What is Electrical Discharge Machining?
Electrical discharge machining (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 it only works with materials that are electrically conductive. This method is especially well-suited for cutting intricate contours or delicate cavities that would be difficult to produce with a grinder, an end mill or other cutting tools. Metals that can be machined with EDM include hastalloy, hardened tool-steel, titanium, carbide, inconel and kovar.
This method is sometimes called “spark machining” because it removes metal by producing a rapid series of repetitive electrical discharges. These discharges are passed between an electrode and the piece of metal being machined. The small amount of material that is removed from the workpiece is flushed away with a continuously flowing fluid. The repetitive discharges create a set of successively deeper craters in the work piece until the final shape is produced.
Wire Electrical Discharge Machining
In wire electrical discharge machining (WEDM), also known as wire-cut EDM and wire cutting, a thin single-strand metal wire, usually brass, is fed through the workpiece, submerged in a tank of dielectric fluid, typically deionized water. Wire-cut EDM is typically used to cut plates as thick as 300mm and to make punches, tools, and dies from hard metals that are 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, usually CNC-controlled, move in the x–y plane. On most machines, the upper guide can also move independently in the z–u–v axis, giving rise to the ability to cut tapered and transitioning shapes (circle on the bottom, square at the top for example). The upper guide can control axis movements in x–y–u–v–i–j–k–l–. This allows the wire-cut EDM to be programmed to cut very intricate and delicate shapes. The upper and lower diamond guides are usually accurate to 0.004 mm, and can have a cutting path or kerf as small as 0.021 mm using Ø 0.02 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 occurs from the sides of the wire to the work piece, causing erosion. This “overcut” is necessary, for many applications it is adequately predictable and therefore can be compensated for (for instance in micro-EDM this is not often the case). Spools of wire are long—an 8 kg spool of 0.25 mm wire is just over 19 kilometers in length. Wire diameter can be as small as 20 micrometres and the geometry precision is not far from +/- 1 micrometre. The wire-cut process uses water as its dielectric fluid, controlling its resistivity and other electrical properties with filters and de-ionizer units. The water flushes the cut debris away from the cutting zone. Flushing is an important factor in determining the maximum feed rate for a given material thickness. Along with tighter tolerances, multi axis EDM wire-cutting machining centers have added features such as multi heads 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, because it does not require high cutting forces for removal of material. If the energy/power per pulse is relatively low (as in finishing operations), little change in the mechanical properties of a material is expected due to these low residual stresses, although material that hasn’t been stress-relieved can distort in the machining process. The work piece may undergo a significant thermal cycle, its severity depending on the technological parameters used. Such thermal cycles may cause formation of a recast layer on the part and residual tensile stresses on the work piece. If machining takes place after heat treatment, dimensional accuracy will not be affected by heat treat distortion.