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Understanding Threads & Thread Mills

Thread milling can present a machinist many challenges. While thread mills are capable of producing threads with relative ease, there are a lot of considerations that machinists must make prior to beginning the job in order to gain consistent results. To conceptualize these features and choose the right tool, machinists must first understand basic thread milling applications.

 

What is a thread?

The primary function of a thread is to form a coupling between two different mechanisms. Think of the cap on your water bottle. The cap couples with the top of the bottle in order to create a water tight seal. This coupling can transmit motion and help to obtain mechanical advantages.  Below are some important terms to know in order to understand threads.

Root – That surface of the thread which joins the flanks of adjacent thread forms and is immediately adjacent to the cylinder or cone from which the thread projects.

Flank – The flank of a thread is either surface connecting the crest with the root. The flank surface intersection with an axial plane is theoretically a straight line.

Crest – This is that surface of a thread which joins the flanks of the thread and is farthest from the cylinder or cone from which the thread projects.

Pitch – The pitch of a thread having uniform spacing is the distance measured parallelwith its axis between corresponding points on adjacent thread forms in the same axial plane and on the same side of the axis. Pitch is equal to the lead divided by the number of thread starts.

Major Diameter – On a straight thread the major diameter is that of the major cylinder.On a taper thread the major diameter at a given position on the thread axis is that of the major cone at that position.

Minor Diameter – On a straight thread the minor diameter is that of the minor cylinder. On a taper thread the minor diameter at a given position on the thread axis is that of the minor cone at that position.

Helix Angle – On a straight thread, the helix angle is the angle made by the helix of the thread and its relation to the thread axis. On a taper thread, the helix angle at a given axial position is the angle made by the conical spiral of the thread with the axis of the thread. The helix angle is the complement of the lead angle.

Depth of Thread Engagement – The depth (or height) of thread engagement between two coaxially assembled mating threads is the radial distance by which their thread forms overlap each other.

External Thread – A thread on a cylindrical or conical external surface.

Internal Thread – A thread on a cylindrical or conical internal surface.

Class of Thread – The class of a thread is an alphanumerical designation to indicate the standard grade of tolerance and allowance specified for a thread.

Source: Machinery’s Handbook 29th Edition

Types of Threads & Their Common Applications:

ISO Metric, American UN: This thread type is used for general purposes, including for screws. Features a 60° thread form.

British Standard, Whitworth: This thread form includes a 55° thread form and is often used when a water tight seal is needed.

NPT: Meaning National Pipe Tapered, this thread, like the Whitworth Thread Form, is also internal. See the above video for an example of an NPT thread.

UNJ, MJ: This type of thread is often used in the Aerospace industry and features a radius at the root of the thread.

ACME, Trapezoidal: ACME threads are screw thread profiles that feature a trapezoidal outline, and are most commonly used for power screws.

Buttress Threads: Designed for applications that involve particularly high stresses along the thread axis in one direction. The thread angle on these threads is 45° with a perpendicular flat on the front or “load resisting face.”         

Thread Designations

Threads must hold certain tolerances, known as thread designations, in order to join together properly. International standards have been developed for threads. Below are examples of Metric, UN, and Acme Thread Designations. It is important to note that not all designations will be uniform, as some tolerances will include diameter tolerances while others will include class of fit.

Metric Thread Designations              

M12 x 1.75 – 4h – LH

In this scenario, “M” designates a Metric Thread Designation, 12 refers to the Nominal Diameter, 1.75 is the pitch, 4h is the “Class of Fit,” and “LH” means “Left-Hand.”

UN Thread Designations

¾ 10 UNC 2A LH

For this UN Thread Designation, ¾ refers to the thread’s major diameter, where 10 references the number of threads per inch. UNC stands for the thread series; and 2A means the class of thread. The “A” is used to designate external threads, while “B” is for internal threads. For these style threads, there are 6 other classes of fit; 1B, 2B, and 3B for internal threads; and 1A, 2A, and 3A for external threads.

ACME Thread Designations

A 1 025 20-X

For this ACME Thread Designation, A refers to “Acme,” while 1 is the number of thread starts. The basic major diameter is called out by 025 (Meaning 1/4”) while 20 is the callout for number of threads per inch. X is a placeholder for a number designating the purpose of the thread. A number 1 means it’s for a screw, while 2 means it’s for a nut, and 3 refers to a flange.

