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How to Select a Spindle

When trying to develop efficient processes, many machinists and programmers turn to tool selection first. It is true that tooling can often make a big difference in machining time, and speeds and feeds, but did you know that your machine’s spindle can have an equally impactful effect? The legs of any CNC machine, spindles are comprised of a motor, a taper for holding tools, and a shaft that will hold all of the components together. Often powered by electricity, spindles rotate on an axis which receives its input from the machine’s CNC controller.

Why is Choosing the Right Spindle Important?

Choosing the right spindle to machine your workpiece with is of very high importance to a successful production run. As tooling options continue to grow, it is important to know what tooling your spindle can utilize. Large diameter tools such as large end mills or face mills typically require slower spindle speeds and take deeper cuts to remove vast amounts of material. These applications require supreme machine rigidity and require a spindle with high torque.

Contrastingly, smaller diameter tools will need a higher-speed spindle. Faster speeds and feeds deliver better surface finishes and are used in a variety of applications. A good rule of thumb is that an end mill that is a half inch or smaller will run well with lower torque.

Types of CNC Spindles

After finding out what you should look for in a spindle, it is time to learn about your different options. Spindles typically vary by the type, style of the taper, or its size. The taper is the conical portion of the tool holder that fits inside of the opening of the spindle. Every spindle is designed to mate with a certain taper style and size.

CAT and BT Holders

This is the most widely utilized holder for milling in the United States. Referred to as “V-flange holders,” both of these styles need a retention knob or pull stud to be secured within the machine spindle. The BT (metric style) is popular overseas.

HSK Holders

This type of holder is a German standard known as “hollow shank taper.” The tapered portion of the holder is much shorter than its counterparts. It also engages the spindle in a different way and does not require a pull stud or retention knob. The HSK holder is utilized to create repeatability and longer tool life – particularly in High Efficiency Milling (HEM) applications.

All of these holders have benefits and limitations including price, accuracy, and availability. The proper selection will depend largely on your application requirements.

Torque vs. Horsepower

Torque is defined as force perpendicular to the axis of rotation across a distance. It is important to have high torque capabilities when using an end mill larger than ½ inch, or when machining a difficult material such as Inconel. Torque will help put power behind the cutting action of the tool.

Horsepower refers to the amount of work being done. Horsepower is important for smaller diameter end mills and easy-to-machine materials like aluminum.

You can think of torque as a tractor: It can’t go very fast, but there is a lot of power behind it. Think of horsepower as a racecar: It can go very fast but cannot pull or push.

Torque-Horsepower Chart

Every machine and spindle should come with a torque horsepower chart. These charts will help you understand how to maximize your spindle for torque or horsepower, depending on what you need:

Image Source: HAAS Machine Manual

Proper Spindle Size

The size of the spindle and shank taper corresponds to the weight and length of the tools being used, as well as the material you are planning to machine. CAT40 is the most commonly used spindle in the United States. These spindles are great for utilizing tools that have a ½ inch diameter end mill or smaller in any material. If you are considering using a 1 inch end mill in a material like Inconel or Titanium, a CAT50 would be a more appropriate choice. The higher the taper angle is, the more torque the spindle is capable of.

While choosing the correct tool for your application is important, choosing a tool your spindle can utilize is paramount to machining success. Knowing the amount of torque required will help machinists save a lot of headaches.

How to Extend the Life of Your End Mill

Breaking and damaging an end mill is oftentimes an avoidable mistake that can be extremely costly for a machine shop. To save time, money, and your end mill it is important to learn some simple tips and tricks to extend your tool’s life.

Properly Prepare Before the Tool Selection Process

The first step of any machining job is selecting the correct end mill for your material and application. However, this doesn’t mean that there should not be an adequate amount of legwork done beforehand to ensure the right decision on a tool is being made. Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions have thousands of different tools for different operations – a vast selection which, if unprepared – can easily result in selecting a tool that’s not the best for your job. To start your preparation, answer the 5 Questions to Ask Before Selecting an End Mill to help you quickly narrow down your selection and better understand the perfect tool you require.

