Machining vs. True Metal Cutting for Thin Wall Steel Tubing

Joshua Jablons Ph.D.

What You Might Not Know About “Metal Cutting” and IMTS Chicago

From September 12 to 17, 2016, IMTS Chicago — the biennial International Manufacturing Technology Show that is one of the largest industrial trade shows in the world — will feature an enormous exhibition space (the entire South Building pavilion) proclaiming “Metal Cutting.” While it will be a lot of fun (and a great conversation starter) for us to walk around the show wearing badges that essentially tell people, “We are Metal Cutting!” the focus of that vast sea of exhibitors does not fully capture what it is we do.

For the machining, the grinding, the mass finishing, and even the lapping we do, IMTS Chicago is a great event for us to go to as attendees rather than exhibitors. There, we get to see some of the latest machining tools we use to make our products, as well as interact with a wide range of vendors in metrology, software, and other disciplines. However, the type of cutting we do — such as thin wall steel tubing — is actually very unique and simply not part of the IMTS landscape, where *metal cutting* primarily means machining.

Our Methods for Cutting Very Thin Wall Steel Tubing

For the type of very thin wall steel tubing (often referred to as hypodermic tubing) our customers are looking for, the problem is that depending on how the cutting process is performed, you may end up clogging the inside diameter (ID), collapsing the ends, or crushing the entire tube. However, Metal Cutting Corporation is one of the few companies that can cut this type of tubing successfully, no matter how small the tube.

While there are ways to use laser metal cutting to produce thin metal tubing (for example, for medical stents), the tubes must be cut individually, which is a slow and expensive process. Metal Cutting has the ability to cut large numbers of thin wall steel tubes simultaneously, cost effectively, and with none of the aforementioned problems. In fact, we like to say if the tubing can be drawn, we can cut it.

For example, we can cut stainless steel tubing with an ID as small as 25 µm (0.001”) and an outside diameter (OD) as small as 75 um (0.003″) — in other words, tubing about the size of a human hair. Most of this very thin wall steel tubing is used in medical devices, such as for eye surgery or similar endeavors, or in scientific instruments where small, precise amounts of liquid must be measured and/or dispensed.

Other Benefits Compared with Laser Metal Cutting

Speed and cost are not the only advantages of Metal Cutting’s methods as compared with laser cutting. Lasers cannot cut a honeycomb or aggregate of parts; however, we can cut a bundle instead of just individually. And when necessary, we can cut rotating tubing, cutting only through the wall and eliminating the additional stroke time and wheel retraction.

Another importance difference is the inevitable heat effect of laser metal cutting. Speaking from personal experience, I know that avoiding the heat of a laser can be a critical issue even in human surgery. For the procedure I needed a few years ago to remove a polyp from my vocal cords, I was urged to find a surgeon who was skilled in using a cold knife rather than laser, because the heat produced by the laser could cause permanent scarring on my vocal cords. As someone who is never at a loss for words, of course I went with a cold knife expert, and I am happy to say my surgery was a complete success and my voice is as good as new. Similarly, with Metal Cutting’s method for handling thin tubing, there is no heat affected zone or resulting deformation or discoloration of parts.

It almost goes without saying, of course, that laser metal cutting is extraordinary for achieving very complex shapes that are far beyond Metal Cutting’s capabilities. For the types of applications where such intricacy is required, comparing our methods and laser cutting is comparing apples and oranges; in these cases, the “trade off” of somewhat slower speed and definitely higher cost is simply part of the necessary price for achieving the proper results.

Our Sourcing and Short Cuts Surprise the Experts

Although we cut tubing, we do not manufacture it — but that, too, is an opportunity to bring value to our customers. Metal Cutting is free to source material from any and all of the best vendors of thin wall stainless steel tubing, such as 316, 304, and the hard-to-find 400 series stainlesses, in both welded and drawn as well as seamless forms. We also source from the leading providers of thin wall tubing made from many other metals, including MP35N, nitinol (also known as NiTi or, in Japan, TiNi) and similar shape memory alloys, the numerous grades of titanium, Kovar, Inconel, and various other nickel alloys.

With our ability to source the tubing with the thinnest walls and our unique skills in precisely cutting it to extremely short lengths, observers are often hard pressed to tell that they are, in fact, looking at tubing. With extremely thin wall steel tubing having an ID and OD so small that they cannot be seen with the naked eye, even wire experts may insist, “That’s too small to be a tube — it must be a solid wire.” Kudos to our tubing manufacturers! Only when examining the shortest cut parts under a loupe or a microscope can the thin wall tubing characteristics be discerned.

Similarly, at first glance even stamping experts may mistake some of our tiny parts as being stamped or fine blanked rather than thin wall steel tubing that we cut to very short lengths — because we are able to do so without any deformation to the concentricity of even the most delicate tubing. Of course, stamping is an immensely high-speed process that is prevalent in many industrial and consumer applications. But where deformation and longitudinal grain direction are a concern, our thin metal tubing capabilities are sure to meet tight tolerance requirements.

Advantages When It Counts

Our proprietary methods enable us to cut thousands or even hundred of thousands of pieces of thin wall steel tubing into smaller parts — and with this capability comes a need for additional skills. Namely, we are also highly experienced in measuring, handling, and counting very small parts in very large quantities.

That might not seem like a very big issue. However, simply counting 100,000 extremely tiny tubes is like counting individual grains of sand — although, unlike sand, our cut tubing has the benefit of identical sizing due to our ability to maintain very tight tolerances. Metal Cutting has sophisticated semi-micro counting scales and the skill to use them properly, ensuring that we deliver the correct quantities of small tubing, some of which is so tiny that, together, many thousands of the parts occupy an area as small as a square inch.


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