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Risk Meets Reward With 5-Axis Machining

Feb. 20, 2008
by Glynn Fletcher Glynn Fletcher president of GF AgieCharmilles Demands on precision manufacturers have never been greater. The constant need to reduce lead times, maintain and improve part quality and control costs means ...

by Glynn Fletcher

Glynn Fletcher president of GF AgieCharmilles

Demands on precision manufacturers have never been greater. The constant need to reduce lead times, maintain and improve part quality and control costs means that manufacturers have to continually raise their game if they are to compete and succeed in the global market.

Some precision manufacturers were eager to respond to these pressures with 5-axis machining, a contemporary approach that enables operators to manufacture complex parts that typically require a series of 3-axis operations in one set up. With fewer machining operations and less time and resources spent on cutting tools and job fixturing, job shops could become more productive, competitive and profitable. But the capability that should have ushered in an era of success was met by many with widespread reluctance due to the perception that it was more complex than it was worth.

Widely viewed as a capability ideal for large aerospace and automotive manufacturers, the primary fear of 5-axis machining is the belief that it is too expensive and specialized for small job shops to justify the investment. But the last few years have seen significant advancements in machining technology, and as more companies incorporate 5-axis machines into their operations, the price has reduced dramatically.

Five-axis machines now are available starting below $200,000. Though many shop owners do not want to invest in a machine until they are assured of work for it, risk brings reward and the reduction in machining, setup and tooling cost results in an increase in productivity and profit margins. In short order, the machine pays for itself while owners continue to reap the benefits.

Reservations over 5-axis milling also are fueled by the notion that these machines are too difficult to program.

Available in different configurations and equipped with a variety of capabilities, it can be hard for a potential customer to discern which 5-axis machine best suits a shop’s capabilities. Though five-axis machines will grant more machining capability and capacity, it is important to remember that not all are the same.

A customer must know if he needs 5-axis positioning or 5-axis simultaneous machining, or if he prefers high performance 5-axis milling (HPM) to high speed 5-axis milling (HSM). For shop owners who are looking to introduce a 5-axis machine into a facility for the first time, tapping into the expertise and know-how of machine tool builders can answer questions and allay fears.

Another source of trepidation is the implementation of a CAM programming system.

Similar to the evolution of 5-axis machines, the market now offers reasonably priced, intuitive systems that specialize in the capability. But once a good CAM system is found, customers must choose a postprocessor, the component that links the CAM system to the NC program controller. Such postprocessors should have integrated 5-axis tool path simulation, verification, editing and postprocessing solutions that address most customer issues and ensure a quick and smooth start-up.

Fully configurable to suit the needs of each job shop, most postprocessors offer features such as highly detailed machine models for accuracy, true 5-axis machine path plotting and analysis and machine collision and over-travel detection. Manufacturers of complex contour parts and simple parts such as valve bodies and motor housings will realize enormous benefits from the ability to machine five sides of a part in one setting.

As a result, it is imperative that they embrace 5-axis technology to ensure success in today’s marketplace.

Though the fears of 5-axis may have been justified at one time, its widespread availability, cost-competitiveness and improved support resources now allows everyone from the small job shop to the large aerospace manufacturer to reap the benefits at a reasonable cost.

The evolution of machine tools is full of paradigm shifts that range from the introduction of CNC technology to the development of highly efficient automation systems.

As time passes, 5-axis machine technology will completely alter the landscape of manufacturing as 3-axis machines move to the history books.

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