Applying HEM to Micromachining

The following is just one of several blog posts relevant to High Efficiency Milling. To achieve a full understanding of this popular machining method, view any of the additional HEM posts below!

Introduction to High Efficiency Milling I High Speed Machining vs. HEM I How to Combat Chip Thinning I Diving into Depth of Cut I How to Avoid 4 Major Types of Tool Wear I Intro to Trochoidal Milling

Benefits of Using HEM with Miniature Tooling

High Efficiency Milling (HEM) is a technique for roughing that utilizes a lower Radial Depth of Cut (RDOC), and a higher Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC). This delays the rate of tool wear, reducing the chance of failure and prolonging tool life while boosting productivity and Material Removal Rates (MRR). Because this machining method boosts MRR, miniature tooling (<.125”) is commonly overlooked for HEM operations. Further, many shops also do not have the high RPM capabilities necessary to see the benefits of HEM for miniature tooling. However, if used properly, miniature tooling can produce the same benefits of HEM that larger diameter tooling can.

Benefits of HEM:

  • Extended tool life and performance.
  • Faster cycle times.
  • Overall cost savings

Preventing Common Challenges

Utilizing miniature tooling for HEM, while beneficial if performed correctly, presents challenges that all machinists must be mindful of. Knowing what to keep an eye out for is a pivotal first step to success.

Tool Fragility & Breakage

Breakage is one of the main challenges associated with utilizing HEM with miniature tooling due to the fragility of the tool. Spindle runout and vibration, tool deflection, material inconsistencies, and uneven loading are just some of the problems which can lead to a broken tool. To prevent this, more attention must be paid to the machine setup and material to ensure the tools have the highest chance of success.

As a general rule, HEM should not be considered when using tools with cutting diameters less than .031”. While possible, HEM may still be prohibitively challenging or risky at diameters below .062”, and your application and machine must be considered carefully.

Techniques to Prevent Tool Failure:

Excessive Heat & Thermal Shock

Due to the small nature of miniature tooling and the high running speeds they require, heat generation can quickly become an issue. When heat is not controlled, the workpiece and tooling may experience thermal cracking, melting, burning, built up edge, or warping.

To combat high heat, coolant is often used to decrease the surface temperature of the material as well as aid in chip evacuation and lubricity. However, care must be taken to ensure that using coolant doesn’t cool the material too quickly or unevenly. If an improper coolant method is used, thermal shock can occur. Thermal shock happens when a material expands unevenly, creating micro fractures that propagate throughout the material and can crack, warp, or change the physical properties of the material.

Techniques to Prevent Heat & Thermal Shock:

Key Takeaways

If performed properly, miniature tooling (<.125”) can reap the same benefits of HEM that larger diameter tooling can: reduced tool wear, accelerated part production rates, and greater machining accuracy. However, more care must be taken to monitor the machining process and to prevent tool fragility, excessive heat, and thermal shock.

Check out this example of HEM toolpaths (trochoidal milling) being run with a 3/16″ Harvey Tool End Mill in aluminum.


Introduction to High Efficiency Milling

The following is just one of several blog posts relevant to High Efficiency Milling. To achieve a full understanding of this popular machining method, view any of the additional HEM posts below!

High Speed Machining vs. HEM I How to Combat Chip Thinning I Diving into Depth of Cut I How to Avoid 4 Major Types of Tool Wear I Intro to Trochoidal Milling

High Efficiency Milling (HEM) is a strategy that is rapidly gaining popularity in the metalworking industry. Most CAM packages now offer modules to generate HEM toolpaths, each with their own proprietary name. In these packages, HEM can also be known as Dynamic Milling or High Efficiency Machining, among others. HEM can result in profound shop efficiency, extended tool life, greater performance, and cost savings. High performance end mills designed to achieve higher speeds and feeds will help machinists to reap the full benefits of this popular machining method.

High Efficiency Milling Defined

HEM is a milling technique for roughing that utilizes a lower Radial Depth of Cut (RDOC) and a higher Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC). This spreads wear evenly across the cutting edge, dissipates heat, and reduces the chance of tool failure.

This strategy differs from traditional or conventional milling, which typically calls for a higher RDOC and lower ADOC. Traditional milling causes heat concentrations in one small portion of the cutting tool, expediting the tool wear process. Further, while Traditional Milling call for more axial passes, HEM toolpaths use more passes radially.

