The Machinists’ Mantra: Precision, Thy Name Is Rigidity

“Everything is a spring”. You’ve probably heard that expression before. How deep do you think your appreciation of that particular turn of phrase really is? You know who truly, viscerally groks this? Machinists.

As I’ve blathered on about at length previously, machine tools are all about precision. That’s easy to say, but where does precision really come from? In a word, rigidity. Machine tools do a seemingly magical thing. They remove quantities of steel (or other materials medieval humans would have killed for) with a slightly tougher piece of steel. The way they manage to do this is by applying the cutting tool to the material within a setup that is so rigid that the material has no choice but to yield. Furthermore, this cutting action is extremely precise because the tool moves as little as possible while doing so. It all comes down to rigidity. Let’s look at a basic turning setup.

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How Precise is That Part? Know Your GD&T

How does a design go from the computer screen to something you hold in your hand? Not being able to fully answer this question is a huge risk in manufacturing because . One of the important tools engineers use to ensure success is Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing (GD&T).

A good technical drawing is essential for communicating your mechanical part designs to a manufacturer. Drafting, as a professional discipline, is all about creating technical drawings that are as unambiguous as possible, and that means defining features explicitly. The most basic implementation of that concept is dimensioning, where you state the distance or angle between features. A proper technical drawing will also include tolerances for those dimensions, and I recently explained how to avoid the pitfall of stacking those tolerances.

Dimensions and tolerances alone, however, don’t tell the complete story. On their own, they don’t specify how closely the geometric form of the manufactured part needs to adhere to your perfect, nominal representation. That’s what we’re going to dig into today with GD&T.

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A Three Axis Mill For The End Of The World

A mill is one of those things that many hackers want, but unfortunately few get their hands on. Even a low-end mill that can barely rattle its way through a straight cut in a piece of aluminum is likely to cost more than all the other gear on your bench. A good one? Don’t even ask. So if something halfway decent is out of your price range, you might as well throw caution to the wind and build one.

That’s more or less the goal behind this extremely basic three axis mill built by [Michael Langeder]. Designed around a cheap rotary tool, it’s hard to imagine a more simplistic mill. Almost all the components are stuff you could pick up from the local hardware store, or probably even the junk pile if you were really in a pinch. It won’t be the best looking piece of gear in your shop, but it’s good enough to learn the basics on and just might be able to bootstrap a second-generation mill RepRap-style.

Made out of scrap blocks of aluminum and some threaded rod, the Z axis itself represents the bulk of the work on this project. It gives the user fine control over the height of the rotary tool by way of a large knob on the top. It’s held over the work piece with some flat steel bars and corner brackets rather hastily cut out of aluminum sheet.

While the tool holder is 3D printed, you could probably hack something up out of a block of wood if you didn’t have access to a printer. The only part of the mill that’s really “cheating” is the cross slide table, but at least they can be had for relatively cheap. If you really wanted to do this with junk bin finds, you could always replicate the Z axis design for X and Y.

If you’re not looking for something quite so austere, we’ve covered slightly more advanced DIY mills in the past. You could always go in the opposite direction and put a cross slide vise on your drill press, but do so at your own risk.

Super Magnesium: Lighter Than Aluminum, Cheaper Than Carbon Fiber

We think of high tech materials as the purview of the space program, or of high-performance aircraft. But there are other niche applications that foster super materials, for example the world of cycling. Magnesium is one such material as it is strong and light, but it has the annoying property of burning in its pure state. Alloys of magnesium meanwhile generally don’t combust unless they are ground fine or exposed to high temperatures. Allite is introducing a new line known as “super magnesium” which is in reality three distinct alloys that they claim are 30% lighter than aluminum, as well as stronger and stiffer than the equivalent mass of that metal. They also claim the material will melt at 1200F instead of burning. To lend an air of mystique, this material was once only available for defense applications but now is open to everyone.

It’s a material that comes in three grades. AE81 is optimized for welding, ZE62 is better suited for forging, while WE54 is made for casting processes. Those names might sound like made up stock numbers, but they aren’t, as magnesium allows typically have names that indicate the material used to mix with the magnesium. A stands for aluminum, Z is for zirconium zinc, W is for yttrium, and E stands for rare earths. So AE81 is a mix of magnesium, aluminum, and some rare earth material. The numbers indicate the approximate amount of each addition, so AE81 is 8% aluminum and 1% rare earth.

