P/M powers auto parts

Author Cutting Tool Engineering
September 01, 2010 - 11:00am

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Machining P/M steels for powertrain parts is tough, but answers abound.

Always on the hunt for lower weight, improved engine efficiency, lower costs and reduced noise and vibration, automakers are turning more frequently to powder metallurgy steel components for a variety of powertrain applications.

According to data from the Metal Powder Industries Federation, Princeton, N.J., use of P/M auto parts almost tripled over 3 decades, from about 35 lbs. in each vehicle in 1975 to nearly 100 lbs. per vehicle in 2005. 

More recently, the sheer weight of P/M components used in each car and truck has leveled off, but the parts are making their way into a wider variety of powertrain applications, said Jim Dale, vice president, member and industry relations for MPIF. “For example, automakers have gone from four- to six-speed transmissions. That’s been a very positive development for the P/M industry, because more speeds mean more gears and other components, and those components need to fit into the same space. That means more smaller parts, and P/M is a good process for that.” Automotive designers are also learning to use the capabilities of P/M processing to consolidate several components into a single part, Dale said.

Historically, applications for P/M parts in powertrain applications include connecting rods, valve seats and many transmission gear and sprocket-type components. But newer applications are opening up throughout engines and transmissions.

For example, engines with variable valve timing use multiple parts to control the VVT system, which can save fuel, improve power and reduce emissions over a range of engine speeds. Most current VVT systems contain a P/M vane rotor, sprocket and thrust plate. Dale said each of the parts weighs about a pound and offers automakers substantial cost savings over wrought steel components. P/M component manufacturers currently supply an estimated 40 million P/M steel parts for VVT systems annually in North America, and the total is expected to grow to 70 million parts per year by 2015, according to MPIF. 

PM VVT components copy.psd

Courtesy of MPIF

P/M vane rotor, sprocket and thrust plate parts for variable valve timing systems weigh about a pound each and offer substantial cost savings over wrought steel components.

Dale said the VVT application is typical of how P/M can allow automakers to improve powertrain efficiency while reducing or holding the line on costs. “It comes down to more bang for the buck,” he said. “Use of P/M components can give engine and transmission designers some advantage for a comparable price, whether it’s lighter weight, improved performance or unique wear and design characteristics.”

According to Dale, P/M processing enables the creation of application-specific materials and supports the desire of automakers to reduce part counts. “One of the unique things about P/M is that chemistries are infinitely variable,” he said. “Compositions can be modified to optimize the material for a given application. So there are many different alloys being used for ferrous P/M powertrain components.”

Most P/M powertrain components are pressed and sintered. The powder material is first pressed to near-net shape, then heated to melt and consolidate the individual powder grains into a solid component. New processing methods are improving properties of P/M components dramatically. “We are now achieving tensile strengths in the hundreds of thousands of psi, comparable to forged or cast parts, and secondary processing can further improve properties and enable use of P/M parts in a wider variety of applications,” Dale said.

Porosity Puzzle

Regardless of how they are produced, most P/M components contain some porosity, which complicates machining, according to Don Graham, manager of turning products and educational services, Seco Tools Inc., Warren, Mich.

“Porosity means that, during machining of these parts, the cutting edge is doing interrupted cutting on a microscale,” Graham explained. “The tool will be cutting solid material, then a small part of the edge will hit a pore. At that point, the stress on that portion of the cutting edge goes to zero. Then, more solid material impacts that portion of the cutting edge, eventually leading to fatigue crack initiation and chipping along the cutting edge.”

According to Doug Evans, grade development specialist for Sandvik Coromant Co., Fair Lawn, N.J., porosity in P/M components puts added stress on tools. “The pores have relatively low conductivity, so heat will not be transported away from the cutting zone in an effective way,” he said. “This results in excessive heat-related wear on the insert.”

P/M components tend to be abrasive due to the materials’ microstructure, which consists of hard particles in a relatively soft matrix material. “The bulk hardness of an automotive component might be 30 HRC, but if you measure microhardness it could be 50 HRC,” Graham said. “That’s because when you check bulk hardness you are taking into account the porosity. The structure collapses a bit around the indenter because of the porosity, so you get an artificially low hardness reading.”

Evans said another key indicator is the difference in micro- and macro-hardness. “It is important to know the particle hardness as well as the apparent hardness or bulk hardness of the material when selecting the correct grades and cutting parameters.”

Making the Grade

As MPIF’s Dale pointed out, P/M steel can come in compositions that would be impossible to produce using conventional forging or casting techniques. According to Dr. Gabriel Dontu, global superhard technical leader, Kennametal Inc., Latrobe, Pa., the ability of P/M producers to develop materials tailored to specific applications can cause headaches for cutting tool suppliers tasked with developing machining processes for P/M powertrain components.