For more information on optimizing Depth of Cut in relation to HEM, see Diving into Depth of Cut: Peripheral, Slotting & HEM Approaches.

High Efficiency Milling

Built-In CAM Applications

Machining technology has been advancing with the development of faster, more powerful machines. In order to keep up, many CAM applications have developed built-in features for HEM toolpaths, including Trochoidal Milling, a method of machining used to create a slot wider than the cutting tool’s cutting diameter.

HEM is largely based on the theory surrounding Radial Chip Thinning, or the phenomenon that occurs with varying RDOC, and relates to the chip thickness and feed per tooth. HEM adjusts parameters to maintain a constant load on the tool through the entire roughing operation, resulting in more aggressive material removal rates (MRR). In this way, HEM differs from other high performance toolpaths, which involve different methods for achieving significant MRR.

Virtually any CNC machine can perform HEM – the key is a fast CNC controller. When converting from a regular program to HEM, about 20 lines of HEM code will be written for every line of regular code. A fast processor is needed to look ahead for the code, and keep up with the operation. In addition, advanced CAM software that intelligently manages tool load by adjusting the IPT and RDOC is also needed.

HEM Case Studies

The following example shows the result a machinist had when using a Helical Solutions HEV-5 tool to perform an HEM operation in 17-4PH stainless steel. While performing HEM, this ½” diameter, 5-flute end mill engaged the part just 12% radially, but 100% axially. This machinist was able to reduce tool wear and was able to complete 40 parts with a single tool, versus only 15 with a traditional roughing toolpath.

The effect of HEM on a roughing application can also be seen in the case study below. While machining 6061 aluminum with Helical’s H45AL-C-3, a 1/2″, 3-flute rougher, this machinist was able to finish a part in 3 minutes, versus 11 minutes with a traditional roughing toolpath. One tool was able to make 900 parts with HEM, a boost of more than 150% over the traditional method.

Importance of Tooling to HEM

Generally speaking, HEM is a matter of running the tool – not the tool itself. Virtually every tool can perform HEM, but using tooling built to withstand the rigors of HEM will result in greater success. While you can run a marathon in any type of shoes, you’d likely get the best results and performance from running shoes.

HEM is often regarded as a machining method for larger diameter tooling because of the aggressive MRR of the operation and the fragility of tooling under 1/8” in size. However, miniature tooling can be used to achieve HEM, too.

Using miniature tooling for HEM can create additional challenges that must be understood prior to beginning your operation.

Best Tools for HEM:

  • High flute count for increased MRR.
  • Large core diameter for added strength.
  • Tool coating optimized for the workpiece material for increased lubricity.
  • Variable Pitch/Variable Helix design for reduced harmonics.

Key Takeaways

HEM is a machining operation which continues to grow in popularity in shops worldwide. A milling technique for roughing that utilizes a lower RDOC and higher ADOC than traditional milling, HEM distributes wear evenly across the cutting edge of a tool, reducing heat concentrations and slowing the rate of tool wear. This is especially true in tooling best suited to promote the benefits of HEM.

High Speed Machining Vs. HEM

The following is just one of several blog posts relevant to High Efficiency Milling. To achieve a full understanding of this popular machining method, view any of the additional HEM posts below!

Introduction to High Efficiency Milling I How to Combat Chip Thinning I Diving into Depth of Cut I How to Avoid 4 Major Types of Tool Wear I Intro to Trochoidal Milling

Advancements in the metalworking industry have led to new, innovative ways of increasing productivity. One of the most popular ways of doing so (creating many new buzzwords in the process) has been the discovery of new, high-productivity toolpaths. Terms like trochoidal milling, high speed machining, adaptive milling, feed milling, and High Efficiency Milling are a handful of the names given to these cutting-edge techniques.

With multiple techniques being described with somewhat similar terms, there is some confusion as to what each is referring to. High Efficiency Milling (HEM) and High Speed Machining (HSM) are two commonly used terms and techniques that can often be confused with one another. Both describe techniques that lead to increased material removal rates and boosted productivity.  However, the similarities largely stop there.

