5-axis machining is an advanced cutting method that creates some of the highest quality parts. It runs with computer numerical control (CNC) technology. While previously reserved for only the highest-budgeted manufacturers, 5-axis machining has come a long way and is now commonly available to the rest of the manufacturing world.
The 5-axis mills and machines are used heavily in aerospace applications and can cut even the most intricate of patterns. They can also offer efficiency improvements for products that may only need 3-axis machining. However you choose to use it, successful 5-axis machining can have significant benefits for your manufacturing operations.
What Is 5-Axis Machining?
5-axis machining works under the same principles as sculpting. You take a large block of material and remove the excess with a cutting tool, piece by piece, until only the end object is left. This process is subtractive, as opposed to something additive like 3D printing, which adds material to a base.
Many CNC machines operate on three axes, with an X-, a Y- and a Z-axis for machine movement. In a 5-axis machine, you still have these three, but two of them rotate as well, adding an A- and B-axis. This design allows them to complete many simultaneous movements to make smooth or intricate designs. The configuration of the rotating and static axes can vary from machine to machine.
5-axis CNC machining is quick and efficient, offering a “one and done” approach. In a 3-axis machine, you would have to manually rotate the part in between passes so the cutting tool could access all of the faces. A 5-axis machine will do it for you. It can turn the piece and reach all of its faces in one go. It also allows for more complicated designs with this wide range of motion, and you can count on the machine to automatically rotate the tools you use.
Because of the added complexity of the machinery, you’ll need computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software with 5-axis capabilities, but that’s common. Collision avoidance also becomes a concern, since there are more angles for the tool to work in.
History of 5-Axis Machining
Believe it or not, multi-axis machines were used with four to 12 axes before CNC was even developed. These machines were run with levers on cam plates and were used for controlling the tool, table and rotary motions, as well as clamping the fixtures. While large and cumbersome, these manual multi-axis machines were well-suited to mass production. They were also the precursor to the 5-axis machines we know today.
The first numerically controlled (NC) machines were built in the 40s and punched tape was what ran them. They were developed by John T. Parsons and Frank Stulen, of Traverse City, Michigan. Parsons owned Parsons Corp. and came up with the initial idea while working on helicopter parts that needed specific, complex structures. Stulen even received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1985 for his work on the machine.
Additional features of NC technology developed in the following years and computer controls were incorporated. NC machines quickly developed into CNC machines, and they gained so much popularity that many different programming languages were created and had to be sorted through. G-code is the programming language commonly used today.
Post-processing systems were another significant advancement. CAD programs would create the designs that a CAM program would map into tool paths and machine movement. The post-processing system would convert the CAM results into a code that could be read by the specific machine that was in use. In short, a post-processor translates a CAM system’s data into the G-code that the CNC machine can read. This development allowed a CAM design to be read by whatever machine necessary and added versatility and ease of use to the whole operation.
As computer prices fell in the 60s and 70s, CNC machines became more and more affordable. Now, more than just the best of the best could afford a 5-axis machine. Advancing CAM systems also allowed for less experienced operators to run the machine and made it possible for non-experts to use them. Combined with the lack of a need for manual repositioning of the object, labor became more manageable. Better automation and production quality led the charge for more companies to adopt CNC machines.
As for multi-axis machines, they took a little longer to become affordable due to the increased complexities. They were mainly only found in large aerospace companies that had the budget and the knowledge to create the specific projects they needed. Now, multi-axis machines are commonplace on any shop floor.
But that’s a more recent development. 5-axis machines were actually on the commerce control list of the U.S. Department of Defense until 2009. The DoD considered them advanced technology and a matter of national security, so their export was regulated.
Advances in software and technology have allowed 5-axis machinery to become affordable and more user-friendly. As 5-axis machines have become more common, education on them has also become necessary. Colleges have seen the role that 5-axis machinery plays in the workforce. Educating their students on it gives them a substantial advantage and helps future employers reduce extra training costs.
Training costs for employees is a significant factor to consider when moving to 5-axis machining. Skilled machine operators are a must for any 5-axis application. Without trained employees, you risk not being able to create the complex parts that your clients need, let alone operating the machinery in the first place. Also, without the knowledge base present, a 5-axis machine isn’t being used to its fullest potential. You could be missing out on cost savings in labor reduction, quality improvements and automation procedures.
As for its future, 5-axis machining doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It has only recently gained popularity in less specialized applications, and its benefits are widespread, even on 3-axis work. These machines are becoming commonplace in any shop environment.
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As mentioned, the 5-axis machine has two more axes than its traditional counterpart. The “five” refers to the number of directions the cutting tool can move. The extra two allow for advanced rotation and movements to find the best connection between the cutting tool and the material. More notably, this simultaneous operation also provides the option to process up to five faces of the part in one pass. As many as 60% of parts produced in CNC shops require five-sided machining, making this approach increasingly popular.
Compared to a 3-axis machine, the process of a 5-axis machine offers several benefits, including:
Shorter lead times: A 5-axis machine requires less manual repositioning, as it can move the part on its own. It also can move in more efficient ways and find better angles to increase the efficiency of the cutting process. These factors allow you to finish your part in less time.
