Best ways to choose a touch probe

November 11, 2021 - 11:45pm

By Heidenhain Corp.

For manufacturers looking to reduce setup times, increase machine usage time and improve the dimensional accuracy of the finished workpieces, touch probes can offer great advantages. In fact, most touch probes on the market offer easy integration with machine tools and CNC controls—particularly milling machines and other multi-axis machining centers.

Sometimes referred to as touch-trigger probes or triggering touch probes, the probes work by touching parts of a workpiece or tool to collect multiple data points that allows the user to more accurately determine the position of the workpiece and update machining settings accordingly.

Touch probes are inserted into the tool holder either manually or by a tool changer. Depending on the probing functions of the NC control, they can automatically or manually perform workpiece alignment, preset setting, workpiece measurement and digitizing or inspecting 3-D surfaces.

Other styles of touch probes can allow for more accurate tool measurement—a key factor in the prevention of scrap or rework and the overall quality of the finished workpiece. In this way, touch probes are an ideal solution for monitoring tool wear or breakage during unattended or minimally supervised operation. During operation, the probe contact is deflected from its rest position, sending a trigger signal to the NC control during the 3D probing of a stationary or rotating tool.

Specific applications

When it comes to workpiece or tool monitoring/positioning, there are several specific applications that are common among manufacturers that use touch probes:

Workpiece alignment

Exact workpiece alignment parallel to the axes is important for workpieces that have been partially machined so that their existing reference surfaces are in an accurately defined position. Touch probes speed up this process exponentially; the workpiece can be clamped in any position, and the probe goes to work analyzing the position and determining any misalignment. The touch probe transmits the data back to the control, which then compensates for the misalignment by rotating the coordinate system or rotating the rotary table.

Preset setting

Programs for machining a workpiece are referenced to presets. Finding this point quickly and reliably with a workpiece touch probe reduces nonproductive time and increases machining accuracy. Depending on the probing functions of your CNC, touch probes can enable the automated setting of presets.

Workpiece measurement

Many touch probes are suited for program-controlled workpiece measurement between two machining steps, for example. The resulting position values can be used for tool-wear compensation. Upon completion of the workpiece, the measured values can be used to document dimensional accuracy or to monitor machine trends. The CNC can output the measurement results through its data interface. With the aid of external software, the user can digitize models or measure free-form surfaces right in the machine tool. In this way, users can immediately detect machining errors and correct them without reclamping.

Tool measurement

Consistently high machining accuracy requires an exact measurement of tool data and cyclical inspection of tool wear. Touch probes can measure a variety of tools right on the machine—down to the measurement of individual teeth on a milling cutter, for example. The CNC automatically saves the measured tool data in the tool memory for later use in the part program. Using a cuboid probe contact, you can also measure lathe tools and check them for wear or breakage.

Calibrating rotary axes

Accuracy requirements are becoming more stringent, particularly in the realm of 5-axis machining. Complex parts must be manufactured with both precision and reproducible accuracy, including over extended periods of time. Certain touch probes, along with compatible machines, can calibrate the rotary axes of your machine and minimize measurement error in the machine’s kinematic description. This capability makes sustained high-accuracy machining possible—from one-off parts to large production series.

Touch probe for workpiece and tool measurement

Touch probes are available in various types to meet measurement needs for machining centers, milling, drilling, and boring machines, as well as on CNC lathes. Here are some things to consider when assessing touch probes for workpiece and tool measurement:


There are touch probes available with wireless signal transmission for machines equipped with automatic tool changers as well as touch probes with cable-bound signal transmission for machines that require manual tool changes.


Depending on the sensor type, touch probes gather information in different ways. With an optical switch sensor, a lens system collimates the light emitted by an LED and focuses it onto a differential photocell. Upon deflection of the stylus or probe contact, the differential photocell produces a trigger signal. Thanks to the non-contacting optical switch, the sensor remains free of wear. Users enjoy high long-term stability with constant probe repeatability even after a high number of measuring cycles.