How are threads measured?

Threads are measured using go and no-go gauges. These gauges are inspection tools used to ensure the that the thread is the right size and has the correct pitch. The go gauge ensures the pitch diameter falls below the maximum requirement, while the no-go gauge verifies that the pitch diameter is above the minimum requirement. These gauges must be used carefully to ensure that the threads are not damaged.

Thread Milling Considerations

Thread milling is the interpolation of a thread mill around or inside a workpiece to create a desired thread form on a workpiece. Multiple radial passes during milling offer good chip control. Remember, though, that thread milling needs to be performed on machines capable of moving on the X, Y, and Z axis simultaneously.

5 Tips for Successful Thread Milling Operations:

1.  Opt for a Quality Tooling Manufacturer

There is no substitute for adequate tooling. To avoid tool failure and machining mishaps, opt for a quality manufacturer for High Performance Drills for your starter holes, as well as for your thread milling solutions. Harvey Tool fully stocks several types of threadmills, including Single Form, Tri-Form, and Multi-Form Thread Milling Cutters. In addition, the 60° Double Angle Shank Cutter can be used for thread milling.

thread milling

Image Courtesy of  @Avantmfg

2. Select a Proper Cutter Diameter

Choose only a cutter diameter as large as you need. A smaller cutter diameter will help achieve higher quality threads.

3. Ensure You’re Comfortable with Your Tool Path

Your chosen tool path will determine left hand or right hand threads.

Right-hand internal thread milling is where cutters move counterclockwise in an upwards direction to ensure that climb milling is achieved.

Left-hand internal thread milling a left-hand thread follows in the opposite direction, from top to bottom, also in a counterclockwise path to ensure that climb milling is achieved.

4. Assess Number of Radial Passes Needed

In difficult applications, using more passes may be necessary to achieve desired quality. Separating the thread milling operation into several radial passes achieves a finer quality of thread and improves security against tool breakage in difficult materials. In addition, thread milling with several radial passes also improves thread tolerance due to reduced tool deflection. This gives greater security in long overhangs and unstable conditions.

5. Review Chip Evacuation Strategy

Are you taking the necessary steps to avoid chip recutting due to inefficient chip evacuation? If not, your thread may fall out of tolerance. Opt for a strategy that includes coolant, lubricant, and tool retractions.

In Summary

Just looking at a threading tool can be confusing – it is sometimes hard to conceptualize how these tools are able to get the job done. But with proper understanding of call, methods, and best practices, machinists can feel confident when beginning their operation.

Form Factory – Featured Customer

Form Factory is a machine shop located in Portland, Oregon focused primarily on prototype work, taking 3D CAD models and making them a physical reality through CNC precision machining. Over the past 14 years, Form Factory has grown from a one man operation with a single CNC mill into a highly respected shop in the Northwest US, making prototype models for clients all over the world. Harvey Tool customers may recognize the name Form Factory from their photo on the front cover of the Fall 2018 Catalog, as they were the first place winners of the #MachineTheImpossible Catalog Cover Contest!

We talked with Brian Ross, Founder/Owner of Form Factory, to learn about how he suggests entrepreneurs and inventors think about prototyping their ideas, his unique experience working on many different models, his winning part in the #MachineTheImpossible contest, and more!

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us for this Featured Customer post. To get started, tell us a little bit about Form Factory, how you got started, and what sort of products you manufacture.

Prior to starting my own business, I had worked as a machinist at 4 different prototyping firms which is where I learned the trade and got the itch to run my own shop. I started Form Factory myself just over 14 years ago with a single Haas VF1. I had no client base and a bunch of loans. It was a scary time for me to jump in to entrepreneurship. Now, we have three CNC machines, various other components and machines, and four full-time employees.

At Form Factory we focus primarily on industrial design models and prototypes. We do a lot of work in the electronics industry, making prototypes of cell phones, laptops, printers, and other consumer electronics. Many of our models are created for display at trade shows or in Kickstarter and other product announcement videos, but we also do a fair share of working prototypes as well. It all depends on what the client wants, and we pride ourselves on the ability to deliver exactly what they need.

form factory

What sort of machines and software do you use in your shop?

