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[April 13, 2014] The precision machining industry is a dynamic one. Advances in new technology over the years, especially in the form of computerized numerical control (CNC), and multi-axis capability, has led to revolutionary design and production of precision machine parts. At APM's CNC machining facility, we keep make every effort to keep up to date with new trends, and lately a topic generating some buzz has been the increased use of hexapod CNC milling machines, and how this precision manufacturing technology may, in the future, be favored over conventional CNC mills. A big question we must ask is - Is this technology an improvement over traditional methods of milling and machining a part, such as with a horizontal or vertical milling machine? An Interesting topic of conversation we thought, and we'd like to share some of it with readers of this blog.
While by no means a new technology, hexapod milling, and the direction that other high speed machining tools are taking, is a trend towards updating and improving upon existing designs. For the uninitiated, the term hexapod, refers to 6-legged. As it applies to precision manufacturing and milling machines is a little more complex. Milling machines have a long history, with simple designs dating back to the early 1800's. Technology advanced, and today we are able to machine a wide array of intricate parts. We can now machine across 3 (X,Y & Z), 4 (X,Y,Z & C or Q) or even 5 (X,Y,Z &C and Q) axes with CNC movement and other CAM devices. A hexapod mill, by utilizing 6 legs, opens up another dimension by creating 6 degrees of "freedom of movement". The system is based upon a type of parallel robot known collectively as a "Stewart Platform" utilizing 6 hydraulic actuators, or legs. A part to be machined sits on a platform affixed to the actuators allowing the part to be milled in essentially, 6 dimensions - the X,Y & Z axes, and pitch, roll & yaw rotations. So, three linear movements and three rotational movements. The result is an enhanced ability to precision machine parts with continuous motion to produce more complex, contoured workpieces.
Among certified CNC machinists, commercial acceptance of high-speed, hexapod CNC milling centers has been slow, but the techniques utilized are on the upswing. There aren't many dedicated hexapod centers on the market. Machinists are experimenting by retrofitting existing equipment. So, will what are now essentially CNC milling robots replace more conventional vertical and horizontal milling machines in the future? Is it an improvement? The jury is still out, but the general consensus is not any time soon. But as with any evolving technology, eventually conventionalism falls away. One major advantage over traditional milling centers involves setup time and handling time. When dealing in three axes only on a standard set up, a part must removed and adjusted with several handlings to produce a desired shape. Hexapod milling machines require only one setup to work along all linear and rotational axes. In addition, the robotic actuators rely on more advanced mathematical algorithms for accuracy in comparison to conventional methods. Barriers to full entry and acceptance include cost and availability; not everyone is willing to go all in. Who knows though, in the next decade we might see a changing of the guard. Stay tuned!
Learn more about the milling and machining methods used at Advanced Precision Machining by Contacting our Colorado machine shop.
Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he partnered with his friend and colleague, Kirk Tuesburg, currently APM’s machine shop manager, together launching what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.