Innovation in precision engineering has boomed in recent years, showing a significant development from where we were 50 years ago. Due to the highly increasing needs and complexities of sectors like aerospace, automotive, medical and military defence, the manufacture of components has become more streamlined, less wasteful and far more complex. As part of this, the world of CNC machining has evolved to accommodate the needs of major sectors in the form of 5-axis machining. This new method has been lauded by some and criticised by others, so we’re here to create this objective comparison between 5-axis and traditional 3-axis machining. Whether you’re a manufacturer or a client, this guide will explore the benefits and pitfalls of each from both sides of the fence. Let’s get started.
About 3-Axis Machining
3-Axis CNC machining is one of the most commonly used means of producing mechanical components. Utilised across many industrial sectors (along with other non-industrial areas like art and design), 3-axis machining is a relatively simple process of conventional machining. Utilising a CNC milling machine, 3-axis machining works by working on a part from 3 angles (X, Y and Z), using a cutting tool to produce the desired part. These 3 axes correspond to three dimensions, height, width and depth.
About 5-Axis Machining
5-Axis machining utilises the addition of two other axes, creating a 5-dimensional workspace in which to machine a component. The standard linear X, Y and Z axes are used, along with two rotary A and B axes, which allows for rotation of the machining tool. By using this configuration, a component can be machined from 5 angles at once. This additional capability comes with a whole host of benefits for manufacturers and clients alike, but can be confusing or overwhelming to integrate into your existing production process.
Comparing Complex Capabilities
3-Axis machining is an incredibly effective way of producing precision components, but having 5 dimensions of machining instead of 3 allows for greater intricacy and precision. This allows components that would normally have to be cast to be machined from a solid block. If you’re looking for short runs or prototyping, this method can be of great benefit. 5-Axis machines tend to use shorter cutting tools, which reduces tool vibration (again a bonus for accuracy) and helps to achieve a higher quality finish. Using shorter cutting tools also means that the machining head can be oriented toward the workpiece, reducing the load weight on the component. This helps to increase tool lifespan and reduce the risk of breakage.
Comparing Time & Material Efficiency
With the addition of two extra axes, 5-axis machines are able to machine with added precision, therefore producing less waste and scrap materials. Despite the addition of two extra dimensions, cycle times within 5-axis machines are reduced by over 20%. This is due to the machine having the ability to work from 5 angles at once, and negating the need to manually move the workpiece between cycles. While programming a 5-axis machine does require a little more setup time for the extra two axes, the time saved due to the machine’s capabilities is (in our opinion) worth the added setup time. Here at I&G Engineering, this saved time allows us to ship between 600 and 700 components each month.
Comparing Ease of Use
3-Axis machining is a relatively simple process, being taught to University students as part of Level 3 Engineering qualifications, but has remained an immensely practical machining solution for many decades. With the advent of CAD / CAM systems, 3-axis manufacturing is easier than ever. Contrary to what some believe, 5-axis machining is not as complex to set up as you might think. While it does require more levels of programming due to the addition of two axes, this just makes the process a little more detailed, not necessarily more difficult. It does come with longer preparation time, but involves less handling of materials and therefore a reduced risk of imprecision being added due to human error. When machining a component on a 3-axis system, it’s likely to require regular stoppages and manual adjustments of the workpiece. This is not needed with 5-axis machines, allowing the machine to be left to run without human observation.
Comparing Costs & Savings
The biggest reason that many manufacturers are hesitant to move to 5-axis machining is the cost. 5-Axis machines do cost more to buy initially than 3-axis machines due to the added complexity and technology that goes into it. While this can be a drawback, a 5-axis machine will save more money in the long run in the form of waste materials, cycle times, and less of a need for maintenance due to the shorter cutting tools that provide higher cutting speeds. For components that require added complexity, 5-axis machining will save a large amount of time and allow you to produce more components in shorter times, just like it has here at I&G.
Which is Better?
When it comes down to it, both 5-axis and 3-axis machining have their benefits and drawbacks. While 5-axis machining offers increased capabilities and improved efficiency across the board, some components simply don’t require the extra 2 axes. For example, in 3+2 machining, the additional 2 axes are used to locate the workpiece or cutting tool as opposed to directly machining it. This means there is no need for all 5 axes to move simultaneously. In short, there is no concrete answer, which is why here at I&G Engineering, we offer both 3-axis, 3+2-axis and 5-axis machining services. We produce both batch runs and prototype components for a range of organisations across many sectors, so if you are looking for precision CNC machining services worked around your timetable, get in touch with our team.