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Successful Slotting With Miniature Cutting Tools

Whether your tool is a 1” diameter powerhouse rougher or a .032” precision end mill, slotting is one of the hardest operations on the tool. During slotting operations, a lot of force and pressure is placed on the entire cutting edge of the tool. This results in slower speeds and feeds and increased tool wear, making it one of the nastier processes even for the best cutting tools.

With miniature tooling (for the purposes of this blog, under 1/8” diameter) the game changes. The way we approach miniature tooling is completely different as it relates to slotting. In these instances, it is vitally important to select the correct tool for these operations. A few of the suggestions may surprise you if you are used to working with larger tooling, but rest assured, these are tried and tested recommendations which will dramatically increase your success rate in miniature slotting applications.

Use as Many Flutes as Possible

When running traditional slotting toolpaths, the biggest concern with the cutting tool is getting the best chip evacuation by using the proper flute count. Traditionally speaking, you want to use the fewest amount of flutes possible. In Aluminum/Non-Ferrous jobs, this is typically no more than 2/3 flutes, and in Steel/Ferrous applications, 4 flutes is recommended. The lower flute count leaves room for the chips to evacuate so you are not re-cutting chips and clogging the flutes on your tool in deep slots.

When slotting with miniature tools, the biggest concerns are with tool rigidity, deflection, and core strength. With micro-slotting we are not “slotting”, but rather we are “making a slot”. In traditional slotting, we may drive a ½” tool down 2xD into the part to make a full slot, and the tool can handle it! But this technique simply isn’t possible with a smaller tool.

For example, let’s take a .015” end mill. If we are making a slot that is .015” deep with that tool, we are likely going to take a .001” to .002” axial depth per pass. In this case, chips are no longer your problem since it is not a traditional slotting toolpath. Rigidity and core strength are now key, which means we need to add as many flutes as possible! Even in materials like Aluminum, 4 or 5 flutes will be a much better option at smaller diameters than traditional 2/3 flute tools. By choosing a tool with a higher flute count, some end users have seen their tool life increase upwards of 50 to 100 times over tools with lower flute counts and less rigidity and strength.

Use the Strongest Corner Possible

Outside of making sure you have a strong core on your miniature tools while making a slot, you also need to take a hard look at your corner strength. Putting a corner radius on your tooling is a great step and does improve the corner strength of the tool considerably over a square profile tool. However, if we want the strongest tip geometry, using a ball nose end mill should also be considered.

A ball nose end mill will give you the strongest possible tip of the three most common profiles. The end geometry on the ball nose can almost work as a high feed end mill, allowing for faster feed rates on the light axial passes that are required for micro-slotting. The lead angle on the ball nose also allows for axial chip thinning, which will give you better tool life and allow you to decrease your cycle times.

A .078″ ball nose end mill was used for this miniature slotting operation

Finding the Right Tool for Miniature Slotting Operations

Precision and accuracy are paramount when it comes to miniature tooling, regardless of whether you are slotting, roughing, or even simply looking to make a hole in a part. With the guidelines above, it is also important to have a variety of tooling options available to cater to your specific slotting needs.

Harvey Tool offers 5 flute end mills down to .015” in diameter, which are a great option for a stronger tool with a high flute count for slotting operations. If you need even smaller tooling, there are 4 flute options available down to .005” in diameter.

Harvey Tool offers many miniature end mill options, like the .010″ long reach end mill above.

If you are looking to upgrade your corner strength, Harvey Tool also offers a wide selection of miniature end mills in corner radius and ball nose profiles, with dozens of reach, length of cut, and flute count options. Speeds and feeds information for all of these tools is also available, making your programming of these difficult toolpaths just a little bit easier.

Conclusion

To wrap things up, there are three major items to focus on when it comes to miniature slotting: flute count, corner strength, and the depth of your axial passes.

It is vital to ensure you are using a corner radius or ball nose tool and putting as many flutes as you can on your tool when possible. This keeps the tool rigid and avoids deflection while providing superior core strength.

For your axial passes, take light passes with multiple stepdowns. Working your tool almost as a high feed end mill will make for a successful slotting operation, even at the most minuscule diameters.

Grappling with Graphite: A Machining Guide

Despite being a softer material, graphite is actually one of the most difficult materials to machine. There are many considerations machinists need to make in terms of tooling, coolant use, and personal safety when it comes to machining graphite parts. This “In The Loupe” post will examine graphite’s material properties, the key machining techniques to consider, and tips for properly selecting cutting tools to achieve success in this tricky material.

