Five-axis machining goes mainstream

  • 13-Oct-2008 01:49 EDT
Makino's five-axis machines make it easier to produce parts with complex shapes.

It's getting a bit simpler to mill and machine complex parts. Five-axis machines are moving toward the mainstream, providing lower costs and simpler setup.

Several suppliers at the recent International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago rolled out equipment aimed more at mainstream manufacturing. Both equipment and CAM software are becoming more accessible, opening the door for faster production of complex parts.

“It used to be only high-end manufacturers that had five-axis machining,” said Karlo Apro, author of Secrets of 5-Axis Machining. “Now both hardware and CAM software are much less expensive.”

In the past, five-axis machines were targeted mainly at large shops that had enough volume to employ specialists who could handle complex, multi-axis setup and production. But companies such as Makino, which previously aimed only at these large OEMs, are shifting their focus.

“We have a five-axis system that’s made for tier-level suppliers and contract manufacturers,” said Mark Rentschler, Marketing Manager at Makino.

The cost of equipment varies widely depending on the applications it’s designed for. Though system and software prices are declining, they’re still high compared to simpler machines.

“Doing five axes is still expensive compared to three axes,” Apro said.

He noted that mainstream buyers will probably move cautiously before purchasing this costly equipment. Often, complex equipment is under-utilized, with many starts and stops instead of the continuous flow that provides the highest efficiency and quality.

“Now, 80% of multi-axis machines don’t do continuous work,” Apro said. “Even so, it’s still better to do three axes, then start again than to set up the part on another machine or two, where you might have to go through three, four, or even five setups.”

Both equipment makers and software providers are racing to make it simpler to set up and operate five-axis equipment. Controls must be simpler if the equipment is used by operators who haven’t been trained specifically for these complex multi-axes jobs.

“Our new CNC system is much simpler to program for five-axis machining. In the past, you had to do the orthogonal equations and other  math,” said Scott Strache, Senior Product Marketing Engineer at Mitsubishi Electric Automation.

The new equipment also offers a feature called Super Smooth Surfacing, which smooths out the speed changes during acceleration and deceleration, reducing dimples and other deformations. That feature is handled automatically without much user intervention.

Suppliers of the probes used to monitor the position of the machine heads and the completed product are also following the trend to cut prices and complexity. These probes play a key role in efficient use of milling and machining equipment. 

“Without probes, five-axis machining is a waste of time. When the part is being cut, we verify it,” said Sharad Mundra, Product Manager in Marposs Corp.’s Touch Probe Division. Newer Marposs systems work closely with CAD programs from Mastercam and others, automatically determining set points, he added.

CAM developers are also focusing on ease of use for multi-axis systems. “The No. 1 barrier for implementing new technology is not cost, it’s learning time,” said Bob Fisher, Marketing Vice President at VX Corp. The company recently added a training module to its CAM program.

Another software provider is addressing the low volumes of the aircraft industry. Bringing sophisticated software down to the PC is a must for operators who program equipment for many different jobs.

“Aerospace has been underserved in terms of PC desktop CAM software; there aren’t many choices that are cost-effective and easy to learn,” said Chuck Mathews, R&D Vice President for DP Technology’s Esprit group.

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