Smoothing the Transition From 3-Axis to 5-Axis Machining

Wade Anderson and Errol Burrell recording podcast in studio

In today’s machine shops, having 5-axis capability is no longer a luxury; it’s a must-have. To price parts competitively, and make a good profit, shops need to have the efficiencies 5-axis provides. Many shops are planning to make this move, so SME's Advanced Manufacturing Now engaged two experts from Okuma America - Wade Anderson, Product Specialist Sales Manager, and Errol Burrell, Product Specialist - to discuss how to make the transition from 3-axis to 5-axis CNC machining, in a painless way. In this highly informative podcast they look at how 5-axis machining has evolved from a machine tool user’s perspective, and describe the pulse of the marketplace today.



Interviewer: Welcome to Advanced Manufacturing Now. I’m your host, Brett Brune. Joining us today here in North Carolina is Errol Burrell, Product Specialist at Okuma America. Welcome to the show, Errol.

Errol: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.

Interviewer: Also joining us is Wade Anderson, also Product Specialist and Tech Centers Manager at Okuma America. Welcome to the show, Wade.

Wade: Thanks. Great to be here.

Interviewer: We’re going to talk about the transition from 3-axis to 5-axis and particularly how to do that in a painless way. First, let’s get some perspective. From a machine tool user’s perspective, how has 5-axis machining evolved over the years? Errol, would you take that one?

Errol: I’d say, probably in the last 10 years, it’s price point definitely and ease of use. I’d say that were the main two factors. Practically ease of use, so it’s maybe a lot more accessible to many people who maybe 20, 15 years ago, would have thought, “This is not for me. It’s mainly for companies with a big budget, highly skilled workforce.” That’s not the case anymore.

Interviewer: It’s kind of a democratization story.

Errol: Yes. Absolutely, yes. It’s available for everybody.

Wade: I could expand a little bit on the user friendliness. If you look at today’s software back when I was programming machines, we didn’t have the software functionalities that we do today. Even features and functions that’s built into the control itself, items like Tool Center Point Control being able to program a part that’s a table-based coordinate system and then move it over to a machine that’s a machine-based coordinate system. Things of that nature without reposting. So much technology is built into the controls today that we didn’t have access to back when I was programming many moons ago.

Interviewer: What kind of return on investment can shops expect when getting into 5-axis now? Do you want to take that first, Wade?

Wade: Certainly. As far as return on investment, it really is case specific. It’s going to be different from machine shop to machine shop. For example, there are customers in the medical industry that they purchase machines based on an extremely short return on investment. Anywhere from six to seven-month return on investment. However, the farther down the food chain, so to speak, that you go, you get into your tier 3, tier 4 type shops. A lot of times that return on investment can be much longer. The key thing to remember is there is a return on investment but what does that business case mean for you? That’s going to be specific person to person but you really got to look at what your overall goals are and what you’re trying to do with your business, with your company, and then calculate it out accordingly.

Interviewer: Errol, would you like to add to that?

Errol: Yes. On that point, yes, there are many factors where it’s going to give you a return on investment – tooling, resources – and when I say resources, I mean labor, cycle times, quality of part, less scrap, minimize scrap. There are many factors you can just list and all of them have a monetary value. Return on investment, let’s say maybe over the years, many accounts or the accountant inside the office would be expecting maybe a three-year investment. Now they’re looking at maybe 18 months as their return on investment and it’s feasible. It definitely is feasible.

Interviewer: You have a particular story about a shop on the West Coast?

Errol: Yes, yes. I don’t know if they’re willing to be mentioned, though, but it’s a project I was involved in on the West Coast in California. He was really looking for a Swiss machine. A Swiss machine is like a screw lathe. He was looking at one of those and as we walked through the showroom, he spotted a 5-axis machine, piqued his interest. He asked questions about it and he kept coming into the shop. He repeated the visit for about a month just to convince himself that it will be a right purchase. He purchased it. He’s the ideal type of customer. He’s a customer with a 3-axis machine with rotary tables and a man in charge of each machine. He bought his first 5-axis machine. Within a year, he bought another three. He got rid of many of his 3-axis machines. Now, two years later, he’s expanded. He’s building a new shop as well. It allowed him to take on a lot more complicated work and a lot more better paying work. I remember the first time I went inside there. He showed me a print and said, “Before I got this machine, I would never have been able to pull this off. Never.” It expands his opportunities.