We currently have 3 CNC mills – a Haas VF1, Haas VF2, and Haas VF3. We like using machines made in the USA because we like making products in the USA. Haas is what I knew and had run predominantly, and Haas is fairly common in the Northwest so it was easier to find skilled employees in the area who knew these machines well.

We use Mastercam for our CAM software, which is what I learned on. It also seems to be very common in this area which makes for an easy transition for new employees.

form factory

What were some of the keys to success as you built Form Factory from the ground up?

I based much of Form Factory’s business model on my past experiences in manufacturing. Many of the other small companies I had worked for ended up closing, even though the guys on the shop floor would be working lots of overtime and we had plenty of business. What I realized was that these other places often closed because of greed, over-expansion, and rapid growth which they could not sustain. They ended up overextending themselves and they could not keep the doors open as a result.

I like the spot I am in now because while we can certainly expand, we have found a happy medium. We have kept our customers happy and consistently deliver parts on time, so we get a lot of repeat business. Being a small company, word of mouth is one of our only forms of marketing. Word definitely gets around on how you treat people so we try to treat everyone with respect and honesty, which is key to running a good business.

form factory

Working Prototype of a “Smart Ball” Charger for Adidas

Prototype manufacturing is a very competitive segment of this industry. What sets Form Factory apart from the competition?

Understanding how model making relates to industrial design separates us from a typical machine shop. We can take a prototype design or simple drawing and we are able to implement all of the functionality into a prototype model. We do not deal much with the actual production run, which will come later, so we have the ability to focus more on the prototype and a customer’s exact needs to get a product off the ground. This level of expertise and focus sets us apart from your typical shop.

For example, if the model is for photography purposes, a trade show display, or a promotional video, appearance will be key. We will spend more time working on building what we consider to be a true work of art; something that will immediately stand out to the consumer, but may lack in complete functionality. If the client requires a fully functioning prototype, we will spend more time making sure that all of the components work as intended over multiple stages of design. The final result may be a bit “uglier” than a prototype designed for appearance alone, but it will work as intended.

Let’s say I have an idea for a new product. What should I know about getting my design manufactured?

Right now, especially with 3D printing and cheap overseas manufacturing, it can seem very easy to prototype a new product. However, these options are not always the best route to take to get a quality prototype. With 3D printing, you get a huge step down in resolution and quality, although you can save in cost. You can also save on cost by having things made overseas, but the communication can easily breakdown and the quality is often lower. The other factor is that virtually anyone can end up copying your product overseas and you have very little protection against that.

form factory

By going with a local machine shop and sticking with CNC-machined parts, you are guaranteed to get a higher quality finished product with better communication. We do a ton of back and forth communication with our clients to understand their exact design intent. With a prototype, there are often a lot of blanks that need to be filled in to completely understand the product, and we do our best to communicate with the client to deliver the perfect piece, and always on time. Sure, your cost may be higher, but the entire process will be smoother and the time saved on revisions or scrapping poor quality prototypes is invaluable.

It sounds like you guys take a lot of pride in the work you do, which is great!

Absolutely! Our models are all one of a kind works of art. We can take things from the early stages where a client might have an idea drawn on a napkin, all the way to a fully functional piece.

Our goal is always to make parts look like they grew that way. In my opinion, taking a solid block of material and making it into a finished part is truly a work of art. We work hard to determine where the burrs are, what the radiuses are, and how the finish should look, amongst many other variables. We take a lot of pride in the finished appearance and want everyone in the shop to produce the same level of quality as their co-workers. We hold all ourselves and our work to very high standards.

form factory

Finished Laptop Display Models

How has the online machinist community helped your business/changed your thinking/helped you grow as a machinist/business owner?

I follow tons of great machinists and other companies on Instagram.  It’s funny how quick you can get an idea from a simple picture or short video of another project somebody else is working on.  I love machining because after 25 years, I am still learning so much every day.  The machines, the software, and the tooling are changing so fast its hard to keep up.  Every day I see something on Instagram that makes me say “Oh WOW!” or “Hey, I can do my part that way!”  I was machining before there was an internet, so I really appreciate having an on-line community, and body of knowledge to draw from. You can find us on Instagram @FormFactory!