Understand Your Tooling Requirements

It’s important to understand not only what your tool needs, but also general best practices to avoid common machining mishaps. For instance, it is important to use a tool with a length of cut only as long as needed, as the longer a tools length of cut is, the greater the chance of deflection or tool bending, which can decrease its effective life.

tool life

Another factor to consider is the coating composition on a tool. Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions offer many varieties of coatings for different materials. Some coatings increase lubricity, slowing tool wear, while others increase the hardness and abrasion resistance of the tool. Not all coatings increase your tool’s life in every material, however. Be wary of coatings that don’t perform well in your part’s material – such as the use of AlTiN coating in Aluminum (Both coating and material are aluminum-based and have a high affinity for each other, which can cause built-up edge and result in chip evacuation problems).

Consider Variable Helix & Pitch Geometry

A feature on many of our high performance end mills is variable helix or variable pitch geometry, which have differently-spaced flutes. As the tool cuts, there are different time intervals between the cutting edges contacting the workpiece, rather than simultaneously on each rotation. The varying time intervals minimizes chatter by reducing harmonics, increasing tool life and producing better results.

Ensure an Effective Tool Holding Strategy

Another factor in prolonging tool life is proper tool holding. A poor tool holding strategy can cause runout, pullout, and scrapped parts. Generally, the most secure connection has more points of contact between the tool holder and tool shank. Hydraulic and Shrink Fit Tool Holders provide increased performance over other tightening methods.

tool life

Helical also offers shank modifications to all stocked standards and special quotes, such as the ToughGRIP Shank, which provides added friction between the holder and the shank of the tool for a more secure grip; and the Haimer Safe-Lock™, which has grooves on the shank of the tool to help lock it into place in a tool holder.

tool life

Trust Your Running Parameters, and their Source

After selecting the correct end mill for your job, the next step is to run the tool at the proper speeds and feeds.

Run at the Correct Speed

Understanding the ideal speed to run your machine is key to prolonging tool life. If you run your tool too fast, it can cause suboptimal chip size, ineffective chip evacuation, or even total tool failure. Adversely, running your tool too slowly can result in deflection, bad finish, or decreased metal removal rates.

Push at the Best Feed Rate

Another critical parameter of speeds and feeds is finding the best possible feed rate for your job, for sake of both tool life and achieving maximum shop efficiency. Pushing your tool too aggressively can result in breakage, but being too conservative can lead to recutting chips and excess heat generation, accelerating tool wear.

Use Parameters from Your Tooling Manufacturer

A manufacturer’s speeds and feeds calculations take into account every tool dimension, even those not called out in a catalog and readily available to machinists. Because of this, it’s best to rely on running parameters from tooling manufacturers. Harvey Tool offers speeds and feeds charts for every one of its more than 21,000 tools featured in its catalog, helping machinists to confidently run their tool the first time.

Harvey Performance Company offers the Machining Advisor Pro application, a free, cutting-edge resource that generates custom running parameters for optimized machining with all of Helical’s products.

tool life

Opt for the Right Milling Strategy: Climb vs Conventional

There are two ways to cut material when milling: Climb Milling and Conventional Milling. In conventional milling, the cutter rotates against the feed. In this method, chips will start at theoretical zero and increase in size. Conventional milling is usually recommended for tools with higher toughness, or for breaking through case hardened materials.

In Climb Milling, the cutter rotates with the feed. Here, the chips start at maximum width and decrease, causing the heat generated to transfer into the chip instead of being left in the tool or work piece. Climb milling also produces a cleaner shear plane, causing less rubbing, decreasing heat, and improving tool life. When climb milling, chips will be removed behind the cutter, reducing your chances of recutting.