Interviewer: Wade, what are some of the other reasons that shops are moving up to 5-axis?

Wade: I think, really, it’s evolution of your manufacturing process. You rewind the clock many years ago, machine shops were manual, right? You cranked handles on a Bridgeport. That evolved into putting motors on them, getting digital feedback. That was an evolution, a jump in your manufacturing process. Then you jump into 3-axis vertical mills. For a long time, people were making that transition from a 3-axis mill to a 4-axis horizontal. This is just one more step in that evolution cog of how do you get better efficiencies out of your shop. Everything that you do is driven around doing more with less, trying to get your efficiencies up. One of the most expensive items for any shop, anybody in business right now, is the downtime. Those machines are only really making money for you if that spindle is turning. There are times and I could make parts. If you’ve got volume work that doesn’t require contouring type work but if you’ve got volume work, a lot of times, I can do that work faster per se, on two lathes and a mill. However, the setup time involved can be astronomical. As time goes on and as more and more work is small lot runs. Very few shops that we go into today that are making that transition mode are quoting 5,000 piece runs anymore. They’re quoting five of these, 10 of those. They set up. They make a part. They tear it down. They set up the next job. When you’re in that environment and you can set up your machines to be really engineered for fast change over times. When you’ve got a library of tools to choose from, your programming’s in place, that work is done more upfront, you can keep that spindle running longer. You can get some more access to the part, you can keep that spindle running, reduce all your setup times. That’s a big part of that evolution.

Interviewer: The arrival of batch size one is really making this necessary.

Wade: Correct, yes.

Interviewer: Of course, you do need a skilled operator to do this work, so how much is this figuring into the issue with the skills gap?

Wade: Skilled operators are needed in everything right now. I get the opportunity to talk to thousands of machine shops every year. Everybody from the West Coast, East Coast, Canada, down into Mexico, everybody for the most part, they all have that same statement of biggest problem we face today is finding the right people, finding talent. I think it’s no different whether you’re doing a horizontal machining work or you’re doing 5-axis work, finding that right individual that has the motivation and drive to produce good work. If you’ve got that, if you’ve got somebody that’s got that character, you can teach him 3-axis, 4-axis, 5-axis, that side of it. I don’t think this is a big of a deal as it is finding the person that’s got that right ethic and character about him. Find that and then find a way to keep him. That’s a bigger part of the problem. Schools today are moving, transitioning faster into multi-axis work. It was one issue that I saw many years ago was I felt like a lot of trade schools were spending way too much time in the manual world. There’s definitely a case you need to know how to run manual equipment and have the feel for the parts, have the feel for when an end mill meets a hard piece of material. What does that feel like physically? Because that changes your perspective when it comes to how you set up, how you machine your work, but if you spend all your time there and then you’re turning out basically kids out of trade schools that have had very small amounts of time on a 3-axis mill, that’s going to be a lot harder transition to make that jump into combining your rotaries on top of it. More and more schools, more and more programs, apprenticeship programs, things of that nature, are getting much faster at that in bringing multi-axis machines into the forefront because it’s no longer a like-to-have. It’s a must-have. As people move forward, whether you’re talking multi-axis in terms of lathe plus milling, or if you’re just talking straight 5-axis contouring style milling equipment, that’s the norm moving forward.

Errol: To that point, as Wade was talking about resources, skilled resources. The company, for example, I was talking about on the West Coast, their experience there, a gentleman who was exposed to the 5-axis for the first time. He found it really difficult. The reason why they found it difficult is because they didn’t think it was so easy. They looked at a part. They expected sign bars, using indicators, tramming the part, and doing all the normal things you would do on a manual 3-axis machine. When they just couldn’t believe that putting a part on a table off center, just picking up the part and pressing cycle start, he’s ready to go, they just couldn’t get their heads around that. What did he eventually do? He eventually took a guy off of the bench, a young kid off the bench, he was doing all the bench work, after work, coming off the machines. He’s now in charge of the 5-axis department. The older guys just couldn’t get their heads around it.

Interviewer: Interesting.

Errol: Yes. He wasn’t tainted with what they did in the past. He just came in there and just saw this, well, this is normal. The older guys couldn’t get their heads around how easy it is.

