The particulars of this article are for an open 3-axis mill. The steps are essentially the same for even the fanciest enclosed 5-axis mills. The only differences are the frequency of operations and cutting speed.
Step 1: Engineering Drawings
As a designer, it's hard to believe that someone can't just read your mind and figure out what you want </sarcasm>. The prevalence of 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD) makes parts look a lot closer to being done than they really are. 2D drawings are easy to overlook, especially when there's a perfect simulation hovering on your screen. However, drawings have been (and will continue to be) used for decades as reference for specifications. If there is a discrepancy between your 3D model and a note on the 2D engineering drawing, the drawing takes precedence. The most common error is to omit hole locations and types. In the business world, liability is everything. If you send a verbal idea or hand sketch to a shop for fabrication, you are at the mercy of the drafter who sketches your part into usable files. If you send an incomplete or erroneous drawing, you will most likely get an incomplete or erroneous part in the mail.
Step 2: Computer Aided Machining (CAM)
Just as CAD software revolutionized the design world, CAM changed the face of machining. Since the 1980's, CAM code coupled with Numerical Controllers (NC) on machine tools has made the process more precise and repeatable. This is a screenshot from a CAM program with a graphical interface. The actual code is a line-by-line series of coordinates and instructions for the mill. The machinist programs which tools will be used, where they will cut, how they will cut, and how often they will be called.
Step 3: Material
Hopefully your shop drawing indicated what material the part is made from. If not, you'll have a machinist on the phone with some questions. Aluminum alloys are the most prevalent general purpose material. 6061 Alloy is durable, light, corrosion resistant, and machinable. Appropriate starting stock is selected such that there is excess material beyond the part's dimensions. Machining cuts material away instead of building it up like molding or rapid prototyping. Also, there has to be enough material to clamp in the vise during milling. Otherwise, the force of cutting will fling the work out like a bullet. "Work" is how machinists refer to "the thing we are cutting." Always wear adequate personal protective equipment.
Step 4: Sizing
Rough cutting sizes stock down to manageable portions. By cutting a bar into approximately sized pieces, we also conserve material. Say, for example, we are trying to machine a piece that is 1 cubic inch in volume. We could pull a 10 cubic inch stock piece from the shelf, but then we'd have to machine away 9 cubic inches--consuming lots of time and energy. If we rough cut our stock to 1.5 cubic inches, we save on machining and run time.
Step 5: Debur
I frequently mention the vise that holds the part during cutting (yes, the one that keeps the metal from flying away like a bullet). This is not it. However, smoothing the edges from the rough cut ensures that we clamp securely and evenly. A light touch with the grinding wheel makes quick work of any rough edges.
Step 6: Numerical Control (NC)
Now that we have material suitable for machining, it's time to set up the mill. We start by sending the CAM code to the mill's on-board computer.
Step 7: Zeroing
CNC is based on the progression of servos. The CNC can move the cutting tool in any direction along its axes within 0.0005". The CAM code dictates how far and deep to cut. But, it has to know where to start. Imagine if you wanted to cut 4.000" across and 0.125" deep. The CAM code takes care of this. Now imagine if you forgot to set the origin (0,0,0 coordinate) and it just started cutting thin air instead of your material--not very useful.
All of the tools in the program will share a common X,Y origin. However, each tool is unique in shape and size. The required X and Y offset is programmed in CAM based on the tool diameter. The Z height must be calibrated for each tool (since some are longer than others)
An edgefinder provides a visual cue when it touches the edge of the work. X and Y are set based on feedback from the edgefinder. Z is set by establishing a reference point (usually the first tool), then offsetting each subsequent tool depending on it's difference from the reference.
Step 8: Planing
The world is imperfect (by engineering standards. Philosophers and theists will disagree). Stock material and machine tools are also imperfect. By slicing a thin layer from the top of the work, we create a level work plane for this particular set up. Even if we aren't perpendicular to the Earth, flycutting ensures we are aligned to our vise and our part.
Step 9: Drilling
Note how shiny and flat (planar) the work is after flycutting. This allows our next tool (typically any drills) to have an even work surface. Twist drills make quick holes, but are not as accurate as reamers or bores. Depending on the required precision, a machinist may start with a drill and finish with a better cutter.
Step 10: Milling!
Now we're at the process for which the machine is named. An end mill is a rotary cutter with flutes (blades) on its bottom face and cutting elements on its sides. This allows the mill to slice both up and down and side to side. They come in many shapes and sizes.
I mentioned an enclosed 5 axis mill. It's exactly what it sounds like. There's a housing around the entire machine so it can be flooded with coolant, and the cutting head can twist in addition to sliding. The primary benefit of enclosed mills are the tool carriages. The one pictured below contains 24 collets, which can be swapped in and out automatically. The open mill pictured throughout this article needs an operator to swap out tools.
After the program has run it's course, you end up with a piece that's beginning to look a lot like
Machining is by no means a quick process. Most of the tools travel at 4 linear inches per minute (IPM) or less. To reduce chatter and improve tool life, most cuts are made in multiple shallow passes rather than one deep one. The piece pictured above took about 30 minutes to run (not including preparation and setup time). Even the best and biggest mills only travel at about 10 IPM. I programmed two pieces at a time to save on tool changes and other setup time.
(FYI thats 3AM. You're welcome.) You will eventually wind up with a nice array of parts. Job well done.
Just kidding. Remember how we left material hanging over so the vise could grab it and the work wouldn't fly away like a bullet? Well, we have to cut it off now.
Measuring and flycutting to the right thickness will take off the excess material.
No more tab. At this point we would run another setup, if applicable. Keep in mind we only had access to one face of the part. If there were features on opposing faces, we would have to turn the work and repeat steps 6-10. This particular part had a channel on one face and countersinks opposite. I repeated steps 6-10.
Step 11: Review
A quick check for dimensional accuracy.
If the parts are out of spec and can't be repaired, they go to the garbage (recycle). There are many reasons a machined part may be inaccurate. Chatter from poor clamping, dull tools, or programming errors are some of the more common ones.
Step 12: Finishing
Finishing up the parts by tapping holes and deburring edges is an important step. Not only does it make a good impression on the customer, it completes the features called out on the engineering drawing.
Step 13: "When in doubt, ship it out!"
More seriously, one would redo or repair any errors before shipping.
Voila! The parts are made to within specified parameters. This concludes machining.