In CNC machining, the use of 5-Axis milling machines is rapidly becoming more common. The technology is revolutionizing product manufacturing and precision machining across all industries.

Here at Digital Machining Systems, we have been utilizing 5-axis milling machine technology daily for over 15 years. We currently use seven 5-axis milling machines in providing our clients with the most efficient and advanced machining services available for their applicable components.

The Original 'Digit'?

Our 5-Axis machines can machine a part while moving all 5 axes simultaneously, often referred to as "full 5-Axis” or "simultaneous 5-Axis machining”. Many 5-Axis machines can only position and then clamp in the fourth and fifth axis and not machine with those axes while moving, commonly referred to as "positional-only” 5-axis machining.

This can limit the applications of 5-Axis machining to less complex components, but still allow for accessing all sides of a part but one, in one clamping setup, in one operation.

When used properly, 5-Axis machines can produce higher quality and more dependable results faster and more efficiently than can be accomplished with multiple setups on three or four axis machines. 5-Axis machining is particularly useful for applications where complex parts that have many features applied at various angles and surfaces around the part are being manufactured. This capability also make innovative and experimental designs more feasible.

On a traditional 3-axis machine, multiple setups and configurations are often necessary to create the finished product. With 5 axes, more features can be accessed and milled in the same operation. In some cases, this can often result in a virtual "one and done” process.

The 5-Axis Explained

The first three axes in a 5-axis milling application are based on the X, Y, and Z axes of the Cartesian Coordinate system that we use to denote the coordinates of specific points. We use the XY coordinate system to plot points on a graph, and it’s how we figure out where we are on a map.

The Z coordinate adds a third dimension to the equation, allowing us to find a position "above the paper” in addition to location on a graph, and allowing a machine to access a third plane of an object anywhere above the plane along the length of the third axis. Many CNC milling machines stop here, and operate using a 3-axis setup.

In a CNC vertical milling center (VMC), the X & Y axes combined essentially define the plane of the top of the table. The Z axis is the perpendicular vector projecting out of the table. The next two, A and B, are rotational axes that can rotate around two of the other three, for a total of 5 axes. Typically, by standard convention, the A axis rotates around the X axis, the B around the Y.

A Brief History of Cartesian Axes

Those X, Y, and Z axes we use in applications from mapping to machining came to us via philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes. Descartes came up with the idea while observing a fly buzzing around his room. Being the thinker that he was, Descartes realized that he could describe the fly’s location in space by creating planes of reference -- or axes. Not only could he do that, but he could describe its orientation in three-dimensional space by adding a Z axis. The fly’s exact whereabouts at any given moment could be described as points along these axes.

In order to realize the benefits of running a 5-axis milling setup, custom machine shops must be proficient in programming the additional complexity required with controlling the two additional axes. This is almost always accomplished efficiently with advanced computer aided manufacturing (CAM) programming software. There are many variables to getting proper output from such software in addition to the baseline machining knowledge required. A thorough understanding of Descartes’ Cartesian coordinate system is foundational to efficient and proficient programming.

Talk to an expert at Digital Machining Systems if you have questions about how our milling capability might benefit you by reducing the cost and increasing the quality of your machined components.