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End milling operation. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Pixel B

End Milling: Definition, Process, Types, and Operations

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
November 2, 2023
 18 min read
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End milling is a machining process used to cut or shape materials using a rotating milling cutter called an end mill. It's employed in most manufacturing sectors for profile cutting, slot drilling, and contouring. The end mill’s cylindrical milling cutter has cutting edges on both the bottom and the side to remove material from a workpiece. It rotates the part and moves it along different axes.

End mills have various end and flute configurations, optimized for a variety of purposes and hole/slot periphery forms. The end mill can follow any number of path profiles to perform profiling, slot drilling, and boring tasks.

What Is End Milling?

End milling is a machining process used in metalworking, woodworking, and other material shaping/removal processes. It is used to cut or shape materials using a rotating end mill. The process is used for a wide range of tasks, including: slotting, contouring, facing, and profiling workpieces. End milling can be used to create a huge range of features on a workpiece such as: slots, pockets, holes, complex contours, and mixed forms. It is a fundamental process in manufacturing and is employed across all manufacturing sectors to precisely cut and shape: metals, plastics, wood, stone, and composites. The choice of end mill type, size, and cutting parameters depends on the specific machining requirements and the material being worked on.

What Is the Purpose of End Milling?

The purpose of end milling is to precisely cut and shape materials to create specific features, profiles, and surfaces. It efficiently removes material from workpieces, cutting portions away until the item’s shape meets the planned dimensions. End milling also allows for the creation of complex shapes, contours, and intricate geometries in workpieces. Beyond that, it can create simple slots, pockets, and holes of various sizes and depths in workpieces.

Additionally, end milling can improve the surface finish of workpieces when employed as a post-process following casting or other less refined cutting techniques. It is precise and accurate, making it suitable for tasks that demand tight tolerances. End milling is a key process in both prototyping and production environments, allowing you to scale production from trial to moderate and potentially high-volume production.

What Are the Features of the End Mill Machine?

Milling machines come in various configurations and sizes. However, they share several key features and components essential for their operation such as:

The spindle is a rotating drive that holds the cutting tool, generally in a collet chuck. It provides the rotational power necessary for material removal. The worktable is where the workpiece is clamped or mounted. It can move in multiple directions — X, Y, and Z axes in the most basic setup and up to 12 degrees of freedom in more advanced machines. Guideways are linear bearings or rails that guide the movement of the worktable and other machine components. They ensure smooth and precise motion even while the cutter is applying forces. In a CNC machine, the control panel houses the machine's control system and programming features, which allows the operator to input G-code and machining parameters and monitor the machining process. Manual machines use hand controls and generally have a 3-axis position measurement system. The tool holder or chuck securely holds the end mill on the spindle.

Milling machines generally have a coolant system that delivers cutting fluid or coolant onto the cutting tool and workpiece. It acts to dissipate heat, improve tool life, and enhance surface finishes. Machines often also include features for chip management — such as chip conveyors or chip augers — to remove chips and swarf generated during machining and leave the cutting space clear and unobstructed. Enclosures with electrical cut-off interlocks protect operators from flying debris and create a safer working environment. In CNC machining centers, a tool changer is used to automatically swap pre-calibrated and racked tools that have been prepared for later machining stages. Various gripping devices such as vises and clamps serve to secure the workpiece on the worktable. These can be customized, quick-release, or more generalized devices. 

How Much Does End Milling Cost?

The cost of end milling varies significantly, depending on: the number of parts required, the material type, precision, surface finish, custom workholding, and task geometry/complexity.

It's essential to consult with machining shops or service providers to determine the specific cost of end milling for a particular project. They can provide detailed cost estimates based on the project's requirements and specifications. They will consider a wide spectrum of issues before they settle on a price estimate. 

How Does End Milling Differ From Traditional Milling?

Traditional milling, often referred to as conventional milling, differs from end milling primarily in the direction of tool rotation and the cutting forces applied during the machining process. End mill tools rotate in the same direction as the feed motion, which is typically clockwise when viewed from above. This means that the cutting edges on the bottom and side of the end mill engage with the workpiece simultaneously.

