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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

 

How Material Specific Tooling Pays Off

A machinist is faced with many questions while selecting the proper tool for their job. One key decision that must be made is whether a material specific tool is appropriate and necessary for the application that’s going to be performed – whether the benefits of using this type of tool outweigh the higher price tag than that of a tool designed for use in a variety of materials. There are four main categories to consider when deciding whether a material specific tool is your best bet: internal tool geometry, coatings, material removal rates (MRR), and cost.

When to Utilize Material Specific Tooling

Are you a machinist in a shop that deals primarily with one type of material? Or, do you generally change materials frequently throughout the day? Further, how many parts do you make at a time? These are questions you must ask yourself prior to making a tooling decision.

Material Specific Tooling is best utilized where several parts are being machined of the same material. For instance, if your shop is machining 1,000 plastic parts, it would be in your best interest to opt for a tool designed for this material as your tooling would not only last longer but perform better. If machining flexibility is paramount for your shop, if you’re only machining a few parts, or if part finish is not of high importance, a regular end mill may suffice.

Pros and Cons of Material Specific Tooling

There are pros and cons to purchasing a Material Specific Tool.

Pros:

  • Tool geometry designed for the material you’re working in to achieve the best results.
  • Coating optimized for the material you’re cutting.
  • More aggressive speeds and feeds, and boosted MRR as a result.
  • Increased tool life.

Cons:

  • Higher upfront cost, though long term savings are possible if used in proper situations.
  • Less opportunity for flexibility. While most end mills may be suitable for use in many jobs and many machines, Material Specific End Mills are engineered for use in specific materials

Special Benefits of Material Specific Tooling

A Unique Internal Tool Geometry

Many manufacturers supply tooling designed for use in specific material buckets. For instance, Harvey Tool has distinct catalog sections for material specific tooling for Hardened Steels, Exotic Alloys, Medium Alloy Steels, Free Machining Steels, Aluminum Alloys, Plastics, Diamond Tooling for Non-Ferrous Materials, and Composites. The special geometry of tools found in these sections is optimized to allow the tool to perform optimally in its select material group.

For instance, a machinist may be faced with a dilemma while preparing to machine a plastic part. While an end mill found in Harvey Tool’s Miniature End Mill section could certainly machine this material, Harvey Tool’s end mill offering designed to machine plastics feature a high rake, high relief design. This is ideal for plastics because you want to effectively cut and form chips while the strength of the tool is less of a concern. The high rake and high relief creates a sharp cutting edge that would quickly break down in metals. However, in plastics, this effectively shears the material and transfers the heat into the chip to produce a great finish in your part.

material specific tooling

Harvey Performance Company, LLC.

Specific Coatings & Substrates for Optimal Performance

One key benefit of opting for a material specific tool is the ability to utilize the best coating option available for that material. Tool coatings serve many functions, including improved lubricity, increased tool life, and a higher-quality part finish. In addition, coated tools can typically be run around 10% faster than uncoated tools.

While many manufacturers will specially coat a standard end mill at your request, this takes added time and cost. In its Material Specific catalog sections, Harvey Tool offers coated tools stocked and ready to ship. For instance, their Hardened Steels and Exotic Alloys categories utilize AlTiN Nano coating. This is a unique nanocomposite coating that has a max working temperature of 2,100° F and shows improved performance in materials such as Hardened Steels, Titantium Alloys, and Inconel, among others.

Increased Material Removal Rates

Because Material Specific Tooling features optimal tool geometry for a job, running parameters are generally able to be more aggressive. Any machinist knows that Material Removal Rates (MRR), is the metric that’s most closely related to shop efficiency, as the more material removed from a part in a given period of time, the faster parts are made and the higher the shop output.

The following example compares running parameters of end mills from Harvey Tool’s Miniature End Mill and Material Specific End Mill Sections. You can notice that while key geometries between the two tools are identical, and are in use in the same material with the same operation, the chip load (+25%), linear feed rate (+33%), and depth of cut (+43%) are boosted. This allows for more material to be removed in a shorter period of time.

Miniature End Mill

Part Number: 836408

Description: 3 Flute 1/8 inch diameter 3x LOC Square Stub & Standard

Material: 6061 Aluminum

Application: Slotting

Speed: 10,000 RPM

Chip Load: .00124 IPT

Linear Feed: 37.2 IPM

DOC: .04375

material specific tooling

Harvey Performance Company, LLC.

 

Material Specific End Mill

Part Number: 942308

Description: 3 Flute 1/8 inch diameter 3x LOC Square Variable Helix for Aluminum Alloys

Material: 6061 Aluminum

Application: Slotting

Speed: 10,000 RPM

Chip Load: .00165 IPT

Linear Feed: 49.5 IPM

DOC: .0625

material specific tooling

Harvey Performance Company, LLC.

