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What Is Free Machining Steel?

What Is Free Machining Steel

Free machining steel refers to steel alloys that break into small chips during the machining process. This results in better machinability, better surface finishes, and increases the lifetime of the cutting tools. These steel alloys also have sulfur, lead, and/or bismuth, which each act as a dry lubricant when the metal is machined.

The opposite to free machining steels are steel grades that produce long strings of metal as it’s machined. The longer metal shavings can get tangled in the spinning cutting tools causing issues.

List of free machining steel alloys

There are 3 main groups of free machining steel alloys: Leaded, Rephosphorized, and Resulfurized. 

The SAE numbers indicate whether the alloy has added lead, sulfur, or sulfur and phosphorus. The “L” indicates that lead was added to the steel. This is different from the “L” in stainless steel alloys, which indicates low carbon.

The second number in the designation indicates if the alloy was re-sulfurized (1) or re-sulfurized and re-phosphorized (2).

Type AISI Grade
Leaded
11L41
Leaded
12L13
Leaded
12L14
Leaded
41L40
Resulfurized
1117
Resulfurized
1118
Resulfurized
1119
Resulfurized
1137
Rephosphorized & Resulfurized
1211
Rephosphorized & Resulfurized
1212
Rephosphorized & Resulfurized
1213
Rephosphorized & Resulfurized
1215

Advantages of using free machining steel

Free machining steel is the most common choice for precision machined steel parts, or parts with complex features. These alloys are easier to cut and drill, which lowers the machining costs and reduces lead times. Because the steel produces smaller chips, the machines require less human interactions. This makes free machining alloys ideal for high volume machining and Swiss screw machining.

The biggest advantages are:

  • Lower machining costs
  • Faster, more efficient machining
  • Better surface finishes
  • Reduced wear on cutting tools

Disadvantages of using free machining steel

Like any metal alloys, free machining steels have disadvantages as well. Free machining alloys cost more than regular steel alloys. This offsets the lower machining costs. The ductility and impact resistance is also reduced, as these alloys are more brittle.

What are free machining alloys used for?

12L14 steel is the most common steel alloy used for many different precision machined parts. This alloy, and other FMAs are used for parts that require extensie machining, and tight tolerances. 

These alloys are used to make:

  • Pins
  • Shafts
  • Spacers
  • Bushings
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Fittings and Couplings

Free machining steel is more commonly used for smaller parts because the smaller chipping results in better automation. When thousands of identical parts are needed quickly, avoiding machining downtime is essential. 

Free machining alloys are used in industries that require high quantities of precision steel parts, like the automotive, defense, and aerospace industries. For parts that require welding, FMAs aren’t the best choice. 1008 or 1018 steel has lower machinability, but is much better for strong welds.

Spex is an ISO 9001:2015 certified company. Organizations use this standard to demonstrate the ability to consistently provide products and services that meet customer and regulatory requirements.

We incorporate world-class excellence in every step of the process, in our ongoing efforts to ensure your success.

Reach out to our team to get a quote for CNC machined steel parts for your next project. 

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