“The P/M parts business is really competitive and really secretive,” he said. “That can make it challenging to develop the most efficient machining processes. We’re trying to convince material producers to share samples of new materials they develop so we can optimize cutting conditions. That way, when they sell the materials to their customers, there’s already an optimized machining solution.”

Depending on material hardness, the gap between apparent and microhardness, machining processes and other conditions, appropriate cutting tool materials for P/M materials range from carbide inserts and cermet to PCBN.

According to Graham, inserts with Seco Tool’s Duratomic CVD aluminum-oxide coating can work well for P/M components. The Duratomic technology promotes growth of coating crystals in certain crystallographic directions to improve coating properties.

Evans said relatively soft P/M materials can be effectively machined using carbide or cermet tools. “When machining soft P/M parts with particle hardness and apparent hardness close to the same, carbide inserts such as Coromant 3215 and cermets such as CT5015 with sharp edge geometries can work well,” he said. “But the bigger the gap between apparent and particle hardness, the more demanding the machining. Those applications would benefit from use of CBN tools.”

Focus on Superhards

For harder P/M materials and those with wider gaps between apparent and particle hardness, the cutting tool manufacturers interviewed for this article agreed that PCBN tools are the way to go. Seco, for example, recommends its PCBN 200 grade, which gains improved toughness from its tungsten carbide/cobalt-based binder rather than the typical ceramic binder.

Dontu said highly abrasive materials, including P/M steels, require use of the hardest tool material that’s suitable for efficiently machining ferrous workpieces. “We use PCBN. Our high-content grades contain 85 to 93 percent CBN and have extremely high abrasion resistance.”

According to Dontu, Kenna-metal has developed tools with three levels of CBN content and different binders to address the problem of chemical reaction with the work material at high machining temperatures. “For higher-CBN grades, you need a binder that can handle a lot of heat, so the major component is aluminum oxide,” he explained. “The binders in low-content CBNs generally use TiC, TiN and TiCN. The ratio between those can be changed to give more impact resistance or chemical stability.”

Dontu said there is also a new generation of high-content PCBN tools that use intermetallic binders. “These materials absorb energy, so the tools are extremely tough—probably 50 percent higher in terms of impact strength compared with ones having an aluminum-oxide binder. So they’re good for milling or interrupted turning, but they are less heat resistant than aluminum oxide-based grades.”

Coatings are also crucial to maximize PCBN tool life when machining P/M materials. “It’s counterintuitive, because CBN is the second-hardest material known to man,” Dontu said. “But coatings change chemical behavior. In certain continuous cutting applications, we have seen tool life increases of 200 percent in the same material coated versus noncoated.” Kennametal’s PCBN-tool coating is a complex PVD TiAlN.

Sandvik is launching a new coated PCBN grade aimed specifically at P/M machining and hard turning applications. TiN-coated CB7525 is a high-content PCBN grade featuring six tips.

Positive and Negative

Two areas where sources for this article differed somewhat were in edge preparations for PCBN tools and coolant use.

According to Evans, Sandvik recommends both positive and negative insert geometries with sharp edges. “A sharp edge exerts less tool pressure on components at the cutting zone,” he said. “We always go with wiper geometry or with the largest nose radius possible to maximize surface finish quality.”

Dontu said Kennametal’s PCBN tools for P/M materials feature a neutral or slightly positive geometry in combination with an edge preparation. “The starting point is always going to be a hone, which would enable the tool to move under the particles in the P/M material and kind of scoop them out,” he explained. “But, if the work material contains very large particles, a hone won’t be enough. In that case, you need a small land, maybe 0.003 " to 0.004 " wide with an angle of 20° to 25°.”

Both Graham and Evans said their companies recommend dry machining of P/M steel with PCBN tools. Dontu, however, said Kennametal recommends appyling coolant constantly to the tool to minimize temperature fluctuations. 

“The choice of whether or not to use coolant depends on several factors, including the cost of coolant maintenance and potential environmental issues,” he said. “But we always recommend it, because the heat generated during cutting promotes chemical wear on the tools. A major exception is machining of gray cast irons, where the heat generated during cutting is useful.” Synthetic fluids at relatively low concentrations work best, he added.

Seco Duratomic in action.tif

Courtesy of Seco Tools

Carbide, such as this Seco Duratomic insert, and cermet cutting tools can be successfully applied to relatively soft P/M steels and other alloys with small differences between apparent and particle hardness.