High Speed Machining

High speed machining is often used as an umbrella term for all high productivity machining methods including HEM. However, HEM and HSM are unique, separate machining styles. HSM encompasses a technique that results in higher production rates while using a much different approach to depth of cut and speeds and feeds. While certain HEM parameters are constantly changing, HSM uses constant values for the key parameters. A very high spindle speed paired with much lighter axial depths of cut results in a much higher allowable feed rate. This is also often referred to as feed milling. Depths of cut involve a very low axial and high radial components. The method in general is often thought of as z-axis slice machining, where the tool will step down a fixed amount, machine all it can, then step down the next fixed amount and continue the cycle.

High speed machining techniques can also be applied to contoured surfaces using a ball profile or corner radius tool. In these situations, the tool is not used in one plane at a time, and will follow the 3 dimensional curved surfaces of a part. This is extremely effective for using one tool to bring a block of material down to a final (or close to final) shape using high resultant material removal rates paired with the ability to create virtually any shape.

High Efficiency Milling

HEM has evolved from a philosophy that takes advantage of the maximum amount of work that a tool can perform. Considerations for chip thinning and feed rate adjustment are used so that each cutting edge of a tool takes a consistent chip thickness with each rotation, even at varying radial depths of cut and while interpolating around curves. This allows machinists the opportunity to utilize a radial depth of cut that more effectively uses the full potential of a given tool. Utilizing the entire available length of cut allows tool wear to be spread over a greater area, prolonging tool life and lowering production costs. Effectively, HEM uses the depths associated with a traditional finishing operation but boosts speeds and feeds, resulting in much higher material removal rates (MRR). This technique is typically used for hogging out large volumes of material in roughing and pocketing applications.

In short, HEM is somewhat similar to an accelerated finishing operation in regards to depth of cut, while HSM is more of a high feed contouring operation. Both can achieve increased MRR and higher productivity when compared to traditional methods. While HSM can be seen as an umbrella term for all high efficiency paths, HEM has grown in popularity to a point where it can be classified on its own. Classifying each separately takes a bit of clarification, showing they each have power in certain situations.

Check out the video below to see HEM in action!


Intro to Trochoidal Milling

The following is just one of several blog posts relevant to High Efficiency Milling. To achieve a full understanding of this popular machining method, view any of the additional HEM posts below!

Introduction to High Efficiency Milling I High Speed Machining vs. HEM I How to Combat Chip Thinning I Diving into Depth of Cut I How to Avoid 4 Major Types of Tool Wear

What Is Trochoidal Milling?

Trochoidal milling is a method of machining used to create a slot wider than the cutting tool’s cutting diameter. This is accomplished using a series of circular cuts known as a trochoidal tool path. A form of High Efficiency Milling (HEM), trochoidal milling leverages high speeds while maintaining a low radial depth of cut (RDOC) and a high axial depth of cut (ADOC).

Trochoidal milling is largely based on the theory surrounding chip thinning in machining. Conventional thinking suggests that cutting tools have an optimal chip load that determines the ideal width and size of the chips produced. The concept of combating chip thinning involves machining with a chip load that is larger than “optimal” in order to maintain a constant maximum chip thickness.

In contrast to a completely linear radial tool path in conventional machining, trochoidal milling takes advantage of a spiral tool path with a low RDOC to reduce load and wear on the tool (Figure 1).

trochoidal milling

Advantages of Trochoidal Milling

  • Decreased cutting forces
  • Reduced heat
  • Greater machining accuracy
  • Improved tool life
  • Faster cycle times
  • One tool for multiple slot sizes

Trochoidal milling can be very advantageous in certain applications. The reduced radial engagement of the cutting edge decreases the amount of heat produced in the cut while also decreasing the cutting forces and load on the spindle. The reduced radial forces allow for greater accuracy during production and make it possible to machine finer and more precise features on a part.

In addition, the lower radial depth of cut allows for a higher axial depth of cut, meaning that the entire length of the cutting edge can be utilized. This ensures that heat and cutting forces are distributed across the tool’s cutting edge, rather than concentrated on a single section. The reduced heat and wear, combined with their uniform spread on the cutting edge, result in significantly improved tool life over conventional slotting methods.

Given the reduced destructive forces, the cutting tool’s speeds can be increased. Since the entire length of cut is utilized, trochoidal milling can eliminate the need for multiple axial depths of cut. Increased running parameters and a reduced number of passes greatly reduce cycle time.

