Dear Shop Doc,
We are a mold shop specializing in cutlery molds with large cavities and tiny details, usually from 420 stainless steel hardened to 48 to 50HRC. Some corner radii are as small as 0.008”. For years, we have been using EDM machines to burn our hardened cavities and cores—a very time consuming process. I’ve heard that high-speed hard milling is the new process for mold-making. Can it really replace our EDM?
-Make Us Faster
Dear Make Us Faster,
You are right. High Speed Machining (HSM) has made a huge impact on the mold-making process in recent years. HSM is a machining process using smaller tools with high rpm and feed-rate to perform faster, lighter cuts. Surprisingly, tackling hard milling is simplified using this high-speed technique. Conventionally, cutting hardened tool steel with large tools generates a lot of heat that breaks down the end mill rapidly, making milling an impractical option. Hence the EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) became the standard process to machine hardened steel. With HSM however, every cut is small, light and fast, minimizing thermal effects and lowering heat transfer to the end mill, so the tool will last to finish the cavity. Together with the advances in cutting tool technology, HSM Hard Milling has become a very practical alternative with major savings in time and cost.
To determine whether HSM can replace your EDM process, you must study the characteristics of your mold cavities. Obviously a 90 degree sharp internal corner can only be accomplished with EDM. For big cavities, milling is always faster than EDM. As for small features, the recommended rpm goes up proportionally as the end mill radius goes down. Small radius alone is not the issue. What makes hard milling difficult is when the end mill becomes too slim and therefore lacks strength to support its cutting. It is the ratio of the end mill diameter to neck length that is important. When hard milling with end mills under 1/4”, the rules of thumb are: a 1:3 ratio is considered stubby, 1:5 is practical, 1:8 is difficult and requires a lot of careful programming, and 1:10 probably is the limit.
Having said that, please bear in mind that HSM also compliments the EDM process. Mold cavities typically consist of free-form surfaces that are machined with ball end-mills, and the “cusp” between paths decides the final surface finish. For example, a 1/8” ball end mill with 0.003” step-over will produce a “cusp” height of 18 micro-inches. A silky smooth surface finish requires densely packed tool paths that make machining at a high rpm and feed-rate essential for cycle time reduction. This is true for both hard milling and electrode machining.
When you are considering HSM for your shop, please be aware of the upfront costs associated. A true high speed machine costs more than a conventional CNC machining center. They typically have bridge construction and are equipped with high-speed motor spindles with anywhere from 20,000 rpm to 50,000 rpm. Other critical features to look into include advanced CNC with look-forward capabilities, large storage, Ethernet connection and thermal control. Last but not least, it is the human factor, from process planning and tooling selection, to programming and setup that separates the men from the boys in HSM implementation.
-Jesse Xi Chen
Jesse Xi Chen Compumachine Inc.