There has been a long standing debate about whether graphite or copper is a better EDM electrode material. One of main reasons people have historically used copper within Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) is because it is cleaner in their working environment, but is that where the advantages of the material stop? With over 70% of the global market choosing to use graphite electrode materials over copper today (total as high as 95% in the United States and 72% in Europe), the question is why choose graphite over copper in your EDM applications? Here, we take a closer look at the differences between the two materials and outline 5 reasons why graphite is likely to be the most appropriate for your EDM application needs.
1. Electrode Cost
In terms of material cost, it is commonly assumed that copper is lower priced than graphite. This is often the result of comparing the price of copper material with more expensive grades of graphite available. Due to the wide range of graphite materials available, it is proven that some EDM grades are more economical than copper. Furthermore, most comparisons do not consider the cost of machining the electrode. Significant cost savings can be made choosing graphite over copper, generated through reduced machining times and speed of cut, less production time to create electrodes, faster EDM times and better throughput from EDM machines. For example, due to the soft 'ductile' characteristics of copper, the material is often 'gummy' and conventional machining practices, such as feeds and speeds must be altered to successfully machine this material. This results in longer machining times and increased costs. In comparison, graphite can be conventionally machined much more easily and quickly and even with more expensive graphite materials, the machining costs often offset any savings that are realized when choosing copper.
2. Material Variety
Graphite is produced with a wide range of material characteristics to allow matching the electrode material properties to the EDM application. Less critical applications with electrode features containing a large radius, an open tolerance or minimal EDM requirements would use an electrode with large particles, lower strength and economical price. A highly detailed EDM electrode however with critical features, extreme tolerance and stringent EDM requirements would entail a more premium graphite electrode to fit the needs of this application. On the other hand, the types of copper available on the market are few and minimize the ability to match the material characteristics to the EDM application, thus limiting optimum performance.
3. Electrode Detail
Copper does not have the ability to handle current density as effectively as graphite, which performs exceptionally well at a high current density even with complex geometry, allowing for various intricate machined details to be designed on the same electrode. The result is that the number of electrodes required to perform a job is significantly reduced.
With the large number of graphite grades offer today, customers can carefully select the correct material for a specific job. Graphite can be chosen depending on required surface finish, electrode life, speed of cut or metallurgy of the job. When working with copper however, there is only one form and precisely selecting the optimum material specification is not possible.
4. EDM Performance
EDM operators know that excessive wear results in the use of extra electrodes or frequent redressing. Graphite can achieve electrode wear of less than 1% in relation to the depth of cut, while working to more aggressive machine parameters. This means, unlike copper, the high amperage and longer on-times preserve the graphite electrode.
In the aerospace sector when working with very thin, fine detail electrodes, copper is vulnerable to any rough handling and physical damage. Pressure applied to a thin section of copper will cause movement that can go unnoticed, causing further performance issues at a later stage. Graphite on the other hand is either in the right condition, or is clearly broken, vastly reducing the risk of the electrode being used in production.
Some firms wire erode their own electrodes and are misled into believing that you cannot wire erode graphite. Contrary to this, the wire erosion of graphite has been tested and has done so without any breakages and at comparable speed times to that of copper.
5. Surface Finish
Copper electrodes do provide very fine surface finishes. With the sophistication of today's EDM machine technology, the surface finish gap between graphite and copper has narrowed significantly. For example, fine grain graphite electrodes can deliver similar surface finishes to that of copper, while offering much faster speeds and vastly reduced electrode wear.