Extensive Cost Savings

The following chart displays a cost analysis breakdown between a tool found in the Miniature End Mill section, item 993893-C3; and a tool found in the Material Specific End Mill section, item 933293-C6. When compared for the machining of 1,000 parts, the overall savings is nearly $2,500.

material specific tooling

Material Specific Tooling Summarized

In conclusion, Material Specific End Mills have many benefits, but are best utilized in certain situations. While the initial cost of these tools are higher, they can work to save your shop time and money in the long run by lasting longer and producing more parts over a given period of time.

Workholding Styles & Considerations

Machinists have a number of variables to consider when setting up workholding devices for a machining operation. When it comes to workholding, there are some major differences between holding a loosely toleranced duplicate part with a 10-minute cycle time and holding a tightly toleranced specialized part with a 10-hour cycle time. Determining which method works best for your machining job is essential to maintaining an efficient operation.

Workholding Devices

Ideal workholding devices have easily repeatable setups. For this reason, some machines have standard workholding devices. Vises are generally used with milling machines while chucks or collets are used when running a lathe machine. Sometimes, a part may need a customized workholding setup in order to secure the piece properly during machining. Fixtures and jigs are examples of customized workholding devices.

Fixtures and Jigs

A jig is a work holding device that holds, supports and locates a workpiece and guides the cutting tool into a specific operation (usually through the use of one or more bushings). A fixture is essentially the same type of device, but the main difference is that it does not guide the cutting tool into a specified operation. Fixtures are typically used in milling operations while jigs are generally used in drilling, reaming, tapping and boring. Jigs and fixtures are more precise relative to standard workholding devices, which leads to tighter tolerances. They can also be indexable, allowing them to control the cutting tool movement as well as workpiece movement. Both jigs and fixtures are made up of the same basic components: fixture bodies, locators, supports, and clamps.

The 4 Fixture Bodies

There are 4 basic types of fixture bodies: faceplates, baseplates, angle plates, and tombstones.

Faceplates: Typically used in lathe operations, where components are secured to the faceplate and then mounted onto the spindle.

Baseplates: Common in milling and drilling operations and are mounted to the worktable.

Angle plates: Two plates perpendicular to each other but some are adjustable or customized to change the angle of the workpiece.

Tombstones: Large vertically oriented rectangular fixtures that orients a workpiece perpendicular to the worktable. Tombstones also have two sides to accommodate multiple parts.

workholding

Locators

Locators are characterized by four criteria: assembled, integral, fixed, and adjustable. Assembled locators, can be attached and removed from the fixture, which is contrary to integral locators that are built into the fixture. Fixed locators allow for no moving components, while adjustable locators permit movement through the use of threads and/or springs, and can adjust to a workpiece’s size. These can be combined to provide the appropriate rigidity-assembly convenience ratio. For example, a V-locator fixture is the combination of assembled and fixed locators. It can be secured to a fixture but has no moving components.

workholding

Supports

Supports do exactly what their name suggests, they support the workpiece during the machining process to avoid workpiece deformation. These components can double as locators and also come fixed, adjustable and integral, or assembled. Generally, supports are placed under the workpiece during manufacturing but this also depends on the geometry of the workpiece, the machine being operated and where the cutting tool will make contact. Supports can come in different shapes and sizes. For example, rest buttons are smaller support components used in series either from underneath the workpiece or from the sides. Concurrently, parallel supports are placed on either side of the part to provide general support.

workholding

Clamps

Clamps are devices used for strengthening or holding things together, and come in different shapes, sizes and strengths. Vises and chucks have movable jaws and are considered standard clamps. One atypical example is the toggle clamp, which has a pivot pin that acts as a fulcrum for a lever system. One of the more convenient types is a power clamping system. There are two type of power clamping methods: hydraulic and pneumatic.

workholding

Example of a standard fixture setup.

Hydraulic Systems

Hydraulic Systems create a gripping force by attaining power from compressing a liquid. This type of power clamp is generally used with larger workpieces as it usually takes up less space relative to pneumatic clamps.

Pneumatic clamps

Pneumatic clamps attain their gripping force from the power created by a compressed gas (usually air). These systems are generally bulkier and are used for smaller workpieces that require less room on the worktable. Power clamping offers a few advantages over conventional clamping. First, these systems can be activated and deactivated quickly to save on changeover time. Second, they place uniform pressure on the part, which help prevent errors and deformation. A significant disadvantage they pose is the cost of a system but this can be quickly offset by production time saved.

Key Guidelines to Follow

Lastly, there are a few guidelines to follow when choosing the appropriate fixture or jig setup.