Since trochoidal milling uses a tool to machine a slot wider than its cutting diameter, the same tool can be used to create slots of varying sizes, rather than just one. This can free up space in your tool carousel and save time on tool change outs, depending on the requirements of the part (Figure 2).

trochoidal milling

Although slotting is a roughing operation, the reduced radial depth of cut and decreased cutting forces from trochoidal milling often result in an improved finish over a conventional slotting toolpath. However, a finishing pass along the walls of the workpiece might be required to remove any cusps left from the spiral motion of the cutting tool.

Challenges of Trochoidal Milling

The challenges of trochoidal milling are typically found with the machinery and software. The right machine to take advantage of trochoidal milling will not only be capable of high speeds and feeds, but will also be capable of a constantly changing feed rate as the tool moves along it’s spiral path. Inability to have a changing feed rate will cause chip thinning which can yield non-ideal results and potentially cause tool breakage. Special software might also be required to program tool paths and feed rates for this process. This is further complicated by factors like the ratio of the cutter diameter to the size of the groove, as well as the radial depth of cut for these different ratios. Most figures suggest the cutter diameter be 50%-70% of the final slot width, while the radial depth of cut should equal 10%-35% of cutter diameter (Table 1), but the safest option is always to consult the tool manufacturer.

trochoidal milling

Trochoidal Milling and Micromachining

Benefits When Micromachining

Micromachining can also benefit from trochoidal milling. The decreased radial engagement and lower cutting forces produced during a trochoidal tool path put less force on the cutting tools. This is especially important for smaller diameter tools, as they are weaker and less rigid, and the reduced cutting forces decrease the chance of deflection and breakage.

Challenges When Micromachining

While trochoidal milling with miniature tooling is theoretically beneficial, there are additional challenges associated with smaller tools. Miniature cutting tools are much more susceptible to breakage due to spindle runout and vibration, material inconsistencies, uneven loading, and many other variables that arise during machining. Depending on your application, it may be worth using the tool with the greatest diameter for the extra strength. Although there are potential benefits at the miniature level, more attention must be paid to the machine setup and material to ensure the tools have the highest chance of success.

Just like HEM, as a general rule, trochoidal milling should not be considered when using tools with cutting diameters less than .031”. While possible, trochoidal milling may still be prohibitively challenging or risky at diameters below .062”, and your application and machine must be considered carefully.


Trochoidal milling is a High Efficiency Milling technique (high speed, high ADOC, low RDOC) characterized by a circular, or trochoidal, tool path. This milling style is proven to offer significant machining process benefits, such as increasing tool life, reducing machining times, and fewer tools required for a job. However, it is critical to have a machine and software capable of high speeds and feeds and constantly changing feed rates to avoid critical tool failure. While miniature tools can still benefit from trochoidal milling, the risk of tool breakage must be considered carefully, especially at cutter diameters below .062”. Although trochoidal milling can increase your machining efficiency in many applications, it is always a good idea to consult your tool manufacturer beforehand.

A great example of trochoidal milling in action can be seen in this video, where a 1/2″ Helical Solutions end mill with variable helix, variable pitch was used to machine a block of 316 stainless steel.

Ball Nose Milling Strategy Guide

Ball Nose Milling Without a Tilt Angle

Ball nose end mills are ideal for machining 3-dimensional contour shapes typically found in the mold and die industry, the manufacturing of turbine blades, and fulfilling general part radius requirements. To properly employ a ball nose end mill (with no tilt angle) and gain the optimal tool life and part finish, follow the 2-step process below (see Figure 1).

ball nose

Step One: Calculate Your Effective Cutting Diameter

A ball nose end mill’s Effective Cutting Diameter (Deff) differs from its actual cutting diameter when utilizing an Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC) that is less than the full radius of the ball. Calculating the effective cutting diameter can be done using the chart below that represents some common tool diameters and ADOC combinations or by using the traditional calculation (see Figure 2).

ball nose

ball nose

Step Two: Calculate Your Compensated Speed

Given the new effective cutting diameter a “Compensated Speed” will need to be calculated. If you are using less than the cutter diameter, then its likely your RPM’s will need to be adjusted upward (see Figure 3).

ball nose

ADOC = Axial Depth of Cut
D = Cutting Diameter
Deff = Effective Cutting Diameter
R = Tool Radius (Dia./2)
RDOC = Radial Depth of Cut
SFM = Surface Feet per Minute
Sc = Compensated Speed

Ball Nose Milling With a Tilt Angle

If possible, it is highly recommended to use ball nose end mills on an incline (ß) to avoid a “0” SFM condition at the center of the tool, thus increasing tool life and part finish (Figure 4). For ball nose optimization (and in addition to tilting the tool), it is highly recommended to feed the tool in the direction of the incline and utilize a climb milling technique.

ball nose

To properly employ a ball nose end mill with a tool angle and gain the most optimal tool life and part finish, follow the 2-step process below.