We loved the ball in chain part you created for our #MachineTheImpossible Fall 2018 Catalog Cover contest, and so did our followers, as they voted you into first place. Tell us a little more about that part.

So that piece was something I had been wanting to try for a while to challenge myself. It was not a part for a customer or part of a job, but simply a practice in more complex machining. The entire part was actually machined from one solid piece of aluminum on a 3 axis mill. With some clever fixturing and a few setups, I was able to make it work!

machine the impossible

Harvey Tool’s Tapered and Long Reach End Mills played a huge part in the creation. There would have been no way for me to get at those impossible angles or hard to reach areas without the multiple available dimensions and angles that you guys offer. In total, that piece took me about 20 hours, but it was a great piece to learn with and it definitely paid off in the end! As a small business, getting that exposure and marketing from being on your catalog cover was huge, and we appreciate the opportunity you gave us and the entire machinist community.

To a small business like yours, what did it mean to you to be highlighted on the Fall 2018 catalog cover?

I found out we had won when one of my customer’s emailed me congratulations! I was blown away! Even to be chosen as a finalist was exciting. The Harvey Tool Catalog is the ONE catalog we always have around the shop at the ready. I have been a Harvey fan for two decades, so making the cover of the catalog was pretty awesome!

In your career, how has Harvey Tool helped you #MachineTheImpossible?

Being able to overnight tools straight to the shop on a moment’s notice has saved us too many times to count. Harvey Tool makes some of the most impossible reach tooling; I still don’t know how they do it. ‘Back in the day” I would grind my own relief on an old Deckel. There’s nothing quite like looking for that extra 50 thou of reach and snapping off the tool! Now I let Harvey do ALL of that work for me, so I can focus on the machining. It takes nice tools to make nice parts. If you need tools that are always accurately relieved to just under the tool diameter, crazy sharp, and balanced, then look no further than Harvey Tool.

form factory

If you could give one piece of advice to a new machinist ready to take the #PlungeIntoMachining, what would it be?

Find the ‘Distance to Go’ setting or view on your machine’s control, and hit ‘feed hold’ with the first plunge of every new tool you set, and every new work offset, 100% of the time. It will save your mill and your parts from disaster. Machining is the art of doing thousands of simple things, exactly right and in the right order. The hard part is to keep your focus and pay keen attention through the entire process. Understand how easy it is to make a simple mistake, and how quickly you can be starting over. Allow yourself room for mistakes along the way by triple checking BEFORE your mill lets you know it’s too late. If you have other things on your mind, don’t machine parts.


Would you like to be considered for a future “Featured Customer” blog? Click here to submit your information.

Experience the Benefits of Staggered Tooth Keyseats

Keyseat Cutters, also known as Woodruff Cutters, Keyway Cutters, and T-Slot Cutters, are commonly used in machine shops. Many machinists opt to use this tool to put a slot on the side of a part in an efficient manner, rather than rotating the workpiece and using a traditional end mill. A Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutter has alternating right-hand and left hand shear flutes and is right-hand cut, whereas a traditional keyseat cutter has all straight flutes and is right-hand cut. Simply, the unique geometry of a Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutter gives the tool its own set of advantages including the ability to index within the slot, increase feed rates, and achieve better part finish.

staggered tooth keyseat cutter

Three Key Benefits

Indexing

The alternating right-and-left-hand flutes of a Harvey Tool Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutters are relieved on both sides of its head, meaning that it allows for both end cutting and back cutting. This adds to the versatility of the staggered tooth keyseat cutter, where one singular tool can be indexed axially within a slot to expand the slot to a specific uncommon dimension. This can save space in a machinist’s magazine and reduce machine time by eliminating the need to swap to a new tool.

Increased Feed Rates

Due to the unique geometry of a Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutter, chips evacuate efficiently and at a faster rate than that of a Straight Flute Keyseat Cutter. The unique flutes of Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutters are a combination of right-and-left-hand shear flutes, but both types are right-hand cutting. This results in the tool’s teeth alternating between upcut and downcut. Chip packing and chip recutting is less of a concern with running this tool, and results in increased chip loads compared to that of a standard keyseat with the same number of flutes. Because of this, the tool can account for chiploads of about 10% higher than the norm, resulting in heightened feed rates and shorter cycle times overall.