Coated or not, used wet or dry, PCBN tools allow machining of P/M steels at significantly faster surface speeds than carbide and cermet tools. “A ‘typical’ P/M steel component can be machined at about 2,000 sfm with CBN,” Graham said.

In contrast, speeds for carbide and cermet tools range from 400 to 800 sfm, according to Evans. In addition, feed rates depend on surface finish requirements, and average DOC is 0.007 " per side.

As suppliers develop new materials and processing techniques, P/M steels will likely continue their expansion into a wider variety of automotive powertrain applications. The good news is cutting tool manufacturers are on top of the trend with tool materials and processes that allow shops to maximize productivity in even the toughest machining tasks. CTE

Learn more about machining P/M

For more information on P/M parts, view a Video Report on www.ctemag.com (on the home page and also accessible through the “Reports” menu). The report includes a PowerPoint presentation on tools and techniques for machining P/M.

About the Author: Jim Destefani, a senior editor of Cutting Tool Engineering and MICROmanufacturing magazines, has written extensively about various manufacturing technologies. Contact him at (734) 528-9717 or by e-mail at jimd@jwr.com.

kennametal valve seat tool.psd

Courtesy of Kennametal

Kennametal’s Quattro Cut valve-seat machining system uses three identical square inserts that can be indexed a total of 12 times (four edges per insert in each of three pockets on the tool body).

Valve seat solution 

When you consider that even small four-cylinder automotive engines can have four valves per cylinder, it should come as no surprise that finishing intake and exhaust valve seats is one of the most common P/M machining applications.

According to Kennametal’s Gabriel Dontu, it’s also one of the most expensive machining processes in a typical engine. “Dimensional tolerances are tight—a few microns on diameter,” he said. “Surface finish requirements are also very strict, but most important is the angle where the valve touches. Angle tolerance on that feature is ±15 minutes.”

Kennametal’s Quattro Cut, a dedicated valve-seat machining system, simplifies setups and reduces tooling inventories, according to Dontu. Developed in Europe, the system uses three identical square PCBN inserts that clamp into serrated pockets on the tool body. The tool requires only length setting, and the setup enables angular tolerances to be controlled to ±10 minutes of the included angle.

Quattro Cut allows shops to use the four edges of each insert, then move the inserts to a different pocket. Because inserts in each pocket wear in different locations, shops can get 12 uses (four edges in each of the three pockets on the tool body) before changing inserts.

—J. Destefani

Making sense of P/M materials

The myriad ferrous powder metallurgy materials and processing options available can make cutting tool selection a challenge. Further complicating matters is the veil of secrecy that many P/M suppliers maintain over the exact composition and processing of their near-net components.

Helping to clarify the situation is a publication from the Metal Powder Industries Federation. “Materials Standards for P/F [powder forged] Steel Parts” explains standard material code designations and defines specific materials according to chemistry and minimum density. The 24-page document uses four-digit material code designations based on AISI-SAE nomenclature for wrought steels and includes property data for P/M carbon steels, copper-infiltrated steels, low-alloy materials and alloy steels. Mechanical property values listed include ultimate tensile strength, yield strength, elongation, reduction of area, Rockwell hardness, impact strength, compressive yield strength and mean fatigue limit. It also provides hardenability and other data.

If the material to be machined is not a MPIF standard composition or heat-treat condition, cutting tool suppliers use various methods to determine appropriate tool grades and machining parameters. According to Doug Evans, Sandvik Coromant uses a brief questionnaire with the following queries:

1. What is the metallurgical alloy?
2. Does the part follow a P/M standard, such as MPIF?
3. What is the microhardness (particle hardness and apparent hardness)?
4. What is the density? (In general, the closer to theoretical density—that is, the density of a wrought part—a part is, the easier it is to machine).
5. How is the part produced? For example, components can be pressed, presintered, repressed and final sintered.
6. Is the part hardened?
7. Is the part impregnated?

Armed with answers to these questions, Sandvik Coromant can make judgments as to which of its grades are best suited for machining specific P/M materials. 

—J. Destefani


Kennametal Inc.
(800) 446-7738

Metal Powder Industries Federation
(609) 452-7700

Sandvik Coromant Co.
(800) 726-3845

Seco Tools Inc.
(800) 832-8326

Related Glossary Terms

  • abrasive


    Substance used for grinding, honing, lapping, superfinishing and polishing. Examples include garnet, emery, corundum, silicon carbide, cubic boron nitride and diamond in various grit sizes.

  • alloy steels

    alloy steels

    Steel containing specified quantities of alloying elements (other than carbon and the commonly accepted amounts of manganese, sulfur and phosphorus) added to cause changes in the metal’s mechanical and/or physical properties. Principal alloying elements are nickel, chromium, molybdenum and silicon. Some grades of alloy steels contain one or more of these elements: vanadium, boron, lead and copper.

