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Why Flute Count Matters

One of the most important considerations when choosing an end mill is determining which flute count is best for the job at hand. Both material and application play an important role in this critical part of the tool selection process. Understanding the effects of flute count on other tool properties, and how a tool will behave in different situations is an essential consideration in the tool selection process.

Tool Geometry Basics

Generally, tools with more flutes have a larger core and smaller flute valleys than tools with fewer flutes.  More flutes with a larger core can provide both benefits and restrictions depending on the application.  Simply put, a larger core is directly proportional to tool strength; the larger the core, the stronger a tool will be.  In turn, a larger core also reduces the flute depth of a tool, restricting the amount of space for chips to exist.  This can cause issues with chip packing in applications requiring heavy material removal.  However, these considerations only lead us part way when making a decision on which tool to use, and when.

flute count core

Material Considerations

Traditionally, end mills came in either a 2 flute or 4 flute option.  The widely accepted rule of thumb was to use 2 flutes for machining aluminum and non-ferrous materials, and 4 flutes for machining steel and harder alloys.  As aluminum and non-ferrous alloys are typically much softer than steels, a tool’s strength is less of a concern, a tool can be fed faster, and larger material removal rates (MRR) is facilitated by the large flute valleys of 2 flute tools.  Ferrous materials are typically much harder, and require the strength of a larger core.  Feed rates are slower, resulting in smaller chips, and allowing for the smaller flute valleys of a larger core tool.  This also allows for more flutes to fit on the tool, which in turn increases productivity.

flute count

Recently, with more advanced machines and toolpaths, higher flute count tools have become the norm in manufacturing.  Non-ferrous tooling has become largely centered on 3 flute tools, allowing greater productivity while still allowing proper chip evacuation.  Ferrous tooling has taken a step further and progressed not only to 5 and 6 flutes, but up to 7 flutes and more in some cases.  With a wider range of hardness, sometimes at the very top of the Rockwell hardness scale, many more flutes have allowed longer tool life, less tool wear, stronger tools, and less deflection.  All of this results in more specialized tools for more specific materials.  The end result is higher MRR and increased productivity.

Running Parameters

Just as material considerations will have an impact on the tool you choose, operation type and depth of cut requirements may also have a big impact on the ideal number of flutes for your application.  In roughing applications, lower flute counts may be desirable to evacuate large amounts of chips faster with larger flute valleys.  That said, there is a balance to find, as modern toolpaths such as High Efficiency Milling (HEM) can achieve extreme MRR with a very small step over, and a higher number of flutes.  In a more traditional sense, higher flute counts are great for finishing operations where very small amounts of material are being removed, and greater finish can be achieved with more flutes, not worrying as much about chip evacuation.

flute count

Flute count plays a big role in speeds and feeds calculation as well.  One common rule of thumb is “more flutes, more feed,” but this can be a very detrimental misconception.  Although true in some cases, this is not an infinitely scalable principle.  As stated previously, increasing the number of flutes on a tool limits the size that the flute valleys can be.  While adding a 5th flute to a 4 flute tool theoretically gives you 25% more material removal per revolution with an appropriately increased feed rate, feeding the tool that much faster may overload the tool.  The 25% increase in material removal is more likely closer to 10-15%, given the tool is exactly the same in all other specifications.  Higher flute count tools may require speeds and feeds to be backed off so much in some cases, that a lower flute count may be even more efficient.  Finding the right balance is key in modern milling practices.

How to Avoid Composite Delamination with Compression Cutters

Composites are a group of materials made up of at least two unique constituents that, when combined, produce mechanical and physical properties favorable for a wide array of applications. These materials usually contain a binding ingredient, known as a matrix, filled with particles or fibers called reinforcements. Composites have become increasingly popular in the Aerospace, Automotive, and Sporting Goods industries because they can combine the strength of metal, the light weight of plastic, and the rigidity of ceramics.

Unfortunately, composite materials present some unique challenges to machinists. Many composites are very abrasive and can severely reduce tool life, while others can melt and burn if heat generation is not properly controlled. Even if these potential problems are avoided, the wrong tool can leave the part with other quality issues, including delamination.

While composites such as G10 and FR4 are considered “fibrous”, composites can also be “layered,” such as laminated sheets of PEEK and aluminum. Layered composites are vulnerable to delamination, when the layers of the material are separated by a tool’s cutting forces. This yields less structurally sound parts, defeating the purpose of the combined material properties in the first place. In many cases, a single delaminated hole can result in a scrapped part.

Using Compression Cutters in Composite Materials

Composite materials are generally machined with standard metal cutting end mills, which generate exclusively up or down cutting forces, depending on if they have right or left hand flute geometry. These uni-directional forces cause delamination (Figure 1).

delamination

Conversely, compression cutters are designed with both up and down-cut flutes. The top portion of the length of cut, closest to the shank, has a left hand spiral, forcing chips down. The bottom portion of the length of cut, closest to the end, has a right hand spiral, forcing chips up. When cutting, the opposing flute directions generate counteracting up-cut and down-cut forces. The opposing cutting forces stabilize the material removal, which compresses the composite layers, combatting delamination on the top and bottom of a workpiece (Figure 2).

compression cutters

Since compression cutters do not pull up or press down on a workpiece, they leave an excellent finish on layered composites and lightweight materials like plywood. It is important to note, however, that compression cutters are suited specifically to profiling, as the benefits of the up and down-cut geometry are not utilized in slotting or plunging operations.

Something as simple as choosing a tool suited to a specific composite material can have significant effects on the quality of the final part. Consider utilizing tools optimized for different composites and operations or learn how to select the right drill for composite holemaking.