Utilize High Efficiency Milling

High Efficiency Milling (HEM), is a roughing technique that uses the theory of chip thinning by applying a smaller radial depth of cut (RDOC) and a larger axial depth of cut (ADOC). The parameters for HEM are similar to that of finishing, but with increased speeds and feeds, allowing for higher material removal rates (MRR). HEM utilizes the full length of cut instead of just a portion of the cutter, allowing heat to be distributed across the cutting edge, maximizing tool life and productivity. This reduces the possibility of accelerated tool wear and breakage.

Decide On Coolant Usage & Delivery

Coolant can be an extremely effective way to protect your tool from premature wear and possible tool breakage. There are many different types of coolant and methods of delivery to your tool. Coolant can come in the form of compressed air, water-based, straight oil-based, soluble oil-based, synthetic or semi-synthetic. It can be delivered as mist, flood, high pressure or minimum quantity lubricant.

Appropriate coolant type and delivery vary depending on your application and tool. For example, using a high pressure coolant with miniature tooling can lead to tool breakage due to the fragile nature of extremely small tools. In applications of materials that are soft and gummy, flood coolant washes away the long stringy chips to help avoid recutting and built-up edge, preventing extra tool wear.

Extend Your Tool’s Life

The ability to maximize tool life saves you time, money and headaches. To get the best possible outcome from your tool, you first need to be sure you’re using the best tool for your job. Once you find your tool, ensure that your speeds and feeds are accurate and are from your tooling manufacturer. Nobody knows the tools better than they do. Finally, think about how to run your tool: the rotation of your cutter, whether utilizing an HEM approach is best, and how to introduce coolant to your job.

 

Effective Ways To Reduce Heat Generation

Any cutting tool application will generate heat, but knowing how to counteract it will improve the life of your tool. Heat can be good and doesn’t need to totally be avoided, but controlling heat will help prolong your tool life. Sometimes, an overheating tool or workpiece is easy to spot due to smoke or deformation. Other times, the signs are not as obvious. Taking every precaution possible to redirect heat will prolong your tool’s usable life, avoid scrapped parts, and will result in significant cost savings.

Reduce Heat Generation with HEM Tool Paths

High Efficiency Milling (HEM), is one way a machinist should explore to manage heat generation during machining. HEM is a roughing technique that uses the theory of chip thinning by applying a smaller radial depth of cut (RDOC) and a larger axial depth of cut (ADOC). HEM uses RDOC and ADOC similar to finishing operations but increases speeds and feeds, resulting in greater material removal rates (MRR). This technique is usually used for removing large amounts of material in roughing and pocketing applications. HEM utilizes the full length of cut and more effectively uses the full potential of the tool, optimizing tool life and productivity. You will need to take more radial passes on your workpiece, but using HEM will evenly spread heat across the whole cutting edge of your tool, instead of building heat along one small portion, reducing the possibility of tool failure and breakage.

heat generation

Chip Thinning Awareness

Chip thinning occurs when tool paths include varying radial depths of cut, and relates to chip thickness and feed per tooth. HEM is based off of the principal of chip thinning. However, if not properly executed, chip thinning can cause a lot of heat generation. When performing HEM, you effectively reduce your stepover and increase your speeds and feeds to run your machine at high rates. But if your machine isn’t capable of running high enough speeds and feeds, or you do not adjust accordingly to your reduced stepover, trouble will occur in the form of rubbing between the material and tool. Rubbing creates friction and mass amounts of heat which can cause your material to deform and your tool to overheat. Chip thinning can be good when used correctly in HEM, but if you fall below the line of reduced stepover without higher speeds and feeds, you will cause rubbing and tool failure. Because of this, it’s always important to be aware of your chips during machining.

heat generation

Consider Climb Milling

There are two ways to cut materials when milling: conventional milling and climb milling. The difference between the two is the relationship of the rotation of the cutter to the direction of feed. In climb milling, the cutter rotates with the feed, as opposed to conventional milling where the cutter rotates against the feed.

When conventional milling, chips start at theoretical zero and increase in size, causing rubbing and potentially work hardening. For this reason, it’s usually recommended for tools with higher toughness or for breaking through case hardened materials.

