An Overview About the Plastic Machining Process

08 September 2021

One of the main attributes of plastics materials is their ability to be moulded into a finished component with no need for subsequent work to be carried out. Complicated shapes, holes and undercut features can be moulded into the component using tooling and moulding techniques. However all this comes at a cost of tooling expense.

The cutting tools used in the machining of all materials rely on the rigidity of the component being cut. In the case of cutting metals, the materials’ natural rigidity is good. Therefore the component resists distortion when the cutter (saw, drill or machine bit) cuts the metal. In the case of plastics, machining tends to lend itself better to rigid materials, such as fibre reinforced thermosetting plastics materials, glass reinforced nylons, acrylic or PEEK have good relative stiffness.  Less rigid plastic tends to deform and bend away when the cutter attempts to cut the component, making the achievement of fine dimensional tolerances difficult.

The Basics of Plastic Machining Process

Moulding tools and forming equipment used in the various plastic moulding processes are invariably hand made one off creations. They can often take weeks and months to manufacture with a resultantly high cost. Where a plastics component is specified and the numbers to be used are not large, then machining the component becomes more economical. Not all plastics materials can be machined. The more rigid a plastic then the easier it is to be machined. The more flexible and the softer plastics are not suitable for machining.

Due to the softer nature of plastics materials, the holding jigs and fixtures have to be designed with jaws which protect the plastic being machined, this can be with other plastics materials shaped to the form of the block being machined. In addition the jigs require to be robust in order to support the material being cut.

Different Types of Plastic Machining Process

CNC Machining – If the component to be cut has a complex shape, its profile can be programmed into a computer. A CNC machining centre can be used to manufacture duplicate numbers of components. Multiple interchangeable cutters typically used on CNC machines enable complex and varied components to be machined.

Turning – If the shape to be achieved is round, then a simple turning operation can be used. Specialist supplementary equipment attached to the lathe can extend the capabilities of the lathe’s operation.

Milling – This method of machining can vary from simple milling to profile and CNC milling. Again as with lathe work, either additions to the milling machine, or the use of a more complex milling machine can extend the milling machine’s capability to make more complex shapes.

Plastic materials being machined can be cooled with an air blast providing the resultant swarf is continuous and not in chipping form. Thermosetting plastics can be cooled using a liquid coolant, but care needs to be taken in terms of plastics prone to swelling in water to ensure that machined dimensions do not change. Heat generated in the process can cause thermal expansion – this effect must be factored in as dimensions may alter on cooling.

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