Better Part Finish

Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutters have “teeth”, or flutes, that are ground at an angle creating a shear flute geometry. This geometry minimizes chip recutting, chip dragging and reduces the force needed to cut into the material. Chip recutting and dragging are minimized because chips are evacuated out of the top and bottom of the head on the side of the cutter that is not engaged in the material. Shear flutes also reduce vibrations that can lead to chatter and poor finish. By minimizing cutting forces, vibration, and chatter, a machinist can expect a better part finish.

staggered tooth keyseat cutter

Image courtesy of @edc_machining

Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutter Diverse Product Offering

On top of the higher performance one will experience when using the Stagger Tooth Keyseats, there are also multiple options available with various combinations to suit multiple machining needs. This style is offered in a square and corner radius profile which helps if a fillet or sharp corner is needed. There are also multiple cutter diameters ranging from 1/8” to 5/8”. The increased diameter comes with an increase of radial depth of cut, allowing deeper slots to be achievable. Within the most popular cutter diameters, ¼”, 3/8”, and ½” there are also deep slotting options with even greater radial depth of cuts for increased slot depths. On top of the diameters and radii, there are also multiple cutter widths to choose from to create different slots in one go. Finally, an uncoated and AlTiN coatings are available to further increase tool life and performance depending on the material that is being cut.

Opt for a Smoother Operation

A Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutter adds versatility to a tool magazine. It can be indexed axially to expand slots to make multiple widths, allowing machinists to progress operations in a more efficient manner where tool changes are not required. Further, this tool will help to reduce harmonics and chatter, as well as minimize recutting. This works to create a smoother operation with less force on the cutter, resulting in a better finish compared to a Standard Keyseat Cutter.

For more information on Harvey Tool Staggered Tooth Keyseat Cutters and its applications, visit Harvey Tool’s Keyseat Cutter page.

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

Best Practices of Tolerance Stacking

Tolerance stacking, also known as tolerance stack-up, refers to the combination of various part dimension tolerances. After a tolerance is identified on the dimension of a part, it is important to test whether that tolerance would work with the tool’s tolerances: either the upper end or lower end. A part or assembly can be subject to inaccuracies when its tolerances are stacked up incorrectly.

The Importance of Tolerances

Tolerances directly influence the cost and performance of a product. Tighter tolerances make a machined part more difficult to manufacture and therefore often more expensive. With this in mind, it is important to find a balance between manufacturability of the part, its functionality, and its cost.

Tips for Successful Tolerance Stacking

Avoid Using Tolerances that are Unnecessarily Small

As stated above, tighter tolerances lead to a higher manufacturing cost as the part is more difficult to make. This higher cost is often due to the increased amount of scrapped parts that can occur when dimensions are found to be out of tolerance. The cost of high quality tool holders and tooling with tighter tolerances can also be an added expense.

Additionally, unnecessarily small tolerances will lead to longer manufacturing times, as more work goes in to ensure that the part meets strict criteria during machining, and after machining in the inspection process.

Be Careful Not to Over Dimension a Part

When an upper and lower tolerance is labeled on every feature of a part, over-dimensioning can become a problem. For example, a corner radius end mill with a right and left corner radii might have a tolerance of +/- .001”, and the flat between them has a .002” tolerance. In this case, the tolerance window for the cutter diameter would be +/- .004”, but is oftentimes miscalculated during part dimensioning. Further, placing a tolerance on this callout would cause it to be over dimensioned, and thus the reference dimension “REF” must be left to take the tolerance’s place.

stacking tolerances

Figure 1: Shape of slot created by a corner radius end mill

Utilize Statistical Tolerance Analysis:

Statistical analysis looks at the likelihood that all three tolerances would be below or above the dimensioned slot width, based on a standard deviation. This probability is represented by a normal probability density function, which can be seen in figure 2 below. By combining all the probabilities of the different parts and dimensions in a design, we can determine the probability that a part will have a problem, or fail altogether, based on the dimensions and tolerance of the parts. Generally this method of analysis is only used for assemblies with four or more tolerances.

stacking tolerances

                                                               Figure 2: Tolerance Stacking: Normal distribution

Before starting a statistical tolerance analysis, you must calculate or choose a tolerance distribution factor. The standard distribution is 3 . This means that most of the data (or in this case tolerances) will be within 3 standard deviations of the mean. The standard deviations of all the tolerances must be divided by this tolerance distribution factor to normalize them from a distribution of 3  to a distribution of 1 . Once this has been done, the root sum squared can be taken to find the standard deviation of the assembly.

