Electrochemistry as Machining: PECM and its Applications

As a variety of products seek to utilize high-performance stainless steel grades with increased corrosion resistance, extreme temperature resis­tance, and durability in both critical and non-critical environments, it has become increasingly difficult for manufacturers to use conventional processes alone to efficiently produce unique stainless steel parts in high volumes.

By Kirk Gino Abolafia, Technical Marketing & Sales Manager, Voxel Innovations

While tougher stainless steel grades containing exotic materials (such as nickel, chromium, or molybdenum) offer unique advantages compared to other grades, these properties simultaneously create difficulties for many conventional manufacturing processes, such as CNC machining or broaching. These machin­ing difficulties exist across austenitic, martensitic, and duplex steels, and a wide range of stainless steel grades, such as 316L.

Advanced alloys often wear down tools quicker — affecting the speed and the precision of processes attempting to machine stainless steel components in higher part volumes.

In response, design and production en­gineers around the globe are exploring alternative manufacturing methods that can reduce costs, including tool replacement, and postprocessing. One promising alternative is called pulsed electrochemical machining (PECM), a non-thermal, non-contact material re­moval method, capable of superfinished surfaces, high repeatability, and small features on metallic parts.

As there is no contact or heat-affected zone in PECM, it is capable of machining thin-walled features that may be otherwise sensitive to tool vibration or heat distortion.

Limitations of Conventional Processes

Conventional manufacturing methods can produce high-quality, tight-toler­ance features in most grades of stainless steel, however, with some limitations. For example, electrical discharge machining (EDM) utilizes spark ablation to remove material and can produce tight-tolerance parts with a surface quality (generally around .6-.8um Ra, or 23-31uin) suffi­cient for most non-critical applications. However, as EDM strips material off the workpiece using high temperatures, the removed material can sometimes re-weld itself back onto the workpiece. This ‘recast layer’ can result in surface abnor­malities including microcracks affecting the part’s lifetime and durability.

Metal additive manufacturing (AM) has limitations such as its inability to pro­duce high-quality surfaces without a secondary postprocessing operation. This problem becomes more acute when producing parts in critical environments that undergo thermal or fatigue stress or have critical flow requirements. Some surface irregularities are inherent to AM; for example, support structure remnants create surface abnormalities, and AM’s resolution usually decreases in ‘down skin’ areas or internal aspects.

Ultimately, it is difficult for many conven­tional manufacturing processes to afford­ably produce tight-tolerance stainless steel parts in high part volumes. While some processes can produce high-reso­lution stainless parts, it is often prohibi­tively expensive to replicate these features in high volumes. Simultaneously, many high-volume processes are incapable of producing complex features on high-per­formance parts without a postprocessing operation. However, in some cases, PECM is capable of machining high-volume, tight-tolerance parts, even on advanced, abrasive stainless steel alloys.

PECM is an advanced material removal process that does not utilize contact or heat. It is a newer, improved version of electrochemical machining (ECM) that utilizes a pulsed power supply. A custom tool is developed for each project, and the material is dissolved—and removed— by an electrochemical reaction carried by an electrolytic fluid that is flushed between the tool and workpiece.

To better understand the process, there are four key terms to comprehend:

Cathode: The cathode, or tool, is a cus­tom-machined part that is shaped as the inverse of the desired geometry to be machined.

Anode: The anode, or the workpiece takes on many forms. It can be wrought stock, a near-net shape, an AM part, and more. However, the anode material must be conductive; PECM is incapable of machining plastics or polymers.

Electrolytic Fluid: Typically a salt-based electrolyte, the electrolytic fluid that is flushed between the cathode and anode during PECM serves two crucial roles si­multaneously. First, the fluid acts as the conductor for the electrochemical reac­tion to occur. Secondly, the fluid acts as a flushing agent, removing waste products (including the dissolved anode material).

Inter-electrode gap: Also referred to as the IEG, the inter-electrode gap is the microscopic space between the cathode and anode where the fluid runs. PECM’s precision is largely dependent on the size of this gap; as PECM advances this gap continues to shrink; current tech­nology allows this gap to be 10-100um Ra (.0004-.004in.)

PECM can even act as both a secondary machining process and postprocessing operation for metal AM components in the heat exchanger industry, removing surface irregularities common in metal AM (such as support structure remnants and down skin features).

Ultimately, there are four unique advan­tages of PECM technology. As the pro­cess uses an electrochemical reaction, and is not reliant on heat or friction to remove material, the hardness of the workpiece is not relevant to PECM, al­lowing it to machine nickel superalloys at a similar speed to copper.

Since there is no contact between the tool and workpiece, there is little-to-no tool wear in PECM, providing it high repeatabil­ity; with PECM can machine thousands, or tens of thousands, of identical parts with­out incurring tool replacement costs, re­peatability down to <10um (.0004 in).

Ultimately, there are four unique advan­tages of PECM technology. As the pro­cess uses an electrochemical reaction, and is not reliant on heat or friction to remove material, the hardness of the workpiece is not relevant to PECM, al­lowing it to machine nickel superalloys at a similar speed to copper.

Since there is no contact between the tool and workpiece, there is little-to-no tool wear in PECM, providing it high repeatabil­ity; with PECM can machine thousands, or tens of thousands, of identical parts with­out incurring tool replacement costs, re­peatability down to <10um (.0004 in).