Interviewer: Interesting. Used to the iPhone, the younger one, I guess.

Errol: Yes.

Wade: I think even math skills, learn rotational algebra. Going back to the control and having features and functions that did a lot of that work for you. Back when I was programming, we didn’t have a lot of those features in the controls. I didn’t really learn rotational algebra until I was on the shop floor. Yes, I took it in school. I passed the test. I can find a teacher somewhere that said, “Yes, he learned it in school.” I really didn’t learn. I didn’t know it until I actually got hands on and I’m trying to figure this out on a machine and I’ve got rotation points swinging around on my face. That’s when you really learn those skills. They come through where you actually have to do that type of work. Today, we don’t do any of that. I couldn’t tell you how many AEs that could actually sit down and do that rotational algebra. You don’t have to. All that stuff’s built into the control. You do your probing. You do kinematic offsets, things of that nature but a lot of those rotational type issues that we dealt with years ago is built into the software and the control now. People don’t get hands on with it like they used to.

Interviewer: Errol, what machine characteristics in particular should people consider when shopping for a 5-axis machine?

Errol: Buy an Okuma! Joking apart, the Okuma is built in a way to make 5-axis predictable, make it accurate. They stuck with a method of building a machine which is – is not the cheapest way to build a machine, but we know it’s going to be - predictably, it’s going to be accurate. That’s why I look for that. I look for the construction. I look at the component parts as well. I look at the control, the capability of the control and its thermostability. All those factors really play into a good 5-axis machine because there’s a hell of a lot of math being calculated in real time. There’s a lot of movement, so just any slight variant, you’re going to build up a cumulative error, so if you have a machine that is not built that well, it could be very painful. That’s what I look for. A lot of builders, they've all caught up to that, I think companies in particular like ourselves, we maintain the same build quality from our so-called more affordable machine tool to our more expensive ones. They’re all built in the same quality.

Wade: I think a lot of that is predicated on the type of tolerance, type of work that you’re trying to go after. The tighter tolerance the work, the harder to machine the material is, the more important strength, rigidity, and accuracy is of the machine tool. There are a lot of builders out there in the world. Everybody’s got their place. Okuma certainly isn’t everything for everybody, but some of the things I look for when you start getting into the arenas that we play in, is separation of axes, having full support under the axes. You won’t see us build a machines that have table and table type stack-ups on a 5-axis platform or Y-axes overheard or X-axes mounted where the trunnion or the table is depending on the rotary configuration. All of our axes are separated. They all have full support. Where that really matters, most of the people, I’m sure, listening, are going to know about stability lobes and what that means from a manufacturing standpoint, on the natural frequency of the machine tool and what I’m looking for, whenever I’m looking at setting up processes, I want a machine that’s going to have predictable stability lobes so that it doesn’t matter if I set up speeds and feeds of the part being in a certain area. It shouldn’t matter if my Y-axis is all the way up or all the way down, if my X-axis is all the way in or all the way back. We want that machine to be very stable across the entire range of travel so our stability lobes are virtually the same no matter where it goes through that range of motion, and that’s how you get predictable machining characteristics. You set up your speeds and feeds in a certain given area, you shouldn’t have to worry about moving that vise or fixture over to a different area or changing length of the tool drastically. It shouldn’t make that big of a difference in your machining characteristics if you have a very good, solid platform under you. Those are things that I look for. In terms of control-related items, I think there is still a big component about – you can take five or 10 good machine tool builders. You pick a machine. You’re going to have a good machine. But you really need to look at, what are your overall goals from a business perspective. Most machine shops, they know how to machine parts. Machining parts is not their problem, whether it’s 3-axis or whether it’s 5-axis. Usually, there’s another component that is keeping them awake at night, and finding out what that is. A lot of times, it’s other areas of their business. How do they extract data? How do they plan ahead of time and having a control that can be easily connected to stream data? Our control is a PC. It lives. It can live on your network. If you allow it, the connectivity, it can live on your network. Anything you can do on a laptop or desktop computer, you can do on that control. That can solve so many issues outside of the machining environment. Those are other things to consider and take a look at.

Interviewer: Every company is under pressure to create cost efficiencies. How have you done that here?