Step One: Calculate Your Effective Cutting Diameter

The chart below that represents some common effective cutting diameters and ADOCs at a 15º tilt angle. Otherwise, the traditional calculation below may be used (see Figure 5).

ball nose

ball nose

Step Two: Calculate Your Compensated Speed

Given the new effective cutting diameter a compensated speed will need to be calculated. If you are using less than the cutter diameter, then its likely your RPM’s will need to be adjusted upward (see Figure 6).

ball nose

Deff = Effective Cutting Diameter
SFM = Mfg Recommended Surface Feet per Minute
Sc = Compensated Speed

Diving Into Depth of Cut: Peripheral, Slotting, & HEM Approaches

The following is just one of several blog posts relevant to High Efficiency Milling. To achieve a full understanding of this popular machining method, view any of the additional HEM posts below!

Introduction to High Efficiency Milling I High Speed Machining vs. HEM I How to Combat Chip Thinning I How to Avoid 4 Major Types of Tool Wear I Intro to Trochoidal Milling

Every machining operation entails a radial and axial depth of cut strategy. Radial depth of cut (RDOC), the distance a tool is stepping over into a workpiece; and Axial depth of cut (ADOC), the distance a tool engages a workpiece along its centerline, are the backbones of machining. Machining to appropriate depths – whether slotting or peripheral milling (profiling, roughing, and finishing), is vital to your machining success (Figure 1).

Below, you will be introduced to the traditional methods for both peripheral milling and slotting. Additionally, High Efficiency Milling (HEM) strategies – and appropriate cutting depths for this method – will be explained.

Quick Definitions:

Radial Depth of Cut (RDOC): The distance a tool is stepping over into a workpiece. Also referred to as Stepover, Cut Width, or XY.

Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC): The distance a tool engages a workpiece along its centerline. Also referred to as Stepdown, or Cut Depth.

Peripheral Milling: An application in which only a percentage of the tool’s cutter diameter is engaging a part.

Slotting: An application in which the tool’s entire cutter diameter is engaging a part.

High Efficiency Milling (HEM): A newer machining strategy in which a light RDOC and heavy ADOC is paired with increased feed rates to achieve higher material removal rates and decreased tool wear.

depth of cut

Peripheral Milling Styles and Appropriate RDOC

The amount a tool engages a workpiece radially during peripheral milling is dependent upon the operation being performed (Figure 2). In finishing applications, smaller amounts of material are removed from a wall, equating to about 3-5% of the cutter diameter per radial pass. In heavy roughing applications, 30-50% of the tool’s cutter diameter is engaged with the part. Although heavy roughing involves a higher RDOC than finishing, the ADOC is most often smaller than for finishing due to load on the tool.

roughing depth of cut

Slotting Styles and Appropriate ADOC Engagement

The amount a tool engages a part axially during a slotting operation must be appropriate for the tool being used (Figure 3). Using an inappropriate approach could lead to tool deflection and damage, and poor part quality.

End mills come in various length of cut options, as well as numerous reached options. Choosing the tool that allows the completion of a project with the least deflection, and highest productivity, is critical. As the ADOC needed to slot can be lower, a stub length of cut is often the strongest and most appropriate tool choice. As slot depths increase, longer lengths of cut become necessary, but reached tooling should be used where allowable.

slotting depth of cut

Depth of Cut Strategy for High Efficiency Milling (HEM)

Pairing a light RDOC and heavy ADOC with high performance toolpaths is a machining strategy known as High Efficiency Milling or HEM. With this machining style, feed rates can be increased and cuts are kept uniform to evenly distribute stresses across the cutting portion of the tool, prolonging tool life.