Think of it like a cup of coffee being made with 3 different sized beans. In order to make a delicious cup of joe, you must first grind down all of the beans to the same size so they can be added to the coffee filter. In this case, the beans are the standard deviations, the grinder is the tolerance distribution factor, and the coffee filter is the root sum squared equation. This is necessary because some tolerances may have different distribution factors based on the tightness of the tolerance range.

The statistical analysis method is used if there is a requirement that the slot must be .500” wide with a +/- .003” tolerance, but there is no need for the radii (.125”) and the flat (.250”) to be exact as long as they fit within the slot. In this example, we have 3 bilateral tolerances with their standard deviations already available. Since they are bilateral, the standard deviation from the mean would simply be whatever the + or – tolerance value is. For the outside radii, this would be .001” and for the middle flat region this would be .002”.

For this example, let’s find the standard deviation (σ) of each section using equation 1. In this equation represents the standard deviation.

standard deviation

The standard assumption is that a part tolerance represents a +/- 3  normal distribution. Therefore, the distribution factor will be 3. Using equation 1 on the left section of figure 1, we find that its corrected standard deviation equates to:

tolerance stacking

This is then repeated for the middle and right sections:

standard deviation

After arriving at these standard deviations, we input the results into equation 2 to find the standard deviation of the tolerance zone. Equation 2 is known as the root sum squared equation.

root sum

At this point, it means that 68% of the slots will be within a +/- .0008” tolerance. Multiplying this tolerance by 2 will result in a 95% confidence window, where multiplying it by 3 will result in a 99% confidence window.

68% of the slots will be within +/- .0008”

95% of the slots will be within +/- .0016”

99% of the slots will be within +/- .0024”

These confidence windows are standard for a normal distributed set of data points. A standard normal distribution can be seen in Figure 2 above.

Statistical tolerance analysis should only be used for assemblies with greater than 4 toleranced parts. A lot of factors were unaccounted for in this simple analysis. This example was for 3 bilateral dimensions whose tolerances were representative of their standard deviations from their means. In standard statistical tolerance analysis, other variables come into play such as angles, runout, and parallelism, which require correction factors.

Use Worst Case Analysis:

Worst case analysis is the practice of adding up all the tolerances of a part to find the total part tolerance. When performing this type of analysis, each tolerance is set to its largest or smallest limit in its respective range. This total tolerance can then be compared to the performance limits of the part to make sure the assembly is designed properly. This is typically used for only 1 dimension (Only 1 plane, therefore no angles involved) and for assemblies with a small number of parts.

Worst case analysis can also be used when choosing the appropriate cutting tool for your job, as the tool’s tolerance can be added to the parts tolerance for a worst case scenario. Once this scenario is identified, the machinist or engineer can make the appropriate adjustments to keep the part within the dimensions specified on the print. It should be noted that the worst case scenario rarely ever occurs in actual production. While these analyses can be expensive for manufacturing, it provides peace of mind to machinists by guaranteeing that all assemblies will function properly. Often this method requires tight tolerances because the total stack up at maximum conditions is the primary feature used in design. Tighter tolerances intensify manufacturing costs due to the increased amount of scraping, production time for inspection, and cost of tooling used on these parts.

Example of worst case scenario in context to Figure 1:

Find the lower specification limit.

For the left corner radius

.125” – .001” = .124”

For the flat section

.250” – .002” = .248”

For the right corner radius

.125” – .001” = .124”

Add all of these together to the lower specification limit:

.124” + .248” + .124” = .496”

Find the upper specification limit:

For the left corner radius

.125” + .001” = .126”

For the flat section

.250” + .002” = .252”

For the right corner radius

.125” + .001” = .126”

Add all of these together to the lower specification limit:

.126” + .252” + .126” = .504”

Subtract the two and divide this answer by two to get the worst case tolerance:

(Upper Limit – Lower Limit)/2 = .004”

Therefore the worst case scenario of this slot is .500” +/- .004”.