Electrical Discharge Machining (or EDM) is a machining method primarily used for hard metals or those that would be impossible to machine with traditional techniques. One critical limitation, however, is that EDM only works with materials that are electrically conductive, and generally those materials are ferrous alloys. EDM can cut small or odd-shaped angles, intricate contours or cavities in pre-hardened steel without the need for heat treatment to soften and re-harden them as well as exotic metals such as titanium, hastelloy, kovar, and inconel.
Sometimes referred to as spark machining or spark eroding, EDM is a non-traditional method of removing material by a series of rapidly recurring electric arcing discharges between an electrode (the cutting tool) and the workpiece, in the presence of an energetic electric field. The EDM cutting tool is guided along the desired path very close to the work but it does not touch the piece. Consecutive sparks produce a series of micro-craters on the work piece and remove material along the cutting path by melting and vaporization. The particles are washed away by the continuously flushing dielectric fluid. It is also important to note that a similar micro-crater is formed on the surface of the electrode, the debris from which must also be flushed away. These micro-craters result in the gradual erosion of the electrode, many times necessitating several different electrodes of varying tolerances to be used, or, in the case of wire EDM machining, constant replacement of the wire by feeding from a spool.
There are two main types of EDM machines: Sinker EDM (also called Conventional EDM and Ram EDM) and Wire EDM.
The EDM process was invented by two Russian scientists, Dr. B.R. Lazarenko and Dr. N.I. Lazarenko in 1943.
The first numerically controlled (NC, or computer controlled) EDM was invented by Makino in Japan in 1980.
Some of the advantages of EDM include machining of:
- complex shapes that would otherwise be difficult to produce with conventional cutting tools
- extremely hard material to very close tolerances
- very small work pieces where conventional cutting tools may damage the part from excess cutting tool pressure.
Some of the disadvantages of EDM include:
- The inability to machine non-conductive materials.
- The slow rate of material removal.
- The additional time and cost used for creating electrodes for ram / Sinker EDM.
- Reproducing sharp corners on the workpiece is difficult due to electrode wear.
The EDM process is most widely used by the mould-making tool and die
industries, but is becoming a common method of making prototype and production parts, especially in the aerospace, automobile and electronics industries in which production quantities are relatively low. In Sinker EDM, a graphite
or pure copper
electrode is machined into the desired (negative) shape and fed into the workpiece on the end of a vertical ram.
Coinage die making
For the creation of dies for producing jewelry and badges by the coinage (stamping) process, the positive master may be made from sterling silver, since (with appropriate machine settings) the master is not significantly eroded and is used only once. The resultant negative die is then hardened and used in a drop hammer
to produce stamped flats from cutout sheet blanks of bronze, silver, or low proof gold alloy. For badges these flats may be further shaped to a curved surface by another die. This type of EDM is usually performed submerged in an oil-based dielectric. The finished object may be further refined by hard (glass) or soft (paint) enameling and/or electroplated with pure gold or nickel. Softer materials such as silver may be hand engraved as a refinement.
Small hole drilling EDM
Small hole drilling EDM is used to make a through hole in a workpiece in through which to thread the wire in Wire-cut EDM machining. The small hole drilling head is mounted on wire-cut machine and allows large hardened plates to have finished parts eroded from them as needed and without pre-drilling. There are also stand-alone small hole drilling EDM machines with an x
axis also known as a super drill or hole popper
that can machine blind or through holes. EDM Drills bore holes with a long brass or copper tube electrode that rotates in a chuck with a constant flow of distilled or deionized water
flowing through the electrode as a flushing agent and dielectric. The electrode tubes operate like the wire in wire-cut EDM machines, having a spark gap and wear rate. Some small-hole drilling EDMs are able to drill through 100 mm of soft or through hardened steel in less than 10 seconds, averaging 50% to 80% wear rate. Holes of 0.3 mm to 6.1 mm can be achieved in this drilling operation. Brass electrodes are easier to machine but are not recommended for wire-cut operations due to eroded brass particles causing "brass on brass" wire breakage, therefore copper is recommended.
Cavity type EDM (sinker EDM)
Cavity type EDM is also known as Sinker EDM. Sinker EDM consists of an electrode and workpiece that are submerged in an insulating liquid such as oil. The electrode and workpiece are connected to a suitable power supply. The power supply generates an electrical potential between the two parts. As the electrode approaches the workpiece, dielectric breakdown occurs in the fluid, and a small spark jumps. The resulting heat and cavitation vaporize the base material, and to some extent, the electrode. These sparks strike one at a time in huge numbers at seemingly random locations across the electrode. As the base metal is eroded, and the spark gap subsequently increased, the electrode is lowered automatically by the machine so that the process can continue uninterrupted. Several hundred thousand sparks occur per second in this process, with the actual duty cycle being carefully controlled by the setup parameters. The typical part geometry is to cut small or odd shaped angles. Vertical, orbital, vectorial, directional, helical, conical, rotational, spin and indexing machining cycles are also used. The typical work materials are ferrous alloys.
Wire Cut EDM
In wire electrical discharge machining (WEDM), or wire-cut EDM, a thin single-strand metal wire, usually brass, is fed through the workpiece, typically occurring submerged in a tank of dielectric
fluid. This process is used to cut plates as thick as 300mm and to make punches, tools,and dies from hard metals that are too difficult to machine with other methods. The wire, which is constantly fed from a spool, is held between upper and lower diamond guides. The guides move in the x
plane, usually being CNC
controlled and on almost all modern machines the upper guide can also move independently in the z
axis, giving rise to the ability to cut tapered and transitioning shapes (circle on the bottom square at the top for example) and can control axis movements in x
–. This gives the wire-cut EDM the ability to be programmed to cut very intricate and delicate shapes. The wire is controlled by upper and lower diamond guides that are usually accurate to 0.004 mm, and can have a cutting path or kerf
as small as 0.12 mm using Ø 0.1 mm wire, though the average cutting kerf that achieves the best economic cost and machining time is 0.335 mm using Ø 0.25 brass wire. The reason that the cutting width is greater than the width of the wire is because sparking also occurs from the sides of the wire to the work piece, causing erosion. This "overcut" is necessary, predictable, and easily compensated for. Spools of wire are typically very long. For example, an 8 kg spool of 0.25 mm wire is just over 19 kilometers long. Today, the smallest wire diameter is 20 micrometres and the geometry precision is not far from +/- 1 micrometre. The wire-cut process uses water as its dielectric with the water's resistivity and other electrical properties carefully controlled by filters and de-ionizer
units. The water also serves the very critical purpose of flushing the cut debris away from the cutting zone. Flushing is an important determining factor in the maximum feed rate available in a given material thickness, and poor flushing situations necessitate the reduction of the feed rate.
Along with tighter tolerances multiaxis EDM wire-cutting machining center have many added features such as:
Multiheads for cutting two parts at the same time,
controls for preventing wire breakage,
automatic self-threading features in case of wire breakage,
and programmable machining strategies to optimize the operation.
Wire-cutting EDM is commonly used when low residual stresses are desired. Wire EDM has no added residual stress because it has no cutting forces. There is little change in the mechanical properties of a material in wire-cutting EDM due to these low residual stresses.