In climb milling, the chip starts at maximum width and decreases, causing the heat generated to transfer into the chip instead of the tool or workpiece. When going from max width to theoretical zero, heat will be transferred to the chip and pushed away from the workpiece, reducing the possibility of damage to the workpiece. Climb milling also produces a cleaner shear plane which will cause less tool rubbing, decreasing heat and improving tool life. When climb milling, chips are removed behind the cutter, reducing your chances of re-cutting. climb milling effectively reduces heat generated to the tool and workpiece by transferring heat into the chip, reducing rubbing and by reducing your chances of re-cutting chips.

 

heat generation

Utilize Proper Coolant Methods

If used properly, coolant can be an extremely effective way to keep your tool from overheating. There are many different types of coolant and different ways coolant can be delivered to your tool. Coolant can be compressed air, water-based, straight oil-based, soluble oil-based, synthetic or semi-synthetic. It can be delivered as mist, flood, high pressure or minimum quantity lubricant.

Different applications and tools require different types and delivery of coolant, as using the wrong delivery or type could lead to part or tool damage. For instance, using high pressure coolant with miniature tooling could lead to tool breakage. In materials where chip evacuation is a major pain point such as aluminum, coolant is often used to flush chips away from the workpiece, rather than for heat moderation. When cutting material that produces long, stringy chips without coolant, you run the risk of creating built-up edge from the chips evacuating improperly. Using coolant will allow those chips to slide out of your toolpath easily, avoiding the chance of re-cutting and causing tool failure. In materials like titanium that don’t transfer heat well, proper coolant usage can prevent the material from overheating. With certain materials, however, thermal shock becomes an issue. This is when coolant is delivered to a very hot material and decreases its temperature rapidly, impacting the material’s properties. Coolant can be expensive and wasteful if not necessary for the application, so it’s important to always make sure you know the proper ways to use coolant before starting a job.

Importance of Controlling Heat Generation

Heat can be a tool’s worst nightmare if you do not know how to control it. High efficiency milling will distribute heat throughout the whole tool instead of one small portion, making it less likely for your tool to overheat and fail. By keeping RDOC constant throughout your toolpath, you will decrease the chances of rubbing, a common cause of heat generation. Climb milling is the most effective way to transfer heat into the chip, as it will reduce rubbing and lessen the chance of re-chipping. This will effectively prolong tool life. Coolant is another method for keeping temperatures moderated, but should be used with caution as the type of coolant delivery and certain material properties can impact its effectiveness.

B&R Custom Machining- Featured Customer

B&R Custom Machining is a rapidly expanding aerospace machine shop located in Ontario, Canada, focused primarily on aerospace and military/defense manufacturing. Over the past 17 years, B&R has grown from a 5 person shop with a few manual mills and lathes, into one of Canada’s most highly respected manufacturing facilities, with nearly 40 employees and 21 precision CNC machines.

B&R focuses on quality assurance and constant improvement, mastering the intimacies of metal cutting and maintaining the highest levels of quality through their unique shop management philosophies. They seek to consistently execute on clear contracts through accurate delivery, competitive price, and high quality machined components.

We talked with Brad Jantzi, Co-Founder and Technical Manager of B&R Custom Machining, to learn about how he started in the industry, his experience with High Efficiency Milling, what he looks for most in a cutting tool, and more!

B&R Custom machining

Can you tell us a little bit about how B&R Custom Machining started, and a little background about yourself and the company?

My brother (Ryan Jantzi, CEO/Co-Founder) and I started working in manufacturing back in 2001, when we were just 20/21 years old. We had 5 employees (including ourselves), a few manual mills and lathes, and we were wrapping our parts in newspaper for shipping. We took over from a preexisting shop and assumed their sales and machines.

We bought our first CNC machine in 2003, and immediately recognized the power of CNC and the opportunities it could open up for us. Now, we have 21 CNC machines, 38 employees, and more requests for work than we can keep up with, which is a good thing for the business. We are constantly expanding our team to elevate the business and take on even more work, and are currently hiring for multiple positions if anyone in Ontario is looking for some challenging and rewarding work!

