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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

 

What To Know About Helical Solution’s Zplus Coating

Non-ferrous and non-metallic materials are not usually considered difficult to machine, and therefore, machinists often overlook the use of tool coatings. But while these materials may not present the same machining difficulties as hardened steels and other ferrous materials, a coating can still vastly improve performance in non-ferrous applications. For instance, materials such as aluminum and graphite can cause machinists headaches because of the difficulty they often create from abrasion. To alleviate these issues in non-ferrous machining applications, a popular coating choice is Helical Solution’s Zplus coating.

zplus coating

What is Helical Solutions’ Zplus Coating?

Helical’s Zplus is a Zirconium Nitride-based coating, applied by a Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) process. This method of coating takes place in a vacuum and forms layers only microns thick onto the properly prepared tool. Zirconium Nitride does not chemically react to a variety of non-ferrous metals, increasing the lubricity of the tool and aiding in chip evacuation.

zplus coating

When Should a Machinist Use Helical Solution’s Zplus?

Working with Abrasive Materials

While Zplus was created initially for working in aluminum, its hardness level and maximum working temperature of 1,110°F enables it to work well in abrasive forms of other non-ferrous materials, as well. This coating decreases the coefficient of friction between the tool and the part, allowing it to move easier through more abrasive materials. This abrasion resistance decreases the rate of tool wear, prolonging tool life.

Concerns with Efficient Chip Evacuation

One of the primary functions of this coating is to increase the smoothness of the flutes of the tool, which allows for more efficient chip removal. By decreasing the amount of friction between the tool and the material, chips will not stick to the tool, helping to prevent chip packing. The increased lubricity and smoothness provided by the coating allows for a higher level of performance from the cutting tool. Zplus is also recommended for use in softer, gummy alloys, as the smooth surface encourages maximum lubricity within the material – this decreases the likelihood of those gummier chips sticking to the tool while machining.

Large Production Runs

Uncoated tools can work well in many forms of non-ferrous applications. However, to get a genuinely cost-effective tool for your job, the proper coating is highly recommended. Large production runs are known for putting a lot of wear and tear on tools due to their increased use, and by utilizing an appropriate coating, there can be a significant improvement in the tools working life.

When is Zplus Coating Not Beneficial to My Application?

Finishing Applications

When your parts finish is vital to its final application, a machinist may want to consider going with an uncoated tool. As with any coating, ZrN will leave a very minor rounded edge on the tip of the cutting edge. The best finish often requires an extremely sharp tool, and an uncoated tool will have a sharper cutting edge than its coated version.

 

What to Know About Harvey Tool’s TiB2 Coating

Aluminum and magnesium alloys are common materials found in machine shops worldwide, and are known as an “easier” material to machine. However, machinists can still experience hiccups while machining this material if they are not prepared with the proper tooling.. When working with aluminum and magnesium alloys, it is important to choose a coating that will work to extend your tool’s life and aid in the removal of chips. A popular choice for this material bucket is Harvey Tool’s TiB2 coating.

What is Harvey Tool’s TiB2 Coating?

Harvey Tool’s TiB2 coating is a Titanium Diboride, ceramic-based coating that provides superb erosion resistance during machining. TiB2 is added to a tool by a method called Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD), which is conducted in a vacuum where particles are vaporized and applied onto a surface, forming thin layers of material onto the properly-prepped tool. This method enables the coating to be corrosion and tarnish resistant.

TiB2 Specifications

TiB2 is identified in Harvey Tool’s product catalog with a “-C8” following the sku number. It can be found offered in Harvey Tool’s lines of Variable Helix End Mills for Aluminum Alloys, Double Angle Shank Cutters, and Miniature High Performance Drills for Aluminum Alloys.

When Should a Machinist Use TiB2?

Chip Evacuation Concerns

TiB2 has an extremely low affinity to aluminum, which helps with the chip evacuation process. Simply, chips of a material are able to evacuate through chip valleys easier if they don’t have a high affinity to the coating being used. TiB2 coating does not chemically react with aluminum and magnesium, which allows for smoother chip evacuation, as the chips do not stick to the coating and create issues such as chip packing. This is a common machining mishap that can cause both part and tool damage, quickly derailing a machining operation. By using a coating that increases the lubricity of the tool, chips will not have a surface to stick to and will more smoothly evacuate from the flutes of the tool.

Large Production Runs

While an uncoated tool may work fine in some applications, not all applications can succeed without a tool coating. When working with large production runs where the tools need to hold up through the process of machining large numbers of parts, using a coating is always recommended because they extend the life of your tool.

When is TiB2 Coating Not Beneficial to My Application?

Extremely Abrasive Materials

During the PVD coating process, tools can reach a temperature in excess of 500° F, which can cause the toughness of the carbide to drop slightly. This process does not normally compromise the performance of the tool due to the coating being placed over the carbide. The coating then protects the slightly weakened edge and increases tool performance in recommended materials. Micro-fractures only start appearing when the tool is being run incredibly fast through highly abrasive materials, leading to a decrease in the life of the tool.

Extremely Soft Materials

The coating, while only a few microns thick at most, still provides an ever-so-slight rounded edge to the cutting edge of the tools it is placed on. It is important to take this into consideration, as using the sharpest tools possible when working with materials such as soft plastics is recommended. The sharpest edge possible decreases the likelihood of any “pushing” that might occur on the material and increases the likelihood of proper “shearing” when machining.

When Finish Is Vital

If your part’s finish is imperative to the final product, an uncoated tool may work better for your application. A coating, like stated above, creates a microscopic rounded surface to the cutting edge of the tool. When running tools at finishing speeds and feeds in materials like aluminum, a sharp edge can create the difference between a finished part that does – or does not – pass final inspection.

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.