In conventional milling, the cutting tool rotates in the opposite direction to the feed motion (typically counterclockwise when viewed from above). This results in cutting forces that can push the workpiece down onto the worktable. End milling tends to produce smaller, more manageable chips, which can help it clear chips and extend the tooling’s lifespan. Conventional milling tends to produce larger, continuous chips, which can be more challenging to evacuate.

End milling is commonly used for profile cutting, slotting, contouring, and complex 3D machining tasks. Conventional milling is more often used for facing, squaring, and smoothing out flat surfaces.

To learn more, see our article on Traditional Milling.

How Does the End Milling Process Work?

End milling is used to remove material from the surface of a workpiece. It begins with the workpiece securely clamped onto the machine's work table or fixture. The spinning end mill is brought into contact with the workpiece's surface, and the cutting edges engage the material. The machine's spindle rotates at high speed to minimize vibration and cut cleanly. The work table itself moves the workpiece around the fixed cutting spindle. As the end mill rotates and the workpiece advances, the cutting edges of the end mill remove material from the workpiece's surface. Chips that get cut away are continuously removed from the cutting zone by the machine's chip evacuation system or by the motion of the end mill itself. The machinist or CNC (computer numerical control) program controls the speed, feed rate, depth of cut, and toolpath.

When To Use End Milling

End milling is suited to a wide range of applications across various industries. It is employed for specific machining requirements or workpiece geometries. End milling is ideal for machining workpieces with complex shapes, contours, and intricate profiles because it can cut in multiple directions at once. It’s also great at creating slots or narrow channels in a workpiece. End milling allows for customization and precision when profiles with specific shapes or features need to be cut. Milled items come away with good finishes on flat, even surfaces. With careful tool selection, this technique is suitable for all cuttable materials. End milling ensures accuracy and repeatability when you need tight tolerances and high precision. It is also used in both prototyping and production scenarios, making it easy to scale up for mass production.

What Industries Use End Milling?

End milling is a common machining process that finds application across all industries. Aerospace manufacturers use end milling to produce critical components like: aircraft structural parts, engine components, and turbine blades. Its automotive use is widespread for: engine blocks, cylinder heads, transmission components, tooling, and other parts. The tool and die industry relies heavily on end milling when creating molds, dies, and tooling of all types. End milling is used on printed circuit boards (PCBs) and electronic enclosures and components. The medical industry employs end milling to manufacture surgical instruments, orthopedic implants, dental prosthetics, and medical devices. End milling is used for creating intricate designs in wooden furniture and toys. It can also shape and cut plastic and composite materials. End milling is used in the production of components for energy generation and distribution, including wind turbine parts, gas and steam turbine components, and power transmission equipment.

What Materials Are Suitable for End Milling?

End milling can be applied to almost all materials, though you must choose the proper tool for each one. Acceptable materials include: ferrous and non-ferrous metals, thermoplastics and thermoset polymers, composite materials, wood and man-made boards, ceramics and ceramic matrix composites, and stone.

What Is the Importance of Choosing the Right Type of End Mill?

Your choice of end mill has a big impact on how you can employ it. The appropriate end mill type ensures efficient material removal, reducing machining time, improving quality, and easing cutting. Different end mills produce varying surface finishes. Proper selection extends tool life and avoids dangerous breakages, reducing tooling costs and minimizing downtime/hazards. The right end mill type will help you achieve tight tolerances and great precision.

What Are the Different Types of End Mills?

The different types of end mills are discussed below:

1. Roughing End Mills

A roughing end mill can efficiently remove significant amounts of material from a workpiece, especially during the initial stages of machining. It is designed with a coarse and rugged geometry that allows for aggressive material removal while withstanding high cutting forces. Key features of a roughing end mill include: multiple flutes, coarse tooth design, high helix angles, corner radii, and Weldon shanks.

Roughing end mills are employed in first-stage roughing operations to quickly remove material before finishing cuts are made with finer tools. This tool class enables high material removal rates.

2. Ball End Mills

A ball end mill is a cutting tool with a hemispherical tip. It is designed to provide precision contouring, slotting, and machining of complex 3D shapes. The spherical tip allows for smooth and accurate machining of concave surfaces, filets, and curved profiles, smoothing the cuts into each other with minimal aliasing. Ball end mills can be used for both roughing and finishing operations — as well as in 3D contouring applications — simply by varying cut depth and feed rate. They generate lower cutting forces than do flat end mills, as the cut transitions into the material progressively along the bit’s radius. Ball end mills come in single-flute, two-flute, and multi-flute designs to suit different machining needs. The variations each clear chips differently. 