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The How and Why of Tungsten Carbide Inserts, and a Factory Tour

It seems a touch ironic that one of the main consumables in the machining industry is made out of one of the hardest, toughest substances there is. But such is the case for tungsten carbide inserts, the flecks of material that form the business end of most of the tools used to shape metal. And thanks to one of the biggest suppliers of inserts, Sweden’s Sandvik Coromant, we get this fascinating peek at how they’re manufactured.

For anyone into machining, the video below is a must see. For those not in the know, tungsten carbide inserts are the replaceable bits that form the cutting edges of almost every tool used to shape metal. The video shows how powdered tungsten carbide is mixed with other materials and pressed into complex shapes by a metal injection molding process, similar to the one used to make gears that we described recently. The inserts are then sintered in a furnace to bind the metal particles together into a cohesive, strong part. After exhaustive quality inspections, the inserts are ground to their final shape before being shipped. It’s fascinating stuff.

Coincidentally, [John] at NYC CNC just released his own video from his recent jealousy-inducing tour of the Sandvik factory. That video is also well worth watching, especially if you even have a passing interest in automation. The degree to which the plant is automated is staggering – from autonomous forklifts to massive CNC work cells that require no operators, this looks like the very picture of the factory of the future. It rolls some of the Sandvik video in, but the behind-the-scenes stuff is great.

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Building the Terminator’s Arm

The Cyberdyne Systems Series 800 Terminator is a highly capable robot that happens to look an awful lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger. It boasts an advanced metallic endoskeleton, which has been the inspiration for many DIY prop builds over the years. [KenToonz] has decided to take on just such a project and invites viewers along for the ride. (YouTube, embedded below.)

The project is a particularly interesting one, as it involves the recreation of a robotic imitation of a human hand and arm. Thankfully, due to the hard work of dedicated individuals, blueprints of the original movie item are available online. These aren’t fully functional, per se, but give the aspiring builder a strong basis to get the look and feel right, while leaving room for modifications for those who wish to build something that moves and operates in the expected way. [KenToonz] intends to do exactly that, and contemplates the installation of various springs and other mechanisms to enable the joints to extend and retract properly.

[KenToonz] starts from the fingers, working back towards the forearm before beginning to add the various interstitial pieces that make it all work together as an assembly. The machining involved covers everything from small metal pieces of the digits to producing custom springs for the moving parts. We can’t wait to see the finished product once it’s all finished!

We’ve seen some great prop builds before, too – like this tricorder worthy of Mr Spock.

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Sharpies and Glue Sticks Fight the Gummy Metal Machining Blues

“Gummy” might not be an adjective that springs to mind when describing metals, but anyone who has had the flutes of a drill bit or end mill jammed with aluminum will tell you that certain metals do indeed behave in unhelpful ways. But a new research paper seeks to shed light on the gummy metal phenomenon, and may just have machinists stocking up on office supplies.

It’s a bit counterintuitive that harder metals like steel are often easier to cut than softer metals; especially aluminum but also copper, nickel alloys, and some stainless steel alloys. But it happens, and [Srinivasan Chandrasekar] and his colleagues at Purdue University wanted to find out why, and what can be done about it. So the first job was to get up close and personal with the interface between a cutting tool and metal stock, to observe the dynamics of cutting. In a fascinating bit of video, they saw that softer metals tend to fold in sinuous patterns rather than breaking on defined shear planes.

Source: American Physical Society.

Having previously noted that cutting through Dykem, a common machinist’s marking fluid, changes chip formation in soft metals, the researchers tested everything from Sharpies to adhesive tape and even correction fluid, and found that they all helped to reduce the gumming action to some degree. Under their microscope they can clearly see that chips form differently once the cutting edge hits the treated surface, tending to act more brittle and ejecting rather than folding. They also noted a marked decrease in cutting force for the treated metal, and much-improved surface finish to boot.

Will Sharpies and glue sticks enter the book of old machinist’s tricks like gauge-block wringing? Only time will tell. But for now, this is a pretty fascinating bit of research that you might be able to put to the test in your shop. Let us know what you find in the comments.

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