What kind of CNC machines are you guys working with?

Right now we have a lot of Okuma and Matsuura machines, many of which have 5 axis capabilities, and all of them with high RPM spindles. In fact, our “slowest” machine runs at 15k RPM, with our fastest running at 46k. One of our high production machines is our Matsuura LX160, which has the 46k RPM spindle. We use a ton of Harvey Tool and Helical product on that machine and really get to utilize the RPMs.

B&R Custom Machining

What sort of material are you cutting?

We work with Aluminum predominantly, but also with a lot of super alloys like Invar, Kovar, Inconel, Custom 455 Stainless, and lots of Titanium. Some of those super alloys are really tricky stuff to machine. Once we learn about them and study them, we keep a recorded database of information to help us dial in parameters. Our head programmer/part planner keeps track of all that information, and our staff will frequently reference old jobs for new parts.

Sounds like a great system you guys have in place. How did B&R Custom Machining get into aerospace manufacturing?

It is a bit of a funny story actually. Just about 12 years ago we were contacted by someone working at Comdev, which is close to our shop, who was looking to have some parts made. We started a business relationship with him, and made him his parts. He was happy with the work, and so we eventually got involved in his company’s switch division and started to make more and more aerospace parts.

aerospace machining

We immediately saw the potential of aerospace manufacturing, and it promoted where we wanted to go with CNC machining, so it was a natural fit. It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time and seizing the moment. If an opportunity comes up and you aren’t ready for it, you miss it. You have to be hungry enough to see an opportunity, and confident enough to grab it, while also being competent enough to handle the request. So, we took advantage of what we were given, and we grew and went from there.

Who are some of the major players who you work with?

We have great relationships with Honeywell, MDA Brampton, and MDA Quebec. We actually worked on parts for a Mars Rover with MDA that was commissioned by the Canadian Space Agency, which was really cool to be a part of.

Working with large companies like that means quality is key. Why is high quality tool performance important to you?

High quality and superior tool performance is huge. Aside from cutting conditions, there are two quick things that cause poor performance on a tool: tool life and consistency of the tool quality. One without the other means nothing. We all can measure tool life pretty readily, and there is a clear advantage that some tools have over others, but inconsistent quality can sneak up on you and cause trouble. If you have a tool manufacturer that is only producing a quality tool even 95% of the time, that might seem ok, but that means that 5% of the time you suffer something wrong on the machine. Many times, you won’t know where that trouble is coming from. This causes you to pause the machine, investigate, source the problem, and then ultimately switch the tool and create a new program. It becomes an ordeal. Sometimes it is not as simple as manually adjusting the feed knob, especially when you need to rely on it as a “proven program” the next time around.

So, say the probability of a shortcoming on a machine is “x” with one brand of tooling, but is half of that with a brand like Harvey Tool. Sure, the Harvey Tool product might be 10-20% higher in upfront cost, but that pales in comparison to buying cheaper tools and losing time and money due to machine downtime caused by tool failure. The shop rate for an average machine is right around $100/hour, so machine downtime is much more expensive than the added cost of a quality tool.

B&R Custom machining

Inconsistent tool quality can be extremely dangerous to play around with, even outside of machine downtime. We create based on a specific tool and a certain level of expected performance. If that tool cannot be consistent, we now jeopardize an expensive part. The machine never went down, but the part is no good because we programmed based on consistency in tool quality. Again, the cost of scrapped parts heavily outweighs the upfront cost of quality tooling. Tooling is a low cost of what we do here, but poor tooling can cost us thousands versus a few dollars more for quality tools. Too many people focus on the upfront cost, and don’t look downstream through the rest of the process to see how poor quality tooling can affect your business in a much bigger way. We get to see the whole picture because I am involved from cradle to grave, gaining feedback and knowledge along the way.

