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Learn now to overcome the unique challenges of machining stainless steel

As the need to compete becomes greater so do the expectations of cutting tools. The ability to hit tolerances and surface finishes in less operations is a benefit to any operation and always a main focus when developing tools in stainless materials.

Unlike with other materials, making holes in stainless steel requires review of a myriad of aspects prior to beginning work in the machine shop. Not only should cutting tool specialists and coolant specialists be consulted, but machine capabilities should be addressed, as well.

Furthermore, one must verify that the correct tooling components are being used: cutting tool geometries, substrates and coatings, and type of coolant and coolant pressure, among others. Still, machining stainless steel comes with many unique challenges because of its low machinability – a machinability rating that needs to be overcome to utilize the many benefits of stainless steel.

Know the grades

Stainless steel is offered in varying grades based on specific properties. These grades are also split into groupings based upon metallurgical qualities. The different families of stainless steel are:

  • Austenitic: A rather common material, austenitic stainless steel is identified as the Type 300 series; grades 304 and 316 are the most accessible. While austenitic stainless steel cannot be effectively heat treated, it can be hardened through cold working – the process of changing the shape without the use of heat. Corrosion resistance, low magnetism and good formability are also characteristics associated with this family of stainless steel.
  • Ferritic: As part of the Type 400 series, ferritic stainless steel is characterized by corrosion resistance, strong ductility and magnetism and is typically an iron-chromium alloy. This family can be altered through cold working rather than thermal hardening methods.
  • Martensitic: Similar to ferritic stainless steel, martensitic stainless steel is also an iron-chromium alloy within the Type 400 series; however, this grade is able to be hardened with heat treatment unlike the ferritic grade. Other characteristics include magnetism, good ductility and corrosion resistance.
  • Precipitation-hardened (PH): Through the precipitation hardening process, PH stainless steel attains more strength in addition to greater corrosion resistance. Additionally, it is similar to martensitic stainless steel in terms of chemical makeup.
  • Duplex: With a composition made up of nickel, molybdenum and higher chromium levels, duplex stainless steel combines features of ferritic and austenitic stainless steel, yet this family demonstrates greater strength and high localized corrosion resistance.

Whether drilling holes in valve choke bodies for the offshore oil industry (410 stainless steel), pump covers for the food processing industry (316 stainless steel), bushings for the aerospace industry (17-4 stainless steel) or pumps for the water and wastewater industry (304 stainless steel), knowing and understanding the varying grades and properties of stainless steel enables machinists to effectively utilize stainless steel and overcome its challenges when they arise.

Control chips

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One of the greatest challenges of drilling stainless steel is chip control. Alloying elements such as nickel cause stainless steel to be partially heat resistant, which results in difficulty forming a chip and, thus, poor chip evacuation. In typical steel cutting applications, heat transfers into the formed metal chip. When machining stainless steel, the heat-resistant nickel alloys prevent this heat transfer. This leads to higher cutting temperatures and increased rates of cutting tool deterioration when compared to common steel machining.

Simply stated, the nature of stainless steel and its high amount of elasticity make it difficult to achieve chip formation and induce quite a bit of wear on the drill.

Combatting these challenges can be done a few ways – one of those being understanding machine conditions. While machine type does play a small factor, machine condition is more detrimental. Machinists must ask themselves, is the spindle rigidity good? Is the alignment reasonable or near zero runout on a lathe?

Knowing these factors can greatly benefit or cause significant issues when trying to machine stainless steel. Additionally, running coolant through the tool provides significant tool life advantages over flood coolant. Ultimately, due to its alloying elements, more torque and horsepower are required to drill when holemaking stainless steel than typical steel or aluminum materials.

These challenges in stainless steel applications can also be resolved by working with a more aggressive tool geometry to attempt to get the chip to form. In austenitic stainless steel like 316,

Due to the elastic nature of austenitic stainless steel, the combination of highpressure coolant and proper cutting parameters is key to prevent chips from packing in the hole. These accordion type chips are a good indicator that material is not freely flowing out of the hole.

it is best to use a geometry with a higher rake angle to produce a more manageable chip. However, when working with a harder material such as PH stainless steel, this method is not effective. In this instance, increasing the rake angle causes the cutting edge to weaken – in turn reducing tool life. With harder materials, this makes the negatives often outweigh the positives.

Make a selection

Nevertheless, the benefits of stainless steel are so numerous that it is worth overcoming these challenges when possible. Corrosion resistance is one of the key benefits of stainless steel. Because a number of grades of stainless steel are highly corrosion resistant, it is the material of choice in applications where weather is a factor or corrosive materials will be in direct contact.

For example, in the energy industry, electrical wiring that is run through the ocean for offshore wind farms is made out of stainless steel or a high-temp alloy material because of its corrosion resistance, which means saltwater does not negatively impact it as it does other materials. Similarly, offshore drilling utilizes stainless steel because of the corrosive and abrasive materials that are being pumped through these lines.

The food industry is another area where stainless steel is often used. Stainless steel’s chromium composition, which must be a minimum of 10 percent, is highly reactive to oxygen environments. This forms a strong, unreactive barrier on the surface of stainless steel, making it the material of choice for the food industry.

Identifying geometries that create consistent, segmented chips is critical when finding drilling solutions, especially as hole depth increases in stainless materials.

Finally, the naturally high strength of stainless steel as well as its resistance to corrosion and weather make it a vital material for the aerospace industry in terms of precision parts, fittings and other components.

All in all, stainless steel is not a material that can be brought into a machine shop to machine straightaway; every aspect must be reviewed prior to machining it. Not only do machinists need to firmly understand the different grades of stainless steel and the properties, but they also need to examine machine capabilities.

Yes, cutting tool wear and excellent chip formation are challenges that one faces when drilling stainless steel. Fortunately, these can be managed through proper coolant usage and correct choice of insert geometries, coatings and substrates. Making the best selections can be simplified by consulting cutting tool experts like those at Allied Machine and Engineering as well as coolant specialists. Remember, one cannot get away with any shortcuts when machining stainless steel.

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