Ensure Proper Tolerancing

The tolerances of the workholding device being used should be 20%-50% tighter than those of the workpiece.

Utilize Acceptable Locating & Supporting Pieces

Locating and supporting pieces should be made of a hardened material to prevent wear and allow for several uses without the workpieces they support falling out of tolerance. Supports and locators should also be standardized so that they can be easily replaced.

Place Clamps in Correct Locations

Clamps should be placed above the locations of supports to allow the force of the clamp to pass into the support without deforming the workpiece. Clamps, locators and supports should also be placed to distribute cutting forces as evenly as possible throughout the part. The setup should allow for easy clamping and not require much change over time

Maximize Machining Flexibility

The design of the fixture or jigs should maximize the amount of operations that can be performed in one orientation. During the machining operation, the setup should be rigid and stable.

Bottom Line

Workholding can be accomplished in a number of different ways and accomplish the same task of successfully gripping a part during a machining operation with the end result being in tolerance. The quality of this workholding may differ greatly as some setups will be more efficient than others. For example, there is no reason to create an elaborate jig for creating a small slot down the center of a rectangular brick of aluminum; a vise grip would work just fine. Maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of an operators’ workholding setup will boost productivity by saving on changeover, time as well as cost of scrapped, out of tolerance parts.

Selecting the Right Plastic Cutting End Mill

Many challenges can arise when machining different types of plastics. In the ever changing plastics industry, considerations for workholding, the melting point of your material, and any burrs that may potentially be created on the piece need to be examined prior to selecting a tool. Choosing the correct tool for your job and material is pivotal to avoid wasting time and money. Harvey Tool offers One, Two, and Three Flute Plastic Cutting End Mills with Upcut and Downcut Geometries. The following guide is intended to aid in the tool selection process to avoid common plastic cutting mistakes.

Choose Workholding Method

When it comes to workholding, not all plastic parts can be secured by clamps or vices. Depending on the material’s properties, these workholding options may damage or deform the part. To circumnavigate this, vacuum tables or other weaker holding forces, such as double sided tape, are frequently used. Since these workholdings do not secure the part as tightly, lifting can become a problem if the wrong tool is used.

Downcut Plastic Cutting End Mills — tools with a left hand spiral, right hand cut — have downward axial forces that push chips down, preventing lifting and delamination. If an Upcut Plastic Cutting End Mill is required, then a tool with minimal upward forces should be chosen. The slower the cutter’s helix, the less upward forces it will generate on the workpiece.

plastic cutter selection

Determine Heat Tolerance

The amount of heat generated should always be considered prior to any machining processes, but this is especially the case while working in plastics. While machining plastics, heat must be removed from the contact area between the tool and the workpiece quickly and efficiently to avoid melting and chip welding.

If your plastic has a low melting point, a Single Flute Plastic Cutting End Mill is a good option. This tool has a larger flute valley than its two flute counterpart which allows for bigger chips. With a larger chip, more heat can be transferred away from the material without it melting.

For plastics with a higher heat tolerance, a Two or Three Flute Plastic Cutting End Mill can be utilized. Because it has more cutting edges and allows for higher removal rates, its tool life is extended.

plastic cutter selection

Consider Finish Quality & Deburring

The polymer arrangement in plastics can cause many burrs if the proper tool is not selected. Parts that require hand-deburring offline after the machining process can drain shop resources. A sharp cutting edge is needed to ensure that the plastic is sheared cleanly, reducing the occurrence of burrs. Three Flute Plastic Cutting End Mills can reduce or eliminate the need to hand-deburr a part. These tools employ an improved cutting action and rigidity due to the higher flute count. Their specialized end geometry reduces the circular end marks that are left behind from traditional metal cutting end mills, leaving a cleaner finish with minimal burrs.

Flute Count Case Study

2 FLUTE PLASTIC CUTTER: A facing operation was performed in acrylic with a standard 2 Flute Plastic Cutting End Mill. The high rake, high relief design of the 2 flute tool increased chip removal rate, but also left distinct swirling patterns on the top of the workpiece.

3 FLUTE PLASTIC FINISHER: A facing operation was performed on a separate acrylic piece with a specialized 3 Flute Plastic Finisher End Mill. The specialized cutting end left minimal swirling marks and resulted in a smoother finish.

plastic cutter selection

Identifying the potential problems of cutting a specific plastic is an important first step when choosing an appropriate plastic cutter. Deciding on the right tool can mean the difference between an excellent final product and a scrapped job. Harvey Tool’s team of technical engineers is available to help answer any questions you might have about selecting the appropriate Plastic Cutting End Mill.

plastic cutter selection