Both copper and Graphite Electrode provide approximately the same end result, so it is important for a shop to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each material in order to discover what would work best in their shopfloor environment.
When it comes time to decide whether to use graphite or copper electrodes in your shop, it's important to look at the big picture. According to Stu Haley, regional manager of Madison Heights, MI-based Belmont Technologies, Inc., a provider of EDM supplies, tooling, accessories and machines, "To say which electrode works best is very difficult, it is totally applications-driven. So much depends on what you have to work with on your shop floor in the way of support equipment. Both copper and graphite provide approximately the same end result. The difference is time to EDM the work and electrode manufacturing time and cost."
Haley explains that choosing an electrode material is often a result of where you were born and what type of EDM equipment you use. "For example, RP Graphite Electrode was basically developed in the United States back in the early 1960s, so the American EDM equipment manufacturers in those days concentrated on the graphite circuitry when designing their equipment," he says. "Whereas, since the European and Asian EDM equipment manufacturers didn't have access to graphite, they developed copper circuitry.
Advantages and Benefits
Sold by grades, HP Graphite Electrode cuts approximately three times faster than copper, according to Haley. "What makes a good grade or a poor grade is particle size," he explains. "Particle size gives you strength, machinability and greatly influences the metal removal rate, wear and the surface finish. Graphite is made up of carbon particles that are put through a graphitizing process to produce graphite. The smaller the particle size is, the better the graphite. Particle sizes in different grades of graphite can be .0006" for general-purpose use to .00004" for the extremely fine detail and superior surface finishes. Graphite can be purchased in big blocks, and then cut up to be machined, or it can be ordered precut or ground into the size you require.
"Graphite machines very easily - you can mill it, grind it, turn it, drill it, tap it, even file it to whatever shape you want," Haley continues. "Another advantage of UHP Graphite Electrode is that it doesn't burr. You can put it on a duplicating machine or a graphite high-speed mill and cut out complex shapes and forms, and once it's cut you are finished - with no deburring."
Additionally, graphite's high melting temperature results in less wear than other electrode materials, so a mold could be cut with one or two electrodes on a CNC EDM machine with very little wear, Haley adds. "A CNC sinker may need a third or fourth electrode to finish the mold," he notes. "It depends on the age of the EDM machines."
If your shop has older fabricating equipment, machining graphite electrodes will result in dust particles on the shop floor and in the nearby machines. However, the new high-speed mills that are sold today are specially designed to machine Graphite Powder. "They are totally enclosed and have a vacuum system to remove all of the dust," Haley points out, "and there are some machines that can even cut square internal corners."
Another important point to keep in mind is that the finish on any electrode is the finish that will be put in the mold. "So, if you have a lot of cutters or grinding marks on the electrode, you will reproduce that in your mold," Haley says. "Normally, the finish on the graphite should be as good as you need in the mold."