Alternately, touch probes with a high-precision pressure sensor employ force analysis. During probing of a workpiece, the stylus is deflected and a force acts on the sensors. The resulting signals are processed and the trigger signal is generated. The relatively low probing forces involved provide high probe accuracy and repeatability, virtually without the characteristics of tactile probing.

Accuracy and repeatability

When choosing a touch probe, accuracy and repeatability are crucial. But not all probes are created equal in this way. Check to be sure your touch probes are tested and proven. The length and material of the stylus, for example, have a direct influence on the trigger characteristics of a touch probe, and therefore can affect accuracy.

Additional options

When choosing a touch probe for workpiece measurement, users also want to explore options that include features like mechanical collision protection and thermal decoupling. For collision protection, a mechanical adapter between the touch probe and taper shank allows the probe to give slightly during light collisions of its housing against a fixture or workpiece. Simultaneously, the probe sends a signal to the control to stop machine operation. This same feature can prevent overheating on the probe from the spindle.

For more information on Heidenhain touch-probes, phone 847-490-1191 or visit To download a Heidenhain touch-probe brochure, click here. To read the original blog post, please visit

Related Glossary Terms

  • 3-D


    Way of displaying real-world objects in a natural way by showing depth, height and width. This system uses the X, Y and Z axes.

  • boring


    Enlarging a hole that already has been drilled or cored. Generally, it is an operation of truing the previously drilled hole with a single-point, lathe-type tool. Boring is essentially internal turning, in that usually a single-point cutting tool forms the internal shape. Some tools are available with two cutting edges to balance cutting forces.

  • centers


    Cone-shaped pins that support a workpiece by one or two ends during machining. The centers fit into holes drilled in the workpiece ends. Centers that turn with the workpiece are called “live” centers; those that do not are called “dead” centers.

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • fixture


    Device, often made in-house, that holds a specific workpiece. See jig; modular fixturing.

  • gang cutting ( milling)

    gang cutting ( milling)

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

  • lathe


    Turning machine capable of sawing, milling, grinding, gear-cutting, drilling, reaming, boring, threading, facing, chamfering, grooving, knurling, spinning, parting, necking, taper-cutting, and cam- and eccentric-cutting, as well as step- and straight-turning. Comes in a variety of forms, ranging from manual to semiautomatic to fully automatic, with major types being engine lathes, turning and contouring lathes, turret lathes and numerical-control lathes. The engine lathe consists of a headstock and spindle, tailstock, bed, carriage (complete with apron) and cross slides. Features include gear- (speed) and feed-selector levers, toolpost, compound rest, lead screw and reversing lead screw, threading dial and rapid-traverse lever. Special lathe types include through-the-spindle, camshaft and crankshaft, brake drum and rotor, spinning and gun-barrel machines. Toolroom and bench lathes are used for precision work; the former for tool-and-die work and similar tasks, the latter for small workpieces (instruments, watches), normally without a power feed. Models are typically designated according to their “swing,” or the largest-diameter workpiece that can be rotated; bed length, or the distance between centers; and horsepower generated. See turning machine.

  • 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.

  • milling cutter

    milling cutter

    Loosely, any milling tool. Horizontal cutters take the form of plain milling cutters, plain spiral-tooth cutters, helical cutters, side-milling cutters, staggered-tooth side-milling cutters, facemilling cutters, angular cutters, double-angle cutters, convex and concave form-milling cutters, straddle-sprocket cutters, spur-gear cutters, corner-rounding cutters and slitting saws. Vertical cutters use shank-mounted cutting tools, including endmills, T-slot cutters, Woodruff keyseat cutters and dovetail cutters; these may also be used on horizontal mills. See milling.

  • numerical control ( NC)

    numerical control ( NC)

    Any controlled equipment that allows an operator to program its movement by entering a series of coded numbers and symbols. See CNC, computer numerical control; DNC, direct numerical control.

  • parallel


    Strip or block of precision-ground stock used to elevate a workpiece, while keeping it parallel to the worktable, to prevent cutter/table contact.

  • shank


    Main body of a tool; the portion of a drill or similar end-held tool that fits into a collet, chuck or similar mounting device.


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