What is Graphite?

While graphite is an allotrope of carbon, the two terms are not simply interchangeable. Carbon is an element that can form into several different allotropes including graphite, diamond, and fullerite. Graphite happens to be the most stable form of carbon, and is the most common, as carbon naturally occurs as graphite under standard conditions.

Graphite is most recognized for its superior conductivity and resistance to high heat and corrosion. This makes it a common material in high heat, high-pressure situations in the aerospace, electrode, nuclear, energy, and military industries.

graphite cnc material

Even though graphite can handle intense high-pressure situations with ease, it is actually a very soft, abrasive, and brittle material. This can cause serious challenges when machining, as graphite can eat up cutting tools, and severely minimize a tool’s usable life. However, with the proper tooling and techniques, there are ways to optimize graphite machining to be more cost-effective than the competition.

Graphite Machining Techniques

Since graphite is such a soft and brittle material, special consideration needs to be made when machining to avoid chipping it. To get a good cut, it is recommended that you take light chip loads and use lower feed rates in graphite. If you were to take a heavy cut at a fast feed rate, you would start chipping the graphite and could cause it to fracture completely. To give a comparison point, chip loads for graphite are similar to those for Aluminum materials, but with less than half the feed rate.

To give you an idea of speeds and feeds for graphite, here is an example using a 1/4″ Harvey Tool CVD Diamond Coated, 4 flute Square End Mill. If that tool was running at a standard RPM of 12,000 at 780 SFM, the recommended chip load would be .00292 for a feed rate of 140 IPM.

graphite electrode machining

In terms of machine setup, the one major tip to remember is to always avoid using coolant. Graphite is a fairly porous material, and so it can absorb coolant and act as a “coolant sponge,” which will cause problems with finished parts. Inside the machine and on the tooling, the coolant can actually react with the graphite dust and create an abrasive slurry, which will cause problems while machining. A vacuum system is recommended for clearing material while machining graphite. Otherwise, coated tools should be able to run dry.

Another thing to note when machining graphite is that because graphite does not produce chips, but rather a cloud of very abrasive dust, it can be harmful to operators and machines without proper care. Operators should be wearing a protective mask to avoid inhaling the graphite dust. Proper ventilation and maintaining air quality in the shop is also key for the protection of machinists when working in graphite.

Since the graphite dust is also extremely conductive, it can easily damage non-protective circuits inside your CNC machine, which can cause major electrical issues. While coolant is not recommended, a vacuum system can help to remove the dust, keeping it from accumulating too much inside the machine and preventing serious problems.

Cutting Tools for Graphite Machining

As previously mentioned, graphite is a notorious cutting tool-killer due to its extremely abrasive nature. Even the highest quality carbide end mills, if left uncoated, will wear quickly on most graphite jobs. This extreme wear may force a tool change during an operation, which could lead to an imperfection in the part when trying to restart the operation where the worn tool left off.

graphite cutting tools

When selecting a cutting tool for graphite machining, the coating and cutting edge is the most important consideration. Flute count, helix angles, and other key features of the tool geometry ultimately come second to the coating when purchasing tooling for graphite.

For graphite machining, a CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition) diamond coating is recommended whenever possible to maximize tool life and tool performance. These coatings are grown directly into the carbide end mill, improving the hardness and leaving the tool with a coating layer that is 5 times thicker than a PVD Diamond Coating. While not the sharpest edge, the CVD diamond coating provides much longer tool life than other diamond coatings due to the thicker diamond layer.

Even though initial tooling costs may be higher with CVD coated tools versus uncoated tools, since CVD coated tools see considerably longer tool life than uncoated tools, this makes the cost per part shrink significantly. In difficult, abrasive materials like graphite, the uncoated carbide tool will last a short time before the abrasiveness of the graphite completely wears down the cutting edge. Having a CVD coated tool will give you a leg up over the competition, keep your machine running with less downtime for tool changes, and ultimately deliver substantial cost savings.

end mills for graphite
CVD Diamond Coated End Mill from Harvey Tool

Overall, graphite can be a difficult material to machine, but with the right cutting tools and proper speeds and feeds you will be making quality parts in no time. Harvey Tool offers a wide selection of CVD coated end mills in various diameters, reaches, and lengths of cut to ensure you have what you need for any job that comes your way.