CNC Machining of Thermoplastics: A Comprehensive Guide
CNC machining of thermoplastic
You might already be familiar with two types of plastics, thermoset, and thermoplastic. The fundamental difference is thermoset plastics cannot be re-molded after heating, while thermoplastics can be melted and re-molded.
Plastics are the essential parts of CNC materials, and various plastics are available for CNC machining projects. Both thermoset and thermoplastics are compatible with CNC machining operations, although we will discuss thermoplastics in this article, including properties, machining process, advantages, and applications.
What is Thermoplastic?
Thermoplastics are mixtures of polymer resins that do not exhibit changes in properties when heated. It becomes softer when heated and hard on cooling. Thermoplastic can be remolded after melting, retaining all original physical, mechanical, and chemical qualities.
Thermoplastics offer mechanical strength, impact resistance, machinability, corrosion resistance, chemical inertness, and many other beneficial properties.
Common thermoplastics in CNC machining
Different thermoplastics are used in CNC machining projects based on the required specification and intended use of the parts. Each thermoplastic has a few unique benefits and qualities to offer. The thermoplastics most frequently used in CNC machining are ABS, PMMA, PVS, Acrylic, Polycarbonate, Polystyrene, and Polyurethane.
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Properties of Thermoplastics
Thermoplastics are suitable CNC material for many applications; it does not react with acidic or alkaline chemicals and provides excellent strength, toughness, and durability. Let’s go into more detail about the various thermoplastics’ properties.
- Mechanical strength
Thermoplastics have lower strength than most metals & alloys. But its lightweight nature makes it comparable with metals. Often thermoplastics are reinforced with fiber and glass to increase their strength for CNC machining projects. However, it also depends on the specific type of thermoplastics. For example, PE offers low mechanical strength, while ABS and Acrylic provide high strength.
- Impact strength
Thermoplastics can withstand impact loads without losing their physical & mechanical properties. Thermoset plastics could be fractures on impact loads, while thermoplastics need high energy for fracture phenomena.
Polyoxymethylene (POM) is the best thermoplastic for high-impact strength. It performs well under repeated impact loadings. Additionally, the temperature of the operating environment affects the impact strength of any thermoplastic.
Thermoplastics shows decent hardens property. While performing CNC machining operations, it prevents cracking and chipping. Additionally, CNC-machined thermoplastics parts become highly abrasion resistive.
- Chemical Compatibility
Chemical compatibility is one of the key characteristics that make thermoplastics superior to many CNC machining procedures. It does not react with harsh chemicals (acids & alkalis).
Some thermoplastics also exhibit natural lubricities such as Nylon, Acrylic, and Delrin. The slippery natures of these plastics are beneficial in various food-processing & medical applications.
Thermoplastics are entirely recyclable and can be re-created by melting and shaping through a mold. The recycled plastics retain all the original properties.
- Moisture & electrical insulation
It does not absorb moisture and shows excellent water-proof character. Therefore, thermoplastics are widely beneficial for various marine and other water-proof applications.
Thermoplastics can resist high electrical voltage without deformation. It is the perfect choice for electrical insulation in electrical and electronics applications.
Properties of thermoplastics (Thermoplastics – Physical Properties, 2005)
How to Choose the Right Thermoplastics for CNC Machining?
The choice of thermoplastic for your CNC machining projects depends on several factors, such as required properties, specifications, features, intended application, and cost.
The first step involves the identification of required properties for particular applications. List out all the physical, mechanical, and chemical properties essential for the functionality of the desired part. In addition, it is also crucial to consider operating conditions and performance while listing the properties.
ABS is a strong, rigid material that provides outstanding impact resistance. It leaves a smooth surface after CNC processing. If further finishing is essential, the surface can be finished with a metallization and electroplating approach. ABS applies to automotive, aerospace, electronics, and many more industries.
Delrin is well known for its lightweight, mechanical strength, chemical compatibility, and electric & thermal insulation. It has applications in various industries, such as automotive, home appliances, electronics, and .fitting
PMMA is a rigid and transparent thermoplastic used in CNC machining operations instead of glass.
It provides high chemical inertness, wear resistance, weather resistance, and impact strength. PMMA could be the best material choice for windows, automotive parts, drug testing devices, architectural parts, and electronics components.
Polycarbonate is a hard, tough, and transparent engineering thermoplastic which maintains high dimensional stability with CNC machining processes. Unlike other thermoplastics, PC offers low scratch resistance and chemical compatibility. It plays a significant role in automobiles, lighting, optical instruments, electronics, and other industries.
PVC is one of the widely used thermoplastics in CNC machining projects. It is a rigid, lightweight, weather-independent, and strong material which offers intrinsic flame-retardant properties. PVC is used in many applications, including plumbing, medical components, automotive interiors, footwear, and packaging.
Selection of tool path
After selecting the material, it is crucial to fix the tool path according to the 3D model. The correct tool path ensures the shortest route and quality of surface finishing. Using CAM software can be the best approach to choosing the tool path.
