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Chemical milling, photo etching or the metal etching process is a very specific and controlled method of manufacturing parts and components, as part of the large industry that is subtractive manufacturing.
Put simply, this process involved utilising temperature controlled etchants – such as ferric chloride – to eat away at designs that have been printed onto sheet metal. It works because the designs are left exposed to the acid, while the rest of the metal is protected by a photoresist.
The end result can produce items that look like they have been engraved or parts that are formed from one sheet of metal, no matter how intricate or complex the design.
This process is extremely important to the manufacturing industry at large. Keep reading to find out why.
The photo etching process starts life with an action that most people do every single day at work: printing. Our customer’s design templates are printed directly onto cleaned metal sheets before the photoresist is applied. All templates are checked individually, inch by inch, using a magnifying glass to ensure there are no errors.
As they are printed onto the metal from a CAD design and not drawn on by hand, there is very little room for error and designs can be intricate, delicate and complex without any need to worry about the end result – even on the thinnest metal sheets.
Because there is no pressure or stress put onto the metal sheets during the photochemical etching process, the end product still retains the original properties and integrity of the material used. This is not always the case when other processes are used, where the metal is punched, stamped or laser cut. This process also leaves the metal entirely burr-free.
Chemical etching is the least invasive process, ensuring that parts and components are produced perfectly to spec, highly accurate and perform as expected given their material properties. What’s more, all chemicals and contaminants are removed entirely during the wash and rinse aspect of the process, ensuring that your part is perfectly safe to use with immediate effect.
There are some designs that need to be manufactured using a range of processes. For example, some customers can require parts that are half-etched and then formed using other processes or even by hand. This is great for forming parts that need to be 3D in shape, opposed to flat.
The process can also be used to make a number of parts at once without the need to change design layouts, thus allowing manufacturers and our engineers to turn around high volume orders with ease.
The setup costs and tooling for chemical etching are relatively cheaper than other processes, too. New parts can also be created quickly and efficiently even a few days after the design is finalised. Any revisions or changes can also be conducted quickly and without damaging the final product as the process is very thorough and precise. This allows us to make changes that may be required yet remain cost effective.
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