Searching for composites-friendly machine tools

This is IMTS week, where "composites" is a foreign word to much of the machine tool industry. It's not too hard, however, to find suppliers who know their way around composite structures.
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PCD veined drill, for composites drilling. (Source: Precorp)

This is IMTS week in Chicago, and North America's largest machine tool show does a great job catering to the diverse and demanding requriements of metals cutting, drilling, reaming and other operations, and if the crowds on the show floor are a reliable indicator, we are in the midst of a burgeoning manufacturing economy.

However, if your job is to trim, router or drill composite structures, finding products targeted to your application is a little more challening. Not impossible, but challenging. Indeed, we use many of the same terms to describe composites machining as we do metals machining, but the similarities end there. Composite parts — by definition non-homogenous — behave very differently when cut or drilled by a machine tool, splintering and powdering in the process. At the same time, machining composites comes with its own set of risks, with delamination topping the list.

Because of this, composites require machine tools specially designed for the work, and this is where the IMTS challenge comes in. The fact is that "composites" to many machine tool manufacturers is a foreign word — representing an exotic, small, odd corner of the materials and manufacturing community. However, a little digging through the aisles reveals some big and small machine tool suppliers who've made a name for themselves in the composites machine tool market, including Sandvik Coromant, Precorp (now a part of Sandvik Coromant), AMAMCO, LMT Onsrud, Seco, SGS, Niagara Cutter and others. As a result of work done by suppliers like these, the industry has seen dramatic increases in tool life, cutting quality and industry machining expertise over the last several years. Even CNC software specialist CGTech has gotten in on the act with the development of a product designed to simulate composites machining and drilling.

The biggest consumer of technology for composites machining is the aerospace market, which buys millions of dollars worth of machine tools annually to machine and drill composite fuselage, wing, tail and other structures — primarily for the attachment of fasteners. In this vein, the next big program on the radar is the Boeing 777X, which is being redesigned to include some of the largest carbon fiber composite wings made today. Some of the machine tool suppliers mentioned above are working hard right now to be selected to supply product for 777X wing manufacture — a program that promises to years of potentially lucrative work for the lucky winner(s). 

Of course, planemakers like Boeing and Airbus would like few things more than to rid themselves (mostly, if not completely) of fasteners, and composites bonding and co-curing technology is maturing such that this might be reality in the next five to 10 years. In the meantime, however, we are stuck with the necessary evil of cutting and drilling valuable composite structures, and IMTS is a great place to find the best technology options to get it done.