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Tackling Titanium: A Guide to Machining Titanium and Its Alloys

In today’s manufacturing industry, titanium and its alloys have become staples in aerospace, medical, automotive, and firearm applications. This popular metal is resistant to rust and chemicals, is recyclable, and is extremely strong for its weight. However, there are several challenges that must be considered when machining titanium and selecting the appropriate tools and parameters for the job.

Titanium Varieties

Titanium is available in many varieties, including nearly 40 ASTM grades, as well as several additional alloys. Grades 1 through 4 are considered commercially pure titanium with varying requirements on ultimate tensile strength. Grade 5 (Ti6Al4V or Ti 6-4) is the most common combination, alloyed with 6 percent aluminum and 4 percent vanadium. Although titanium and its alloys are often grouped together, there are some key differences between them that must be noted before determining the ideal machining approach.

Titanium 6AL4V

Helical Solutions’ HVTI End Mill is a great choice for high efficiency toolpaths in Titanium.

Titanium Concerns

Workholding

Although titanium may have more desirable material properties than your average steel, it also behaves more flexibly, and is often not as rigid as other metals. This requires a secure grip on titanium workpieces, and as rigid a machine setup as is possible. Other considerations include avoiding interrupted cuts, and keeping the tool in motion at all times of contact with the workpiece. Dwelling in a drilled hole or stopping a tool next to a profiled wall will cause the tool to rub – creating excess heat, work-hardening the material, and causing premature tool wear.

Heat Generation

Heat is a formidable enemy, and heat generation must be considered when selecting speeds and feeds. While commercially pure grades of titanium are softer and gummier than most of its alloys, the addition of alloying elements typically raises the hardness of titanium. This increases concerns regarding generated heat and tool wear. Maintaining a larger chipload and avoiding unnecessary rubbing aids with tool performance in the harder titanium alloys, and will minimize the amount of work hardening produced. Choosing a lower RPM, paired with a larger chipload, can provide a significant reduction in temperature when compared to higher speed options. Due to its low conduction properties, keeping temperatures to a minimum will put less stress on the tool and reduce wear. Using high-pressure coolant is also an effective method to reduce heat generation when machining titanium.

cutting tools for titanium

These camshaft covers were custom made in titanium for Mitsubishi Evos.
Photo courtesy of @RebootEng (Instagram)

Galling and Built-Up Edge

The next hurdle to consider is that titanium has a strong tendency to adhere to a cutting tool, creating built up edge. This is a tricky issue which can be reduced by using copious amounts of high pressure coolant aimed directly at the cutting surface. The goal is to remove chips as soon as possible to prevent chip re-cutting, and keep the flutes clean and clear of debris. Galling is a big concern in the commercially pure grades of titanium due to their “gummy” nature. This can be addressed using the strategies mentioned previously, such as continuing feed at all times of workpiece contact, and using plenty of high-pressure coolant.

Titanium Solutions

While the primary concerns when machining titanium and its alloys may shift, the methods for mitigating them remain somewhat constant. The main ideas are to avoid galling, heat generation, work hardening, and workpiece or tool deflection. Use a lot of coolant at high pressure, keep speeds down and feeds up, keep the tool in motion when in contact with the workpiece, and use as rigid of a setup as possible.

In addition, selecting a proper tool coating can help make your job a successful one. With the high heat being generated during titanium machining operations, having a coating that can adequately deal with the temperature is key to maintaining performance through an operation. The proper coating will also help to avoid galling and evacuate chips effectively. Coatings such as Harvey Tool’s Aluminum Titanium Nitride (AlTiN Nano) produce an oxide layer at high temperatures, and will increase lubricity of the tool.

As titanium and its many alloys continue to grow in use across various industries, more machinists will be tasked with cutting this difficult material. However, heat management and appropriate chip evacuation, when paired with the correct coating, will enable a successful run.

machining titanium

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.

Conclusion

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.

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