3D-Printed Tooling Enables DIY Electrochemical Machining

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.

Machining Without Machines

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.