Greater accuracy: The five axes of movement offer much more precision than a 3-axis process. Any complex or intricate details are faster and more precise, and your finished product is sure to abide by quality and performance specifications.
Shorter cutting tools: With the range of motion in 5-axis machinery, shorter cutters can be used. These reduce vibration that often occurs in deeper cuts in a 3-axis machine. Not only does this deliver a smoother finish on the surface, but it also allows for higher cutting speeds without excessive pressure.
New business opportunities: A 5-axis machine may very well create more opportunities for products and services that you can provide to clients. The versatility of this method can open up new doors for your business.
There are several different design types for 5-axis machines that create different combinations of rotary axes. In a vertical machine, the X- and Y- axes follow the horizontal plane, with Z in the vertical. Horizontal machines switch the Z- and Y-axis.
The handling of the five axes can vary across machines and manufacturers. They may utilize swivel heads, rotating tables or trunnion tables, among other features. There are benefits to each type of device. The different types of 5-axis machines vary in where they place their rotational axes — they can both be in the table, in the tool or one in each:
Trunnion or table machine. This moves the table to achieve its range and has the capability of holding workpieces with a much larger volume. It also allows for better undercut capabilities, since you have more than 90 degrees of rotation in at least one axis. The trunnion table uses an A-axis to move around the X-axis and a C-axis to rotate around the Z-axis.
Swivel-rotate machine. This moves the head and spindle around the table. It is capable of holding much heavier parts since the table isn’t moving around in the same way as a trunnion-style machine. A swivel-rotate machine offers more versatility and access, as it has less tool interference. A swivel-rotate machine rotates the B-axis around the Y-axis and the C-axis around the Z-axis.
As with many tool selections, the best 5-axis machine configuration depends on how you’ll be using it.
One other aspect of this equation is 3+2, or positional 5-axis machining. In this type of machining, the rotary drives are locked down, leaving the other axes to do the work. This approach is separated from 5-axis machining because it doesn’t move the parts continuously with each other. 3+2 machining allows you to use a shorter, more rigid cutting tool because the spindle head can be put closer to the workpiece without risk of collision. Shorter tools lead to faster speeds as well, delivering an exceptional surface finish. Locking any one axis can also add stability to your project. The 3+2 machining requires less code while being more accurate. For parts without particularly detailed contours or edges, a 3+2 axis approach may work well.
Common Applications for 5-Axis Machining
Although 5-axis machines were previously reserved only for the aerospace markets, they are now in a variety of industries.
You can use a 5-axis machine wherever a 3-axis machine is in place for more efficiency and a smoother finish. It provides shorter cycles and requires less manual repositioning or changing of tools. In a 3-axis machine, the operator must reposition the material so the tool can reach all of its faces. This step can open the process up to human error and alignment issues. A 5-axis machine removes that, providing easy access to all sides.
CAD and CAM software for 5-axis machines can be incredibly advanced. They provide myriad of programming options and often include collision avoidance and post-processors for simple connection to a machine. With proper setup, you can even use these programs for “lights-out” machining, in which it is left unattended.
Aerospace: This CNC giant makes use of 5-axis machining’s ability to make smooth shapes and contoured edges. Aerospace applications are particularly unique and geometrically intricate, and the level of detail you can get from a 5-axis machine is immeasurably valuable — as is its ability to create interior cuts. Another benefit to the aerospace market is that a part doesn’t need to be repositioned at every pass. Using 5-axis machinery allows it to stay as accurate as possible by completing a part in one pass.
Medical: 5-axis machining can offer advantages to medical equipment manufacturers. The high precision it offers can aid the production of devices, implants and other equipment in meeting rigorous healthcare standards. These products are small, with intricate detail, and a 5-axis machine saves time and money through more efficient processes and accurate production.
Military: Components for precise military equipment are also frequently found in a 5-axis machine. Aside from their aerospace applications, these can include submarine parts, turbine and compressor blades, high-performance engine parts, stealth applications, smart weapons, sensors and even nuclear weaponry. While not all are military applications, about half of all 5-axis machine purchasers buy them for contracts or projects with the U.S. government.
Energy Equipment: A 5-axis machine can create detailed and specific parts that energy equipment requires. If you’re working with particularly rough, resistant materials, using a 5-axis machine can provide stability to your workspace, making it easier to cut and shape. It can also make your process more efficient, reducing the wear on your tools.
Whether you’re creating advanced machinery for a high-end aerospace project or simple parts for a consumer-grade vehicle, 5-axis machinery can improve your workflow. Some projects will need the advanced capabilities that the extra two axes offer, while others can benefit from the reduction in labor and errors. A 5-axis machine may even open up new doors to what you can produce.
Whatever you specialize in, you may want to consider using this convenient and efficient technology. If you do decide to bring 5-axis machinery to your workspace, Astro Machine Works offers assembly and testing services, as well as service to the machines. We can ensure a smooth integration into your shop, so you don’t waste any time transitioning and can get back to doing what you do best. Contact us today to learn more about 5-axis machining.