Errol: We talked about the control weight. We’ve mentioned about the control. Inside the control, we have a lot of functionality that makes the ease of use. Going back to my point with the gentleman on the West Coast. He was on the bench. He was able to just, in a couple of days he is running the machine. Normally, in the past, a lot of our competitors and ourselves, to be honest, we’ve actually rolled out packages - you can buy this option, this option, that option, this option. Back in the past, maybe someone may purchase a 5-axis machine and realize they don’t have this function or that function. It’s almost like you’re getting it in piece meal. What we’ve decided to do, we’ve put a package that they call a 5-axis kit. That includes 5-Axis Auto Tuning, which actually calibrates the machine, 5-axis kinematic. We’ve also added the 5-axis functionality with all added to compressor functions, which gives you smoother toolpath, the dynamic fixture offset, which is a three plus two, 5-axis offset. So all functionality you need in a 5-axis machine, we’ve put it in one kit. That’s definitely brought the price down. It’s also made it very easy to sell for our sales guys as well.

Wade: We’ve also incorporated our GENOS package. What we’ve done several years ago to try to get cost out of the vertical mill platform. To do that, you really have to drive standards. You have to drive a certain package that drives your manufacturing efficiencies up, so standardizing your own links of rails, ball screws, castings, things of that nature, allows you to set your production flow and drive your efficiencies through your shop and we’ve done that with the 5-axis platform as well with the new GENOS M460-5AX version. That goes along the same build line, build style of the GENOS M460 and 560 on a vertical mill platform. Again, it standardizes on a lot of the same components, same features, so we have a kit package that we offer. I like to refer to it as "run what you brung". It’s one package. It either fits what you’re looking for or it doesn’t. If that one doesn’t fit, it’s not a problem. We’ve got other machines we can look at, other series that we can customize. We can really target specific niche needs, but for that 80-20 rule, the GENOS M460-5AX platform. It fits about 80% of everything that we find in the marketplace, in that 400mm size and under tight manufacturing.

Interviewer: Fantastic. What is the pulse of the marketplace now? How much interest are you seeing in 5-axis?

Wade: It’s definitely the hot trend, I would say. We’ve seen the market really take a much bigger interest in both the milling side as well as the multifunction style mill turnstile machines which are 5-axis and up from there as well. That’s definitely a large growing market, and a large market segment. I think a lot of that is driven again through efficiencies. How do you do more with less? How do you get labor out of your manufacturing process? I think that’s, again, going back to somewhat that natural evolution of your manufacturing process as people are able to have tools to measure what they’re actually doing on the shop floor, getting real time live information. It makes it much more apparent when you have a machine that’s running 60%, 70%, 80% spindle utilization, and then you look at a process that’s running 30% spindle utilization. How do you fix that? Where’s the low hanging fruit? A lot of times, that comes into manpower and people manually getting involved in the process from changing over, putting fixtures on things of that nature and being able to migrate that work into a 5-axis platform helps them move the needle on that OEE marked form.

Errol: I think as you can tell, I’ve been in the game for over three decades. I started in a commercial machine shop, I’m a toolmaker. So I worked with conventional machines back in the early ‘80s and I watched the evolution. I watched the evolution from the first DROs, digital readouts for the machines. That was a big leap in itself. You keep seeing it, as Wade says. You keep seeing it evolving so all the developments become commonplace after so many years. That’s what’s happening with 5-axis now. It’s going to be just as visible as having a Bridgeport Knee Mill. That’s where we are at right now with the 5-axis. It’s not a trend anymore from my perspective. I think it’s here. It’s here now. A lot of the people are recognizing that. I think that this year’s IMTS, you will definitely see, automation and 5-axis will be the buzzwords of this year’s IMTS. It’s here now.

Wade: Errol, you’re talking about getting old, I thought all that salt and pepper in your goatee was just trying to be distinguished, but you’re just old at this point.

Errol: I dye it blond. It’s a cool thing to do, apparently.

Wade: Yes. To Errol’s point, though, I went through a shop. I got to take in teammates who were out in Colorado here. It was probably about a year, maybe a year and a half ago. A gentleman walked by a 5-axis machine and then he walked by a 3-axis vertical mill, and he stopped, and he turned – this is the shop owner. He turned. He pointed right at that 3-axis mill, and he said, “That will be the last 3-axis mill that will ever be on my shop floor.” Then he turned back around and he pointed at the 5-axis machine, and he said, “I can do a 3-axis part on that 5-axis machine but I can’t do a 5-axis part on that 3-axis machine.” Then he turned around and just kept walking. Then you start walking through and you look at the type of work he was doing. It wasn’t 5-axis contouring type work. It was he’s getting more done with less. Instead of handling a part three and four times and doing multiple fixture setups, he was handling it once or twice and bringing out finished goods. It’s definitely the trend.

