What is Precision Machining? 
Precision machining describes the process of using specialty tools and processes (machines) to cut and shape components that have strict tolerances, complex geometric shapes, or particular materials. Precision machining is used for rapid prototyping or when producing large batches of products that all need to conform to a specific standard. 

Through a carefully-controlled machining process, raw material is removed (sometimes in extremely small amounts) to create a shape that conforms to exact dimensions and specifications. During a later stage in the manufacturing process, precision machined components often need to fit perfectly when assembled, with no room for error. This is especially true when the end product is designed for use in a demanding field like surgery, space travel, or precision measurement.   

Many industries rely on their suppliers to use precision machining methods that ensure conformity to strict standards. The demand for precision machining is only growing as advanced technology and manufacturing processes now rely on smaller, more sophisticated parts and unique alloys.  

In this article we’ll review different types of tools and materials used in precision machining, and how to know when you should partner with a precision machine shop or outsourced manufacturer for specialized support. 

Types of Precision Machining 

What does a precision machine shop do? There are many different tools, processes, and techniques used for precision machining. Machining involves the removal of material in small and large amounts, depending on the size and shape of the end component. Raw material is removed through any of the methods below: 

  • Cutting 

  • Water Jets 

  • Turning 

  • Milling 

  • Wire Burner 

  • Laser Engraving 

  • Grinding 

Precision machine shops use automated, manual, and robotic processes to produce components. Most precision machining now relies on automated equipment to reduce human error and increase production levels. 

  • Automated precision machining is typically done with a CNC machine. CAM and CAD programs are used to create design files that can be received and processed by the CNC machine. Using specifications in the design file, CNC machines coordinate a precise series of movements to shape the end product. The combination of multi-axis cutting tables and specialized tooling allows CNC machines to replicate complicated components over large batches.  

  • Manual machining processes like turning, boring, milling, and grinding are sometimes used for finishing processes or limited product runs. The setup time, potential for error, and lower production volume often make automated machining the preferred option.   

  • Robotic machining can be used for all kinds of precision processes, from drilling to grinding. When compared to manual machining, robotic systems are able to produce higher output with exact specificity. Plus, robots usually require less setup (they can receive pre-programmed instructions) and they don’t make errors on the first, 10th, or 1,000th part. 

Materials that Require Precision Machining 

Most materials can be used in precision machining processes, but some require precision tools due to their composition, properties, or strength. Exotic or non-standard materials might include alloys, ceramics, and special plastics. Here are some of the most unique or specialty materials that require precision machining. 

  • Titanium 

  • Kovar 

  • Kevlar 

  • Monel 

  • Invar 

  • Glass 

  • Cemented carbide 

These types of materials typically special tooling, blades, machines, and techniques to properly and safely manufacture the end component. 

Industry-Specific Precision Machining 

Though plenty of everyday products are made using a variety of precision machining processes, some industries have much stricter manufacturing standards. These industries include: 

  • Aerospace 

  • Medical 

  • Technology 

  • Automotive 

  • Military & Defense 

  • Oil & Gas 

To deliver the required quality and volume of products for these industries, precision machine shops often have to meet special industry standards for process documentation, equipment maintenance, safety protocols, part cleaning, inspection criteria, and more.  

When is precision machining the right option for your project? Any of the following criteria are good reasons to consider working with a precision machine shop: 

  • Parts with strict tolerances. 

  • Complex part designs. 

  • Specialty engineering experience.  

  • Exotic or unique materials. 

  • Rapid prototyping needs. 

  • Parts that require particular CNC or robotic machining processes. 

  • Supply chain development support. 

How to Pick the Right Precision Machine Shop 

When picking a precision machine shop you should carefully assess if they have the right process and capacity to introduce a new product and meet your volume requirements. This is an important step in the vetting process as an overcommitment on delivery timelines or failure to understand exact specifications could cause delays, errors, and financial impacts. 

In addition to a solid process for new product onboarding, your precision machine shop partner should have: 

  • Domestic or international presence as needed.  

  • Tooling and machines needed to meet rapid prototyping or high-volume production. 

  • Staff required to meet production timelines. 

  • Demonstrated engineering capabilities. 

Lastly, if precision machining is only one aspect of your overall manufacturing needs, you should consider partnering with a contract manufacturer for more comprehensive support. An experienced contract manufacturer can integrate precision machining expertise with a broader set of manufacturing capabilities, from clean room assembly to build documentation and supply chain sourcing. This type of turnkey approach can accelerate the path from prototype to full volume production, or eliminate the need for manufacturing capacity altogether.  

Applied Engineering has built its reputation on excellence, quality, and depth of expertise. AE partners closely with clients to fully understand their needs, and we offer an industry-leading approach known as New Product Introduction (NPI). NPI experts help clients with everything from supply chain management to product documentation. AE simplifies the process of outsourcing some or all of your precision machining needs to a single partner; contact us today to learn more about how we can help. 

Applied Engineering