Machining Process of Thermoplastics
CNC machining of ABS
Thermoplastics can be machined with general CNC machining tools made of hard steel. The feed rate and cutting speed are two significant variables affecting machining quality. However, a fine, C-2 grade carbide tool might be needed for turning thermoplastics.
The machinability of thermoplastics also influences the quality of the machined part. It is necessary to consider this before jumping into the machining step. The machining conditions for various thermoplastics are listed in the table below (Plastic Turning Machining Guidelines, 2020)
Turning variables for thermoplastics
As seen in this table, every thermoplastic has distinct machining parameters, such as clearance angle, rake, angle, cutting speed, and feed rate, because each thermoplastic has a different strength, hardness, and machinability degree.
Surface Finishing options
CNC -machined parts of thermoplastics contain satisfactory as-machined surface finish. However, further surface-finishing processes might require in many applications. Surface finishing of thermoplastic parts results in a smooth and shiny surface, eliminating tool marks, burrs, and small chips.
Bead blasting, deburring, polishing, metallization, and etching are the frequently used surface finishing approaches for CNC-machined thermoplastic parts. However, special surface finishing can be employed for better results depending on the particular type of thermoplastic.
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For instance, flame polishing creates a shiny and smooth surface on objects made of acrylic. It entails applying medium-flame heat to the surface.
CNC machining of thermoplastics offers various advantages, such as accuracy, complex shapes, cost-effectiveness, and many more.
Thermoplastics can be machined with tight tolerances, thanks to their machinability character. Advanced CNC machines can create thermoplastic parts with tolerances as low as ±0.002 mm. The high degree of accuracy also facilitates the large volume production of identical thermoplastic parts.
- Intricate shapes
Thermoplastics can be utilized to make intricate shapes using CNC machining, which is challenging to make with other plastics and techniques. The computer-controlled mechanism of CNC technology allows for dictating the movement of the tool for precise machining.
The high production speed and low cost of thermoplastics make the process cost-effective. If you compare with metal & alloys, thermoplastic parts are less costly to create with CNC machining.
- Smooth finish
Thermoplastic parts created with CNC machining leave a smooth surface compared to other manufacturing approaches, such as injection molding. In addition, It does not leave any rough edges.
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As there are various thermoplastics, these are used in a range of industries after processing with CNC machining. The lightweight nature, strength, and toughness make it an ideal choice for automotive, aerospace, electrical, electronics, piping, home appliances, and many more industries.
|Automotive & aerospace||Fire extinguishers, turbine engines, seat covers, seat belt mechanisms, fuel rails, control valves, HVAC parts, clips, fuel tanks, bushings, aerospace engine parts, and aircraft exterior components.|
|Medical||Graft material in surgical interventions, dental instruments, Screws and plates, Medication pumps, endoscopes, Insulin pens, Dialysis machine parts, and many more.|
|Electrical & electronics||Wire insulators, trim circuits, electronic housing, control panels, keyword keys, connectors jacks, Convoluted tubing|
|Food processing||Packaging, food processors, and more.|
|Pipes and fittings||Water-tight seals, vacuum construction, pipes, and many more.|
|Others||Music instruments, sports equipment, kitchenware, shipbuilding, oil & gas, parts for the defense industry, and many more.|
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Is the thermoplastics go-to option for CNC prototyping?
Thermoplastics are lightweight & low-cost materials with high machinability, strength, toughness, impact resistance, wear resistance, and corrosion resistance. These properties make an ideal choice for prototyping parts or products for various industries, including automotive, aerospace, medical, electronics, oil & gas, and food processing.
A thoughtful prototyping process demands quick production, low cost, and accuracy. CNC machining of thermoplastics addresses all these requirements.
Thermoplastics work extremely well with CNC machining processes, which are helpful for prototype and high-volume manufacturing. The versatile physical, mechanical, and chemical properties are beneficial for a range of applications.
Prolean has more than a decade of experience with thermoplastic mass production and prototyping. We can create highly accurate parts with 20+ plastic options. If you need any Plastic CNC machining service for your project, send us your design, and get your parts at your door within a few days.
What are the key properties of thermoplastics?
Thermoplastics are low-cost and highly machinable materials with excellent strength, toughness, impact resistance, and wear resistance. ABS, PMMA, PVS, Acrylic, Polycarbonate, and Polystyrene are frequently used thermoplastics in CNC machining.
What are the CNC machining conditions for thermoplastics?
CNC machining of thermoplastics produces the best results with high cutting speed, medium feed rate, hard-steel tools, and appropriate tool positioning (depending on the specific type of thermoplastic).
What are the applications of thermoplastic CNC machining?
CNC-machined thermoplastic parts are used in the automotive, aerospace, medical, defense, oil & gas, food processing, electronics, and electrical industries.
What are the advantages of thermoplastic CNC machining?
CNC machining of thermoplastics offers high accuracy, complexity, repeatability, cost-effectiveness, and many more advantages.
- (2020). Plastic Turning Machining Guidelines. Curbell Plastics, from https://www.curbellplastics.com/.
- (2005). Thermoplastics – Physical Properties. from https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/.
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