Errol: That’s a good point, what Wade said. Let’s say about 95% or 90% of the way but 90% definitely. The work is positional. It’s not 5-axis contouring. It’s positional work that people are buying these machines for. Like I always say, I’ve probably seen more impellers at a trade show than in someone’s machine shop. Most of the work is positional.

Wade: Demo Part 101.

Errol: Yes. Exactly. Not to say that our 3-axis machines are not a good buy, still. We still have a market for 3-axis machines but to Wade’s point, if there’s a way of cutting down cycle time, making the part more accurate, it’s a no-brainer. I mean, people are already doing it by putting a rotary table on. I don’t know how many times - even now, we still get customers who will request a 3-axis machine with a 5-axis rotary table.

Wade: What a great starting off spot. If you take a guy, you’re crawling before you run, basically. You start off that 3-axis mill. They add a rotary table 4th axis, step up to a 5th axis. They get some work. They get some experience under their belt, and then they step into a full purpose built 5-axis machine. It’s a stair step that you’re going through.

Interviewer: Errol, could you talk about what market segments are using this the most?

Errol: That’s quite a general question. I mean, if we talk about automotive, there’s definitely going to be applications for automotive, but at the same time, there is a blurred line between horizontal and 5-axis. When do you go from 5-axis to a horizontal machine? Normally, we see a quantity of parts production, high production, and maybe the type of parts. Like I said, I think it’s right across the board. I don’t think there’s any real customer that says - I mean, like for instance, mold and die. They don’t necessarily need simultaneous contouring. A lot of people just, maybe, just tip the head. Tip the head slightly. Just come off a singularity, just get that finished and then mold and die. Sometimes, using simultaneous 5-axis isn’t the way to go. It’s a five-program simultaneous 5-axis. Sometimes, what I’ll do, I’ll use an indexing function where I don’t want it to tip and fall all over place. Sometimes it’s not a practical approach. As far as industries, I think it’s automotive, aerospace, medical, generally. It’s right across the board. It’s right across the board. I don’t see any bias towards any industry at all, to be honest. I don’t know about you.

Interviewer: That’s right.

Wade: I would agree. I think we’re actually seeing a trend of 5-axis getting into the smaller shops. Everybody almost like additive manufacturing. You say the word additive, everybody’s head automatically goes to aerospace for the most part, but that’s not where we see a big segment of the market in other areas. Five-axis is really no different. Obviously, aerospace, you start talking hot rotating section of the engine - your blisks, blades, things of that nature. That requires 5-axis contouring type work, but again, that’s over the entire - encompass of manufacturing, so somewhat of a fairly small percentage. When you start looking at 95% of the 5-axis work being done, it’s three plus two, it’s really people trying to figure out how do we drive efficiencies up in our shop? How do we find ways to standardize? How do we reduce the number of fixtures that we’ve got on the floor, on the shelf? How do we reduce the type of parts? A lot of times, you can nest many different types of parts on one block. One block of common material, you can make three or four, five different types of components out of it by machining out of – solids out of billets. You’re starting to see that more and more into the smaller shops that were slower to adopt the newer technologies, things of that nature. Change is scary, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s in your personal life, your day to day routines, or if it’s in business. You got your financial future state, too. Change is scary, and whenever you’re trying to find ways to get more efficient, you start looking at everything from an emotional standpoint. Once you get over that emotional hurdle and really break it down to what’s my true cost going into my manufacturing processes, then it starts making sense and you get over that emotional hurdle and it just becomes a rational investment at that point.

Errol: I think it’s like most developments in technology – it could be anything. iPhones, Blu-ray, anything. When it first comes to market, there’s only a small segment who are going to be buy it because they can afford it, normally. Then before you know it, it’s widespread. It’s a must-have. This is where we’re at with the 5-axis. It’s just a must-have now.

Interviewer: Just one more quick question. Where can listeners go on the web to learn more?

Wade: Brett, that’s an easy one. Just go to

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