As a Hackaday reader, it’s safe to assume you’ve got a better than average understanding of electricity. There’s also an excellent chance you’re familiar with machining, and may even have a lathe or old mill in the workshop. But combining the two, and actually machining a piece of metal with electricity, isn’t something that many home gamers can boast first-hand experience with.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an interest. To help answer the burning (or at least, sparking) questions from the community, CEO and founder of Voxel Innovations Daniel Herrington stopped by this week’s Hack Chat to talk about the cutting edge of both electric discharge machining (EDM) and the closely related field of electrochemical machining (ECM). While his company uses the technology to produce components at incredible scales, Daniel got his start tinkering in the garage like so many of us, enabling him to provide both a professional and hobbyist prospective on the technologies.
Naturally, the first big question to be addressed was the difference between EDM and ECM. Put simply, electric discharge machining uses high-voltage to literally blast away material from the workpiece. The resulting finish is generally rough, and progress through the material tends to be slow, but it’s relatively simple to implement.
In contrast electrochemical machining could be thought of as a sort of reverse electroplating process, as the material being removed from the workpiece is dissolved and transferred to the cathode — though in practice the flow of pressurized electrolyte keeps it from actually plating the negatively charged tool. ECM is a faster process than EDM and allows for an exceptionally smooth surface finish, but is considerably more challenging from a technical perspective. Continue reading “Machining With Electricity Explored In The Hack Chat”→
We’re not aware of any authoritative metrics on such things, but it’s safe to say that the Ender 3 is among the most hackable commercial 3D printers. There’s just something about the machine that lends itself to hacks, most of which are obviously aimed at making it better at 3D printing. Some, though, are aimed in a totally different direction.
As proof of that, check out this Ender 3 modified for electrochemical machining. ECM is a machining process that uses electrolysis to remove metal from a workpiece. It’s somewhat related to electric discharge machining, but isn’t anywhere near as energetic. [Cooper Zurad] has been exploring ECM with his Ender, which he lightly modified by replacing the extruder with a hypodermic needle electrode. The electrode is connected to a small pump that circulates electrolyte from a bath on the build platform, while a power supply connects to the needle and the workpiece. As the tool traces over the workpiece, material is electrolytically removed.
The video below is a refinement of the basic ECM process, which [Cooper] dubs “wire ECM.” The tool is modified so that electrolyte flows down the outside of the needle, which allows it to enter the workpiece from the edge. Initial results are encouraging; the machine was able to cut through 6 mm thick stainless steel neatly and quickly. There does appear to be a bit of “flare” to the cut near the bottom of thicker stock, which we’d imagine might be mitigated with a faster electrolyte flow rate.
If you want to build your own Ender ECM, [Cooper] has graciously made the plans available for download, which is great since we’d love to see wire ECM take off. We’ve covered ECM before, but more for simpler etching jobs. Being able to silently and cleanly cut steel on the desktop would be a game-changer.
When it comes to turning a raw block of metal into a useful part, most processes are pretty dramatic. Sharp and tough tools are slammed into raw stock to remove tiny bits at a time, releasing the part trapped within. It doesn’t always have to be quite so violent though, as these experiments in electrochemical machining suggest.
Electrochemical machining, or ECM, is not to be confused with electrical discharge machining, or EDM. While similar, ECM is a much tamer process. Where EDM relies on a powerful electric arc between the tool and the work to erode material in a dielectric fluid, ECM is much more like electrolysis in reverse. In ECM, a workpiece and custom tool are placed in an electrolyte bath and wired to a power source; the workpiece is the anode while the tool is the cathode, and the flow of charged electrolyte through the tool ionizes the workpiece, slowly eroding it.
The trick — and expense — of ECM is generally in making the tooling, which can be extremely complicated. For his experiments, [Amos] took the shortcut of 3D-printing his tool — he chose [Suzanne] the Blender monkey — and then copper plating it, to make it conductive. Attached to the remains of a RepRap for Z-axis control and kitted out with tanks and pumps to keep the electrolyte flowing, the rig worked surprisingly well, leaving a recognizably simian faceprint on a block of steel.
[Amos] admits the setup is far from optimized; the loop controlling the distance between workpiece and tool isn’t closed yet, for instance. Still, for initial experiments, the results are very encouraging, and we like the idea of 3D-printing tools for this process. Given his previous success straightening his own teeth or 3D-printing glass, we expect he’ll get this fully sorted soon enough.
It’s a luxury to be able to access a modern machine shop, complete with its array of lathes, mills, and presses. These tools are expensive though, and take up a lot of space, so if you want to be able to machine hard or thick metals without an incredible amount of overhead you’ll need a different solution. Luckily you can bypass the machines in some situations and use electricity to do the machining directly.
This project makes use of a process known as electrochemical machining and works on the principle that electricity passed through an electrolyte solution will erode the metal that it comes in contact with. With a well-designed setup, this can be used to precisely machine metal in various ways. For [bob]’s use this was pretty straightforward, since he needed to enlarge an existing hole in a piece of plate steel, so he forced electrolyte through this hole while applying around half an amp of current in order to make this precise “cut” in the metal, avoiding the use of an expensive drill press.
There are some downsides to the use of this process as [bob] notes in his build, namely that any piece of the working material that comes in contact with the electrolyte will be eroded to some extent. This can be mitigated with good design but can easily become impractical. It’s still a good way to avoid the expense of some expensive machining equipment, though, and similar processes can be used for other types of machine work as well.
[Muth] added an auxiliary display to his motorcycle instrument panel. He started out prototyping with a PIC 16F877A which he used to access information through the ECM diagnostic connection. Once he had that working he found this tiny display which fits perfectly between the speedometer and tachometer. There’s a short demo after the break where you can see a past-30-minute history of the Adaptive Fuel Value and the engine temperature as well as a secondary information screen.