That’s great feedback Brad, and I think it is important for people to understand what you have laid out here. Speaking of tool performance, have you guys been using High Efficiency Milling techniques in the shop?

Absolutely. We feel that we are on the front edge of efficient milling. We are quite capable of all the latest techniques, as our programmers are well-versed and up to date. For our larger production work, we have programs dialed in that allow us to push the tools to their limits and significantly cut down our cycle times.

What advice would you have for others who are interested in High Efficiency Milling?

Make sure you are smart about using HEM. If we have one-off parts, particularly expensive ones, that do not have time restraints, we want to make sure we have a safe toolpath that will get us the result we want (in terms of quality and cutting security), rather than pushing the thresholds and taking extra time to program the HEM toolpaths. HEM makes total sense for large production runs, but make sure you know when to, and when not to use these techniques to get the most out of HEM.

B&R Custom machining

Have you been using Machining Advisor Pro in your shop when you run Helical end mills?

We have been, and it makes for a great point of reference for the Helical end mills. It has become a part of our new employee training, teaching them about speeds and feeds, how hard they can push the Helical tools, and where the safe zones are. Our more experienced guys also frequent it for new situations where they have no data. Machining Advisor Pro helps to verify what we thought we knew, or helps us get the confidence to start planning for a new job.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new machinist, or someone looking to take the #PlungeIntoMachining for the first time, what would it be?

Learn the intimacies of metal cutting. Get ultra-familiar with the results of what is actually happening with your tool, your setup, your part, and your machine. As well, don’t be limited to thinking “it sounds good,” or “it’s going good so far, so that must be acceptable.” In order to push the tools and confirm they are performing well and making money, you need to identify and understand where the threshold of failure is, and back off the right amount. This doesn’t end here though. Cutting conditions change as the tools, holders, machines, and parts change. Learning the nuances of this fluctuating environment and adapting accordingly is essential. Verify your dimensions, mitigate against risk, and control the variables.

Also, get intimate with what causes tools to succeed and fail, and keep a log of it for reference. Develop a passion for cutting; don’t just punch in and punch out each shift. Here at B&R, we are looking for continuous improvement, and employees who can add value. Don’t stand around all day with your arms folded, but keep constant logs of what’s going on and always be learning and thinking of how to understand what is happening, and improve on it. That is what makes a great machinist, and a successful shop.

B&R custom machining

How To Maximize High Balance End Mills

High speed machining is becoming increasingly widespread in machine shops all over the world due to the proven benefits of greater efficiency and productivity through increased spindle speeds and metal removal rates.  However, at such high spindle speeds, otherwise negligible errors and imperfections can cause negative effects such as reduced tool life, poor surface finish, and wear on the machine itself. Many of these negative effects stem from an increase in total centrifugal forces leading to vibration, commonly referred to in the industry as chatter. A key contributor to vibrations and one of the more controllable factors, is tool unbalance.

Why Balance is Critical to Machining

Unbalance is the extent to which the tool’s center of mass diverges from its axis of rotation.  Small levels of unbalance may be indistinguishable at lower RPMs, but as centrifugal force increases, small variations in the tool’s center of mass can cause substantial detrimental effects on its performance. High Balance End Mills are often used to help solve the problem of vibrations at the increased spindle speeds. Balancing is used to make compensation for the intrinsic unsymmetrical distribution of mass, which is typically completed by removing mass of a calculated amount and orientation.

Image Source: Haimer; Fundamentals of Balancing

Helical Solutions offers High Balance End Mills in both 2 and 3 flute options (see Figure 2), square and corner radius, along with coolant-through on the 3 fluted tools. These end mills are balanced at the industry standard of G2.5 at 33,000 RPM: G stands for the potential damage due to unbalance, which can be expressed as “Balancing Quality Grade” or G and 2.5 is the vibration velocity in MM per second. These tools are designed specifically to increase performance in highly balanced machining centers that are capable of elevated RPMs and feed rates. With high balance tooling, improved surface finishes are also achieved due to reduced vibrations during the machining process. Additionally, these end mills have been designed around current high-end tool holding, and come in a variety of neck lengths at specific overall lengths. These dimensional combinations result in maximum rigidity and reduced excess stick out, allowing for optimal performance and the ability to push the tools to the limit.