Traditional Strategy

  • Heavy RDOC
  • Light ADOC
  • Conservative Feed Rate

Newer Strategy – High Efficiency Milling (HEM)

  • Light RDOC
  • Heavy ADOC
  • Increased Feed Rate

HEM involves using 7-30% of the tool diameter radially and up to twice the cutter diameter axially, paired with increased feed rates (Figure 4).  Accounting for chip thinning, this combination of running parameters can result in noticeably higher metal removal rates (MRR). Modern CAM software often offers a complete high performance solution with built-in features for HEM toolpaths.  These principals can also be applied to trochoidal toolpaths for slotting applications.

depth of cut

Corner Engagement: How to Machine Corners

Corner Engagement

During the milling process, and especially during corner engagement, tools undergo significant variations in cutting forces. One common and difficult situation is when a cutting tool experiences an “inside corner” condition. This is where the tool’s engagement angle significantly increases, potentially resulting in poor performance.

Machining this difficult area with the wrong approach may result in:

  • Chatter – visible in “poor” corner finish
  • Deflection – detected by unwanted “measured” wall taper
  • Strange cutting sound – tool squawking or chirping in the corners
  • Tool breakage/failure or chipping

Least Effective Approach (Figure 1)

Generating an inside part radius that matches the radius of the tool at a 90° direction range is not a desirable approach to machining a corner. In this approach, the tool experiences extra material to cut (dark gray), an increased engagement angle, and a direction change. As a result, issues including chatter, tool deflection/ breakage, and poor surface finish may occur.

Feed rate may need to be lessened depending on the “tool radius-to-part radius ratio.”

corner engagement

More Effective Approach (Figure 2)

Generating an inside part radius that matches the radius of the tool with a sweeping direction change is a more desirable approach. The smaller radial depths of cut (RDOC) in this example help to manage the angle of engagement, but at the final pass, the tool will still experience a very high engagement angle.  Common results of this approach will be chatter, tool deflection/breakage and poor surface finish.

Feed rate may need to be reduced by 30-50% depending on the “tool radius-to-part radius ratio.”

corner engagement

Most Effective Approach (Figure 3)

Generating an inside part radius with a smaller tool and a sweeping action creates a much more desirable machining approach. The manageable RDOC and smaller tool diameter allow for management of the tool engagement angle, higher feed rates and better surface finishes. As the cutter reaches full radial depth, its engagement angle will increase, but the feed reduction should be much less than in the previous approaches.

Feed rate may need to be heightened depending on the “tool-to-part ratio.” Utilize tools that are smaller than the corner you are machining.

corner engagement

Ramping to Success

Poor tool life and premature tool failure are concerns in every machining application. Something as simple as tool path selection – and how a tool first enters a part – can make all the difference. Tool entry has a great deal of influence on its overall success, as it’s one of the most punishing operations for a cutter. Ramping into a part, via a circular or linear toolpath, is one of the most popular and oftentimes the most successful methods (Figure 1). Below, learn what ramping is, its benefits, and in which situations it can be used.


What is Ramping?

Ramping refers to simultaneous radial and axial motion of a cutting tool, making an angular tool path. Oftentimes, this method is used to approach a part when there is a need to create closed forms such as pockets, cavities, engravings, and holes. In doing so, the need to plunge with an end mill or drill to create a starting point is eliminated. Ramping is particularly important in micromachining where even the slightest imbalance in cutting forces can cause tool failure.

There are two types of ramping toolpaths: Linear and Circular (Figure 2 ).


Linear Ramping involves moving a cutting tool along two axes (the z-axis and one of the x, y axes). This method has significant more radial engagement with complementary increased cutting forces distributed across only two axes.

Circular Ramping (Helical Interpolation) has a spiral motion of the cutting tool that engages all three axes (x, y, and z axes). This method typically has less radial engagement on the cutting tool, with the cutting forces distributed across the three different axes. This is the recommended method, as it ensures the longest tool life.

Suggested Starting Ramp Angles:

Soft/Non-Ferrous Materials: 3° – 10°

Hard/Ferrous Materials 1° – 3°

Benefits of Ramping

When a tool enters the part via a Ramping method, it gradually increases in depth, preventing any shock loading on end mills. This reduces costs resulting from unnecessary tool breakage. Ramping produces smaller chips when compared to plunging, which makes chip evacuation faster and easier. As a result, cycle time can be decreased by running the end mill at faster parameters. Ramping also creates an extra space in the tool changer that would otherwise be occupied by a drill purposed with machining a starter hole.


