graphite
CVD Diamond Coated End Mill from Harvey Tool

Overall, graphite can be a difficult material to machine, but with the right cutting tools and proper speeds and feeds you will be making quality parts in no time. Harvey Tool offers a wide selection of CVD coated end mills in various diameters, reaches, and lengths of cut to ensure you have what you need for any job that comes your way.

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.

Tips for Maintaining Tight Tolerances

In manufacturing large production runs, one of the biggest difficulties machinists experience is holding tooling to necessary tolerances in holes, walls, and threads. Typically, this is an iterative process that can be tedious and stressful, especially for inexperienced machinists. While each job presents a unique set of challenges, there are rules of thumb that can be followed to ensure that your part is living up to its accuracy demands.

What is a Tolerance?

A tolerance is an allowable amount of variation in a part or cutting tool that a dimension can fall within. When creating a part print, tolerances of tooling can’t be overlooked, as tooling tolerances can result in part variations. Part tolerances have to be the same, if not larger, than tool tolerances to ensure part accuracy.

Cutting tool tolerances are oftentimes applied to a tool’s most critical dimensions, such as Cutter Diameter, Length of Cut, Shank Diameter, and Overall Length. When selecting a cutting tool for a job, it’s critical to choose a brand that adheres to strict tolerance standards and reliable batch-to-batch consistency. Manufacturers like Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions prominently display tolerances for many critical tool dimensions and thoroughly inspect each tool to ensure that it meets the tolerances specified. Below is the table header for Harvey Tool’s line of Miniature End Mills – Square – Stub & Standard.

tolerances

Tolerances help to create repeatability and specificity, especially in an industry in which even a thousandth of an inch can make or break a final product. This is especially true for miniature tooling, where Harvey Tool is experienced in the designing and manufacturing of tooling as small as .001” in diameter.

How are Tolerances Used?

When viewing a tolerance, there’s an upper and lower dimension, meaning the range in which the dimension of the tool can stray – both above and below what its size is said to be. In the below example, a .030″ cutter diameter tool’s size range would be anywhere between .0295″ and .0305.”

tooling tolerance

Maintaining Tolerances in Holemaking Operations

Holes oftentimes mandate the tightest dimensional tolerances, as they generally are meant to align perfectly with a mating part. To maintain tolerances, start first by testing the runout of both your machine and your tool. This simple, yet often overlooked step can save machinists a great amount of time and frustration.

Spotting Drills

Spotting Drills allow for drills to have a very precise starting point, minimizing walking or straying from a desired path. This can be especially beneficial when machining irregular surfaces, where accessing a hole’s perfect location can be more difficult.

spotting drills

Reamers

Reaming is great for any very tight tolerance mandate, because many Miniature Reamers have much tighter tolerances than a drill. Harvey Tool’s Miniature Reamers, for example, have tolerances of +.0000″/-.0002. for uncoated options and +.0002″/-.0000″ for AlTiN coated tools. Reamers cut on their chamfered edge, removing a minimal amount of material within a hole with the ultimate goal of bringing it to size. Because the cutting edge of a reamer is so small, the tool has a larger core diameter and is thus a more rigid tool.

miniature reamers

Maintaining Tight Tolerances While Machining Walls

Be Wary of Deflection

Maintaining tolerances when machining walls is made difficult by deflection, or the curvature a tool experiences when a force is applied to it. Where an angle is appearing on a wall due to deflection, opt for a reached tool to allow for less deflection along the tool’s neck. Further, take more axial depths of cut and machine in steps with finishing passes to exert less pressure on the tool. For surface finish tolerances, a long fluted tool may be required to minimize evidence of a tool path left on a part. For more information on ways to minimize deflection, read Tool Deflection & Its Remedies.tool deflection

Corner Radius End Mills

Corner radius End Mills, because they do not feature a sharp edge, will wear slower than a square end mill would. By utilizing corner radius tooling, fracturing on the tool edge will be minimized, resulting in an even pressure distribution on each of the cutting edges. Because the sharper edge on a square tool is less durable and more prone to cracking because of the stress concentration on that point, a corner radius tool would be much more rigid and thus less susceptible to causing a tolerance variation. For this reason, it’s recommended to use a roughing tool with a corner radius profile and a finisher with a square profile for an edge tolerance. When designing a part and keeping manufacturing in mind, if there is a potential for a wall with a radius as opposed to a wall with a square edge, a wall with a radius allows for easier machineability and fewer tool changes.

Maintaining Tight Tolerances While Threading

Making threads to tolerance is all about chip evacuation. Evacuating chips is an issue commonly overlooked; If chips within a hole have not been removed before a threading operation, there could be interference in the tool tip that leads to vibration and chatter within a thread. This would decrease the continuity of the thread while also altering the points of contact. Discontinuity of a thread could be the difference between passing and failing a part, and because threading is typically the last application when machining to decrease damaging the threads, it also increases the likelihood of chips remaining within the hole from other applications.

Tolerances Summarized

If you continue to experience troubles maintaining tight tolerances despite this blog post, consult the Harvey Tool or Helical Solutions tech team, as the problem may exist outside of your machine. Temperature and humidity can vary how gummy a material is, and can lead to workpiece expansion and contraction. Additionally, the foundation of buildings can expand and contract due to outside temperature, which can result in upped runout and irregular vibration in a spindle.