  • alloys


    Substances having metallic properties and being composed of two or more chemical elements of which at least one is a metal.

  • aluminum oxide

    aluminum oxide

    Aluminum oxide, also known as corundum, is used in grinding wheels. The chemical formula is Al2O3. Aluminum oxide is the base for ceramics, which are used in cutting tools for high-speed machining with light chip removal. Aluminum oxide is widely used as coating material applied to carbide substrates by chemical vapor deposition. Coated carbide inserts with Al2O3 layers withstand high cutting speeds, as well as abrasive and crater wear.

  • carbon steels

    carbon steels

    Known as unalloyed steels and plain carbon steels. Contains, in addition to iron and carbon, manganese, phosphorus and sulfur. Characterized as low carbon, medium carbon, high carbon and free machining.

  • cast irons

    cast irons

    Cast ferrous alloys containing carbon in excess of solubility in austenite that exists in the alloy at the eutectic temperature. Cast irons include gray cast iron, white cast iron, malleable cast iron and ductile, or nodular, cast iron. The word “cast” is often left out.

  • cermets


    Cutting tool materials based mostly on titanium carbonitride with nickel and/or cobalt binder. Cermets are characterized by high wear resistance due to their chemical and thermal stability. Cermets are able to hold a sharp edge at high cutting speeds and temperatures, which results in exceptional surface finish when machining most types of steels.

  • chemical vapor deposition ( CVD)

    chemical vapor deposition ( CVD)

    High-temperature (1,000° C or higher), atmosphere-controlled process in which a chemical reaction is induced for the purpose of depositing a coating 2µm to 12µm thick on a tool’s surface. See coated tools; PVD, physical vapor deposition.

  • coolant


    Fluid that reduces temperature buildup at the tool/workpiece interface during machining. Normally takes the form of a liquid such as soluble or chemical mixtures (semisynthetic, synthetic) but can be pressurized air or other gas. Because of water’s ability to absorb great quantities of heat, it is widely used as a coolant and vehicle for various cutting compounds, with the water-to-compound ratio varying with the machining task. See cutting fluid; semisynthetic cutting fluid; soluble-oil cutting fluid; synthetic cutting fluid.

  • cubic boron nitride ( CBN)

    cubic boron nitride ( CBN)

    Crystal manufactured from boron nitride under high pressure and temperature. Used to cut hard-to-machine ferrous and nickel-base materials up to 70 HRC. Second hardest material after diamond. See superabrasive tools.

  • cutting tool materials

    cutting tool materials

    Cutting tool materials include cemented carbides, ceramics, cermets, polycrystalline diamond, polycrystalline cubic boron nitride, some grades of tool steels and high-speed steels. See HSS, high-speed steels; PCBN, polycrystalline cubic boron nitride; PCD, polycrystalline diamond.

  • edge preparation

    edge preparation

    Conditioning of the cutting edge, such as a honing or chamfering, to make it stronger and less susceptible to chipping. A chamfer is a bevel on the tool’s cutting edge; the angle is measured from the cutting face downward and generally varies from 25° to 45°. Honing is the process of rounding or blunting the cutting edge with abrasives, either manually or mechanically.

  • elongation


    In tensile testing, the increase in the gage length, measured after fracture of the specimen within the gage length, usually expressed as a percentage of the original gage length.

  • fatigue


    Phenomenon leading to fracture under repeated or fluctuating stresses having a maximum value less than the tensile strength of the material. Fatigue fractures are progressive, beginning as minute cracks that grow under the action of the fluctuating stress.

  • feed


    Rate of change of position of the tool as a whole, relative to the workpiece while cutting.

  • gang cutting ( milling)

    gang cutting ( milling)

    Machining with several cutters mounted on a single arbor, generally for simultaneous cutting.

  • gray cast irons

    gray cast irons

    Alloys of iron, carbon and silicon in which more carbon is present than can be retained in austenite. The carbon in excess of austenite solubility in iron precipitates as graphite flakes. Approximate composition of gray irons is: 2.5 to 4.0 percent carbon, 0.5 to 1.0 percent manganese, 1.0 to 3.0 percent silicon, 0.05 to 0.15 percent sulfur and 0.05 to 0.8 percent phosphorus. Some Society of Automotive Engineer grades are G-1800, G-2500, G-3000, G-3500 and G-4000.

  • hard turning

    hard turning

    Single-point cutting of a workpiece that has a hardness value higher than 45 HRC.