Ball end mills are used where intricate, curved, or contoured surfaces require precision.

3. Corner Rounding End Mills

A corner rounding end mill is a specialized cutting tool used to round the sharp internal corners of a workpiece. It features a cylindrical shank with a radiused tip. Various radius sizes are offered, allowing machinists to select the curvature they want for internal corners. They are used for creating tool-defined filets on internal (and to a lesser extent external) corners of cuts. Rounding sharp corners removes sources of stress concentrations in parts. These tools are ideal for contouring and finishing work.

Corner rounding end mills are good for finishing operations.

4. Square End Mills

Square end mills feature flat, square-shaped tips with sharp corners. The flat, square tip allows for straightforward machining of flat surfaces, slots, and profiles with sharp corners. Square end mills are suitable for both roughing and finishing operations on all materials. They are excellent for creating sharp 90° corners and edges. Square end mills are best suited to general-purpose cutting. They exist as two-flute, four-flute, and multi-flute types for different machining requirements.

Square end mills add a level of precision to roughing operations. 

5. Fishtail End Mills

A fishtail or dovetail end mill is specifically designed to cut dovetail grooves and slots. They work on many materials, but are most commonly employed in wood. The tip of the tool is angled to match the desired dovetail angle — typically 45 degrees — but they’re available with other tip angles as well.

Fishtail end mills are essential if you wish to make dovetail joints with milling equipment.

6. Finishing End Mills

A finishing end mill is a specialized cutting tool used to achieve high-precision surface finishes and tight tolerances on workpieces.

Finishing end mills often have high helix angles which help evacuate chips, increase the angle of attack for finer cutting, deliver better surface qualities, and reduce heat buildup during cutting. They are used to make fine cuts to minimize cutting forces and vibrations. Finishing end mills are essential in industries where superior surface quality and dimensional accuracy are critical.

7. V-bit End Mills

A V-bit or V-carving mill is a specialized cutting tool that’s meant for engraving and carving operations. The conical tip with a sharp point allows for precise engraving and detailing.

V-bits excel in engraving text, logos, decorative patterns, and fine details on all materials. They come in various angles, but the most popular are 60° and 90°. V-bit end mills are essential tools for creating intricate and decorative designs and finishing details.

How Does Material Type Affect End Mill Selection?

Before beginning any milling operation, you must first select the right end mill tool for your material. The material’s hardness, abrasiveness, thermal conductivity, and chip properties are all important considerations.

Soft materials are typically machined using standard HSS (high speed steel) devices such as square, ball, or flat end mills. Hard materials require carbide, diamond-like carbon (DLC), or aluminum titanium nitride (AlTiN) coated HSS for improved wear resistance. Abrasive materials like composites demand end mills with wear-resistant coatings. Heat-resistant materials require end mills with specialized coatings to reduce friction and heat generation. Sticky-cutting materials (e.g., some plastics and aluminum alloys) may require end mills with high helix or variable flute designs in order to evacuate chips. Brittle materials such as ceramics require specialized end mills designed for low-speed machining to minimize the risk of cracking. Composite materials may demand end mills with diamond or polycrystalline diamond (PCD) tips to prevent delamination. Wood cutting often uses standard end mills, while plastics may benefit from sharp or single-flute end mills to reduce melting and burning.

How Does the Number of Flutes Categorize End Mill Types?

The number of flutes on an end mill is a key factor in categorizing end mill types, as it significantly influences the tool's performance and cutting characteristics.

End mills with a single flute are designed for high-speed machining of soft materials like plastics and aluminum. They provide efficient chip evacuation and are ideal for shallow cuts. Two-flute end mills are general machining tools that clear chips well and suit a wide range of materials. 

Those mills with three or four flutes are used for more aggressive material removal and for creating good surface finishes. They service finishing operations and harder materials. Five+ flutes are used for high-performance machining, providing exceptional finish quality and a minimal chip load.

How Does the End Mill Differ From Drill Bits?