Similar to ramping in both method and benefit, arcing is another technique of approaching a workpiece (See Figure 3).

While ramping enters the part from the top, arcing enters from the side. The end mill follows a curved tool path (or arc) when milling, thus gradually increasing the load on the tool as the tool enters the part, as well as gradually decreasing the load as the tool exits the part. In this way, shock loading and possible tool breakage are avoided.

For more information on ramping, arcing, and other tool entry methods, please see Helical Solutions’ “Types of Tool Entry.” 

Dodging Dovetail Headaches: 7 Common Dovetail Mistakes

Cutting With Dovetails

While they are specialty tools, dovetail style cutters have a broad range of applications. Dovetails are typically used to cut O-ring grooves in fluid and pressure devices, industrial slides and detailed undercutting work. Dovetail cutters have a trapezoidal shape—like the shape of a dove’s tail. General purpose dovetails are used to undercut or deburr features in a workpiece. O-ring dovetail cutters are held to specific standards to cut a groove that is wider at the bottom than the top. This trapezoidal groove shape is designed to hold the O-ring and keep it from being displaced.

Avoiding Tool Failure

The dovetail cutter’s design makes it fragile, finicky, and highly susceptible to failure. In calculating job specifications, machinists frequently treat dovetail cutters as larger than they really are because of their design, leading to unnecessary tool breakage. They mistake the tool’s larger end diameter as the critical dimension when in fact the smaller neck diameter is more important in making machining calculations.

As the tools are downsized for micro-applications, their unique shape requires special considerations. When machinists understand the true size of the tool, however, they can minimize breakage and optimize cycle time.

Miniature Matters – Micro Dovetailing

As the trend towards miniaturization continues, more dovetailing applications arise along with the need for applying the proper technique when dovetailing microscale parts and features. However, there are several common misunderstandings about the proper use of dovetails, which can lead to increased tool breakage and less-than-optimal cycle times.

There are seven common mistakes made when dovetailing and several strategies for avoiding them:

1. Not Taking Advantage of Drop Holes

Many O-ring applications allow for a drop hole to insert the cutter into the groove. Take advantage of a drop hole if the part design allows it, as it will permit usage of the largest, most rigid tool possible, minimizing the chance of breakage (Figure 1).

dovetail cutters
Figure 1. These pictured tools are designed to mill a groove for a Parker Hannifin O-ring groove No. AS568A-102 (left). These O-rings have cross sections of 0.103″. There is a large variation in the tools’ neck diameters. The tool at right, with a neck diameter of 0.024″, is for applications without a drop hole, while the other tool, with a neck diameter of 0.088″, is for drop-hole applications. The drop-hole allowance allows application of the more rigid tool.

2. Misunderstanding a Dovetail’s True Neck Diameter.

The dovetail’s profile includes a small neck diameter behind a larger end-cutting diameter. In addition, the flute runs through the neck, further reducing the tool’s core diameter. (In the example shown in Figure 2, this factor produces a core diameter of just 0.014″.) The net result is that an otherwise larger tool becomes more of a microtool. The torque generated by the larger diameter is, in effect, multiplied as it moves to the narrower neck diameter. You must remember that excess stress may be placed on the tool, leading to breakage. Furthermore, as the included angle of a dovetail increases, the neck diameter and core diameter are further reduced. O-ring dovetail cutters have an included angle of 48°. Another common included angle for general purpose dovetails is 90°. Figure 3 illustrates how two 0.100″-dia. dovetail tools have different neck diameters of 0.070″ vs. 0.034″ and different included angles of 48° vs. 90°.

dovetail cutters
Figure 2. The dovetail tool pictured is the nondrop-hole example from Figure 1. The cross section illustrates the relationship between the end diameter of the tool (0.083″) and the significantly smaller core diameter (0.014″). Understanding this relationship and the effect of torque on a small core diameter is critical to developing appropriate dovetailing operating parameters.
dovetail cutters
Figure 3: These dovetail tools have the same end diameter but different neck diameters (0.070″ vs. 0.034″) and different included angles (48° vs. 90°).