High Balanced Tooling Cost Benefits

Machinists who choose to use High Balance End Mills will see certain benefits at the spindle, but also in their wallets. Cost benefits of opting to run this type of tool include:

Utilizing Tap Testers

What Tap Testers Do

Vibrations are your applications worst enemy, especially at elevated RPMs and feed rates. Using resources such as a Tap Tester can help decrease vibrations and allow you to get the most out of your High Balance End Mills by generating cutting performance predictions and chatter limits.

How Tap Testing Works

High balance

Image Source: Manufacturing Automation Laboratories Inc.

Tap Testing generates cutting performance predictions and chatter limits. In a tap test, the machine-tool structure is “excited,” or tested, by being hit with an impulse hammer. In milling, the machine-tool structure is usually flexible in all three directions: X, Y, and Z, but in milling applications where High Balance Tooling is used, the flexibility is commonly only considered in two planes – the X and Y directions. By hitting the X and Y directions with the impulse hammer, the impact will excite the structure over a certain frequency range that is dependent on the hammer’s size, the type of tool being used, and the structure itself. The frequencies generated from the initial hit will produce enough information that both the impact force measurement and the displacement/accelerometer measurement are available. Combining these two measurements will result in the Frequency Response Function, which is a plot of the dynamic stiffness of the structure in frequencies.

After the information from the Tap Test is gathered, it will then process the information into useful cutting parameters for all spindles speeds such as cut depths, speed rates, and feed rates. In knowing the optimum running parameters, vibrations can be minimized and the tool can be utilized to its full potential.

High Balanced Tooling Summarized

Keeping vibrations at bay during the machining process is extremely important to machining success. Because one cause of vibration is tool unbalance, utilizing a balanced tool will result in a smoother job, a cleaner final product, and a longer life of both the tool and spindle. Machinists who choose to use High Balance Tooling can utilize a Tap Tester, or a method for generating the perfect running parameters for your tool and machine setup to ensure that machining vibration is as minimal as possible.

Attacking Aluminum: A Machining Guide

Aluminum is one of the most commonly machined materials, as most forms of the material feature excellent machinability, and is thus a commonly used material in manufacturing. Because of this, the competition for aluminum machining can be intense. Understanding the basics behind tool selection, running parameters, and advanced milling techniques for aluminum can help machinists earn a competitive advantage.

Material Properties

Aluminum is a highly formable, workable, lightweight material. Parts made from this material can be found in nearly every industry. Additionally, Aluminum has become a popular choice for prototypes due to its low-cost and flexibility.

Aluminum is available in two basic forms: Cast and Wrought. Wrought Aluminum is typically stronger, more expensive, and contains a lower percentage of outside elements in its alloys. Wrought Aluminum is also more heat-resistant than Cast and has a higher level of machinability.

Cast Aluminum has less tensile strength but with a higher flexibility. It costs less, and has higher percentages of outside elements (silicon, magnesium, etc.) in its alloys, making it more abrasive than Wrought.

Tool Geometry

There are a few coating options available for Aluminum tooling, including the popular gold-colored ZrN (Zirconium Nitride) and the lesser known but highly effective TiB2 (Titanium Diboride). Uncoated tooling can also provide solid machining performance. However, the real key to high performance machining in Aluminum is knowing the proper flute count and helix angle required for your operation.

Flute Count

End mills for aluminum are often available in either 2 flute or 3 flute styles. With higher flute counts, it would become difficult to evacuate chips effectively at the high speeds at which you can run in aluminum. This is because aluminum alloys leave a large chip, and chip valleys become smaller with each additional flute on an end mill.

flute count for aluminum

Traditionally, 2 flute end mills have been the preferred choice for Aluminum. However, 3 flute end mills have proven to be more successful in many finishing operations, and with the right parameters they can also work successfully as roughers. While much of the debate between 2 and 3 flute end mills for Aluminum boils down to personal preference, the operation, rigidity, and desired material removal rates can also have an effect on tool selection.