End mills and drill bits differ significantly in their design and application. End mills have a fluted design with cutting edges on the sides. They usually have flat or domed tips. Drill bits have pointed tips for creating holes. They typically have two cutting edges and are intended solely for drilling or creating cylindrical holes. End mills are used for milling away material, creating flat surfaces, and machining complex shapes. Drill bits are specifically for drilling cylindrical holes. End mills come with various tip and flute geometries like square, ball, or specialized profiles for specific machining tasks. Drill bits have twin flutes with minor tip variations such as angles of 90° or 120°.

What Are the Different Operations of End Milling?

End mills are versatile cutting tools used in a wide range of machining operations such as:

  1. For milling operations — i.e., removing material from a workpiece's surface to create flat surfaces, contours, and complex shapes.
  2. Facing operations involve cutting a flat surface at the end of a workpiece. End mills with square or flat tips are often used for this purpose.
  3. Profile milling is the process of cutting more complex shapes or profiles on a workpiece using ball end mills or chamfer end mills.
  4. Slotting operations often demand that a starting hole be drilled or milled out. The hole then becomes a starting point so that a slot can be milled into the item. 
  5. Contouring creates complex shapes and sculpted surfaces.
  6. While not their primary function, some end mills can drill holes. 
  7. V-bit end mills are used for engraving text, logos, or decorative patterns.
  8. End mills can be used for both roughing and finishing operations.
  9. Helical interpolation involves creating helical paths on a workpiece using end mills with high helix angles.
  10. Specialized end mills are used to create threads in a workpiece, either internal or external.

What Are the Advantages of End Milling?

End milling offers several advantages in machining including:

  1. Can perform various machining operations, from simple slotting to complex 3D contouring.
  2. Efficiently remove material, reducing machining time and energy consumption. The inherent multitasking capability reduces tool changes.
  3. Can generate high-quality surface finishes, reducing the need for further operations and tool changes.
  4. Provide precise control over dimensions and tolerances.
  5. There are tools to suit nearly any material. 
  6. Effective tool selection and cutting strategies will extend tool life.
  7. Advanced end mill designs minimize vibration and chatter.

What Are the Disadvantages of End Milling?

End milling also carries some disadvantages such as:

  1. Can experience wear and may require frequent replacement, especially when machining abrasive materials.
  2. High-quality end mills can be costly.
  3. Precise end milling operations can be challenging to set up.
  4. Improper cutting conditions can lead to chatter and vibration, affecting surface finish and tool life.
  5. Heavy machining can generate heat, potentially affecting workpiece properties and requiring coolant or lubrication.
  6. Have limited reach as they tend to have relatively short side-cutting zones.

Can End Mills Be Used for Cutting?

End mills are primarily designed for axial (end) cutting, but they can also perform side-cutting operations when necessary. However, side cutting with end mills may not be as efficient or provide the same level of performance as specialized tools like shell mills or face mills, which are explicitly designed for this. However, since you don’t have to change end mill tools often, the combined roughing and finishing will often balance out in favor of using end mills.

Is End Milling Accurate?

Yes, end milling can be highly accurate when executed with the right tool, machining parameters, and techniques. Proper setup and cutting conditions are crucial for achieving accurate and repeatable results.

What Is the Difference Between End Milling and Plain Milling?

End mills have cutting edges on the sides and tip, allowing for versatile cutting in multiple directions. Plain milling cutters typically sport multiple teeth arranged on the circumference which are designed primarily for cutting in the axial direction.

End milling involves cutting across the workpiece's surface, creating complex shapes, contours, and pockets. Plain milling is primarily for creating flat, horizontal surfaces, like facing the top of a workpiece.

End mill cutters are suitable for various operations, including: profiling, slotting, and contouring.

Plain mill cutters are typically used to create flat surfaces, square up workpieces, and reduce thickness.

What Is the Difference Between End Milling and Face Milling?

End mills are used in end milling and side cutting. The tools have cutting edges on both the sides and tip, allowing for cutting in multiple directions in one motion. Face mills are equipped with multiple cutting inserts on a rotating cutter body. These inserts engage the workpiece face-on only.

End milling involves cutting across the workpiece's surface to create complex shapes, contours, and pockets. Face milling focuses on machining flat surfaces, squaring them, and achieving a smooth finish.

End milling is task-flexible and suitable for various operations. Face milling is purely for squaring and facing large, flat surfaces.

Summary

This article presented end milling, explained it, and discussed the process and its various types. To learn more about end milling, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including machining and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

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Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.