The removal rate of PECM scales lin­early with surface area of the electrode. Put another way, with the right tooling, PECM is capable of machining multi­ple features in tandem (such as micro drilling holes, or channels in a heat exchanger), allowing faster machining rates than conventional processes.

PECM produces no surface irregularities, such as burrs or recast layers, creating a mirror-like surface quality on a variety of tough materials without requiring any secondary machining; PECM can cre­ate surfaces down to 0.005-0.4um Ra (0.196-15.748uin).

However, there are important caveats and limitations of PECM to consider. While PECM is capable of machining al­most any conductive metal (from copper to Inconel), it is incapable of machining non-conductive materials, such as plas­tics or polymers.

Furthermore, PECM has higher NRE costs compared to other conventional process­es, as developing the ideal cathode (tool) is a considerably complex process and requires multiple iterations of parts. This high initial investment is only outweighed if the project requires high part volumes (such as a nitinol fixture plate operation producing over USD $200K in parts an­nually). Therefore, PECM is not ideal for low-volume/rapid prototyping projects.

Stainless Steel Applications

Corrosion-resistant stainless steel con­tinues to be a dominant material choice for many applications. Many design and manufacturing challenges associated with stainless steel machining overlap with PECM’s capabilities.

Part miniaturization is important for med­ical device manufacturers for several rea­sons, such as smaller, less invasive med­ical implants improving patient mobility. However, it can be difficult for convention­al processes to affordably and efficiently produce small stainless steel devices, es­pecially in complex geometries.

For instance, material removal pro­cesses that utilize heat and/or friction have inherent drawbacks that become increasingly problematic as part sizes decrease; tool vibration and heat distor­tion are common drawbacks that limit the precision capabilities of many con­ventional processes, including electrical discharge machining (EDM).

When machining pockets in surgical stapler anvils, they are initially coined/ stamped to a rough shape while the stainless steel is in a softer, annealed state to increase machining and reduce tool wear, then hardened again prior to a finishing operation in order to achieve fi­nal tolerance. However, hardening caus­es distortion in the metals (requiring ad­ditional machining) and sometimes the process itself can distort the product. Furthermore, re-fixturing the part in the machining cell after hardening can cause additional challenges, as the datum structures have been moved or distorted.

PECM’s capabilities often overlap with the design and manufacturing needs of heat exchangers.
As material hardness is irrelevant to the process, PECM is capable of machining a wide range of conductive materials, including any stainless steel grades.

Another manufacturing obstacle associ­ated with machining stainless steel de­vices is producing high surface quality, which is important for several reasons, including the fact that smoother surfac­es are more sterile. Improved surface quality also reduces the risk of forming microcracks, corrosion, or chips, which could result in part failure

However, even if the device has excellent surface quality, other properties play a role in durability and sterilization; one study comparing two surgical devices with oth­erwise identical features and surface fin­ish found that the 316-grade stainless in­strument had enhanced antimicrobial and anti-corrosive properties, compared to the 304-grade stainless device.

Some conventional manufacturing pro­cesses are incapable of producing surface qualities that meet or exceed industry standards without utilizing a secondary postprocessing operation. Simultaneously, the processes more capable of producing adequate surfac­es generally cannot reproduce these features efficiently in higher part vol­umes—and for some processes, this can become more challenging with tougher grades of stainless steel.

Heat Exchanger Applications

While some reasons differ, many en­gineering challenges plaguing man­ufacturing industry are applicable to heat exchanger manufacturing, includ­ing within the biomedical, aerospace, and chemical processing industries. These challenges (specifically, produc­ing low-tolerance, high-repeatability features on advanced materials) are especially important for critical, tem­perature-extreme environments in the energy and aerospace sectors.

A design challenge largely unique to the aerospace manufacturing industry, for example, is called lightweighting—de­sign and material choices optimized to minimize weight while simultaneously preserving their form, fit, and function.

Microchannel heat exchangers in aero­space applications require lightweight features, high aspect ratios, thin walls, and tight spacing to maximize efficiency, however these features can be difficult to produce, as the small spacing and thin walls are difficult to both produce and replicate with conventional methods.

For example, consider how conventional processes machine thin microchannel walls. Both tool vibration and heat from the process itself can create distortions in thermally sensitive, thin-walled as­pects of a part. Furthermore, surface ir­regularities inherent in some manufac­turing processes often occur, (including burrs and recast layers) impacting the part’s functionality.

PECM, however, is ideal for machining small heat exchanger features. PECM does not inflict any thermal or me­chanical stresses on the part, so thin­ner walls and smaller channels can be created, allowing improved heat transfer abilities and better lightweighting. As a single PECM tool can produce mul­tiple features in tandem, the process can produce microchannel features with high repeatability hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of times.

High-heat flux applications often require tough-to-machine alloys that are difficult to machine with conventional process­es, including superalloys and refractory metals. Fortunately, as PECM relies on an electrochemical process rather than friction or heat to remove material, exotic alloys used in critical heat exchanger ap­plications can be machined sometimes as easily as aluminum with PECM.

Kirk Gino Abolafia is the technical marketing and sales manager for Voxel Innovations, an AS9100-D certified advanced manufacturing compa¬ny specializing in the development of Pulsed Electrochemical Machining (PECM). Kirk has written technical articles for a variety of manufacturing publications, including American Machinist, Orthopedic Design & Technology, Aerospace Manufacturing & Design, and Aero-Mag.
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Sara Mathov is a feature editor contributing to Fugitive Emissions Journal, Stainless steel World Americas, and other related print & online media.