Helix Angles

The helix angle of a tool is measured by the angle formed between the centerline of the tool and a straight line tangent along the cutting edge. Cutting tools for aluminum typically feature higher helix angles than standard end mills. Specialized helix angles for Aluminum are typically either 35°, 40°, or 45°. Variable helix tools are also available and make a great choice for reducing chatter and harmonics while also increasing material removal rates.

Aluminum Machining

A helix angle of 35° or 40° is a good choice for traditional roughing and slotting applications. A 45° helix angle is the preferred choice for finishing, but also for High Efficiency Milling toolpaths as the high helix angle wraps around the tool faster and makes for a more aggressive cut.

Tooling Options

When machining aluminum, standard 2 or 3 flute tools will often get the job done. However, for certain applications and machine setups there are some more tooling options to consider for even better performance.

Chipbreaker Tooling

One of the most important things to consider when machining aluminum (and many other materials) is effective chip evacuation. Standard 2-3 flute end mills running at recommended speeds and feeds and proper chip loads can evacuate chips fairly well. However, 3 flute chipbreaker tooling can run at increased speed and feed rates for even better performance. The unique offset chip breaker geometry creates smaller chips for optimal evacuation while still leaving a semi-finished surface.

Chipbreaker Aluminum

These tools are excellent for more advanced toolpaths like High Efficiency Milling, which is another important tool for a successful aluminum machining experience.

High Balance End Mills

High balance end mills are designed to significantly increase performance in highly balanced machining centers capable of elevated RPMs and feed rates. These tools are precision balanced specifically for high velocity machining in aluminum (up to 33,000 RPM).

High Balance Tools for Aluminum

Helical Solutions offers high balance tooling in standard 2 flute styles, as well as coolant-through 3 flute styles for reduced heat, enhanced chip evacuation, and increased material removal rates. These tools, like the chipbreakers, are also an excellent choice for High Efficiency Milling toolpaths.

Running Parameters

Setting the right parameters for aluminum applications is vital to optimizing productivity and achieving better machining results. Since aluminum is an easier material to machine, pushing your machine to its limits and getting the most out of your tool is vital to stay ahead of the competition and keep winning business.

While there are many factors that go into the parameters for every job, there are some general guidelines to follow when machining aluminum. For cast aluminum alloys (i.e. 308, 356, 380), a surface footage of 500-1000 SFM is recommended, with RPMs varying based on cutter diameter. The basic calculation to find a starting point for RPMs would be (3.82 x SFM) / Diameter.

In wrought aluminum alloys (i.e. 2024, 6061, 7075), a surface footage of 800-1500 SFM is recommended, with the same calculation being used to find a starting point for RPMs.

High Efficiency Milling

High Efficiency Milling, commonly known as HEM, is a strategy that is rapidly gaining popularity in the manufacturing industry. Many CAM programs are now including HEM toolpaths, and while virtually any machine can perform HEM, the CNC controller must feature a fast processor to keep up with the additional lines of code. A great example of High Efficiency Milling toolpaths in Aluminum can be seen below.

At its core, HEM is a roughing technique that utilizes a low Radial Depth of Cut (RDOC) and a high Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC) to take full advantage of the cutting edge of the tool. To learn more about how High Efficiency Milling can increase your efficiency, extend your tool life to keep costs down, and get greater performance for aluminum (and other materials), click here to download the HEM Guidebook.

In Summary

Aluminum is a versatile material with a high level of machinability, but it should not be overlooked. Understanding the best ways to tackle it is important for achieving the desired results. Optimizing your tool crib, machine setups, and toolpaths for aluminum is essential to stay ahead of the competition and make your shop more efficient.