  • hardenability


    Relative ability of a ferrous alloy to form martensite when quenched from a temperature above the upper critical temperature. Hardenability is commonly measured as the distance below a quenched surface at which the metal exhibits a specific hardness (50 HRC, for example) or a specific percentage of martensite in the microstructure.

  • hardness


    Hardness is a measure of the resistance of a material to surface indentation or abrasion. There is no absolute scale for hardness. In order to express hardness quantitatively, each type of test has its own scale, which defines hardness. Indentation hardness obtained through static methods is measured by Brinell, Rockwell, Vickers and Knoop tests. Hardness without indentation is measured by a dynamic method, known as the Scleroscope test.

  • included angle

    included angle

    Measurement of the total angle within the interior of a workpiece or the angle between any two intersecting lines or surfaces.

  • land


    Part of the tool body that remains after the flutes are cut.

  • lapping compound( powder)

    lapping compound( powder)

    Light, abrasive material used for finishing a surface.

  • microhardness


    Hardness of a material as determined by forcing an indenter such as a Vickers or Knoop indenter into the surface of the material under very light load; usually, the indentations are so small that they must be measured with a microscope. Capable of determining hardness of different microconstituents within a structure or measuring steep hardness gradients such as those encountered in casehardening.

  • microstructure


    Structure of a metal as revealed by microscopic examination of the etched surface of a polished specimen.

  • milling


    Machining operation in which metal or other material is removed by applying power to a rotating cutter. In vertical milling, the cutting tool is mounted vertically on the spindle. In horizontal milling, the cutting tool is mounted horizontally, either directly on the spindle or on an arbor. Horizontal milling is further broken down into conventional milling, where the cutter rotates opposite the direction of feed, or “up” into the workpiece; and climb milling, where the cutter rotates in the direction of feed, or “down” into the workpiece. Milling operations include plane or surface milling, endmilling, facemilling, angle milling, form milling and profiling.

  • physical vapor deposition ( PVD)

    physical vapor deposition ( PVD)

    Tool-coating process performed at low temperature (500° C), compared to chemical vapor deposition (1,000° C). Employs electric field to generate necessary heat for depositing coating on a tool’s surface. See CVD, chemical vapor deposition.

  • polycrystalline cubic boron nitride ( PCBN)

    polycrystalline cubic boron nitride ( PCBN)

    Cutting tool material consisting of polycrystalline cubic boron nitride with a metallic or ceramic binder. PCBN is available either as a tip brazed to a carbide insert carrier or as a solid insert. Primarily used for cutting hardened ferrous alloys.

  • powder metallurgy

    powder metallurgy

    Processes in which metallic particles are fused under various combinations of heat and pressure to create solid metals.

  • tensile strength

    tensile strength

    In tensile testing, the ratio of maximum load to original cross-sectional area. Also called ultimate strength. Compare with yield strength.

  • titanium aluminum nitride ( TiAlN)

    titanium aluminum nitride ( TiAlN)

    Often used as a tool coating. AlTiN indicates the aluminum content is greater than the titanium. See coated tools.

  • titanium carbide ( TiC)

    titanium carbide ( TiC)

    Extremely hard material added to tungsten carbide to reduce cratering and built-up edge. Also used as a tool coating. See coated tools.

  • titanium carbonitride ( TiCN)

    titanium carbonitride ( TiCN)

    Often used as a tool coating. See coated tools.

  • titanium nitride ( TiN)

    titanium nitride ( TiN)

    Added to titanium-carbide tooling to permit machining of hard metals at high speeds. Also used as a tool coating. See coated tools.

  • tolerance


    Minimum and maximum amount a workpiece dimension is allowed to vary from a set standard and still be acceptable.

  • turning


    Workpiece is held in a chuck, mounted on a face plate or secured between centers and rotated while a cutting tool, normally a single-point tool, is fed into it along its periphery or across its end or face. Takes the form of straight turning (cutting along the periphery of the workpiece); taper turning (creating a taper); step turning (turning different-size diameters on the same work); chamfering (beveling an edge or shoulder); facing (cutting on an end); turning threads (usually external but can be internal); roughing (high-volume metal removal); and finishing (final light cuts). Performed on lathes, turning centers, chucking machines, automatic screw machines and similar machines.

  • wiper


    Metal-removing edge on the face of a cutter that travels in a plane perpendicular to the axis. It is the edge that sweeps the machined surface. The flat should be as wide as the feed per revolution of the cutter. This allows any given insert to wipe the entire workpiece surface and impart a fine surface finish at a high feed rate.

  • yield strength

    yield strength

    Stress at which a material exhibits a specified deviation from proportionality of stress and strain. An offset of 0.2 percent is used for many metals. Compare with tensile strength.