3. Calculating Speeds and Feeds from the Wrong Diameter.

Machinists frequently use the wrong tool diameter to calculate feed rates for dovetail cutters, increasing breakage. In micromachining applications where the margin for error is significantly reduced, calculating the feed on the wrong diameter can cause instantaneous tool failure. Due to the angular slope of a dovetail cutter’s profile, the tool has a variable diameter. While the larger end diameter is used for speed calculations, the smaller neck diameter should be used for feed calculations. This yields a smaller chip load per tooth. For example, a 0.083″-dia. tool cutting aluminum might have a chip load of approximately 0.00065 IPT, while a 0.024″-dia. mill cutting the same material might have a 0.0002-ipt chip load. This means the smaller tool has a chip load three times smaller than the larger tool, which requires a significantly different feed calculation.

4. Errors in Considering Depth of Cut.

In micromachining applications, machinists must choose a depth of cut (DOC) that does not exceed the limits of the fragile tool. Typically, a square end mill roughs a slot and the dovetail cutter then removes the remaining triangular-shaped portion. As the dovetail is stepped over with each subsequent radial cut, the cutter’s engagement increases with each pass. A standard end mill allows for multiple passes by varying the axial DOC. However, a dovetail cutter has a fixed axial DOC, which allows changes to be made only to the radial DOC. Therefore, the size of each successive step-over must decrease to maintain a more consistent tool load and avoid tool breakage (Figure 4).

dovetail cutters
Figure 4: In microdovetailing operations, increased contact requires diminishing stepover to maintain constant tool load.

5. Failing to Climb Mill.

Although conventional milling has the benefit of gradually loading the tool, in low-chip load applications (as dictated by a dovetail cutter’s small neck diameter) the tool has a tendency to rub or push the workpiece as it enters the cut, creating chatter, deflection and premature cutting edge failure. The dovetail has a long cutting surface and tooth pressure becomes increasingly critical with each pass. Due to the low chip loads encountered in micromachining, this approach is even more critical to avoid rubbing. Although climb milling loads the tool faster than conventional milling, it allows the tool to cut more freely, providing less deflection, finer finish and longer cutting-edge life. As a result, climb milling is recommended when dovetailing.

6. Improper Chip Flushing.

Because dovetail cuts are typically made in a semi-enclosed profile, it is critical to flush chips from the cavity. In micro-dovetailing applications, chip packing and recutting due to poorly evacuated chips from a semi-enclosed profile will dull the cutter and lead to premature tool failure. In addition to cooling and lubricating, a high-pressure coolant effectively evacuates chips. However, excessive coolant pressure placed directly on the tool can cause tool vibration and deflection and even break a microtool before it touches the workpiece. Take care to provide adequate pressure to remove chips without putting undue pressure on the tool itself. Specific coolant pressure settings will depend upon the size of the groove, the tool size and the workpiece material. Also, a coolant nozzle on either side of the cutter cleans out the groove ahead of and behind the cutter. An air blast or vacuum hose could also effectively remove chips.

7. Giving the Job Away.

As discussed in item number 3, lower chip loads result in significantly lower material-removal rates, which ultimately increase cycle time. In the previous example, the chip load was three times smaller, which would increase cycle time by the same amount. Cycle time must be factored into your quote to ensure a profitable margin on the job. In addition to the important micro-dovetailing considerations discussed here, don’t forget to apply the basics critical to all tools. These include keeping runout low, using tools with application-specific coatings and ensuring setups are rigid. All of these considerations become more important in micro-applications because as tools get smaller, they become increasingly fragile, decreasing the margin of error. Understanding a dovetail cutter’s profile and calculating job specifications accordingly is critical to a successful operation. Doing so will help you reach your ultimate goal: bidding the job properly and optimizing cycle time without unnecessary breakage.

This article was written by Peter P. Jenkins of Harvey Tool Company, and it originally appeared in MicroManufacturing Magazine.

How To Avoid Common Part Finish Problems

Finishing cuts are used to complete a part, achieving its final dimensions within tolerance and its required surface finish. Most often an aesthetic demand and frequently a print specification, surface finish can lead to a scrapped part if requirements are not met. Meeting finish requirements in-machine has become a major point of improvement in manufacturing, as avoiding hand-finishing can significantly reduce costs and cycle times.