Knowledge Center


Types of Five-Axis Machines

Which Machine is Right for Your Shop?

With so many ways to go about five-axis machining, how do know what is the best fit for your shop? First, consider your parts. How big are they? How much do they weigh? What levels of accuracy do they require?

If the parts are small to medium size, a trunnion-type machine with a tilting rotary table is going to be the best bet. If the parts are large and heavy, an articulating head style machine or a horizontal machining center may be the only option. This consideration alone will narrow your choices and help you compare features of various machine models within the required range.

So Many Questions

You also need to know what cutting speeds you’re going to run. The type of spindle, the arrangement of rotary axes, rapid traverse rates, feed rates and available horsepower are other major considerations. Do you intend to machine primarily aluminum, stainless steel or titanium? How rigid does the machine need to be? What surface-finish quality do you require? What part accuracy are you trying to achieve? These are all questions you’ll need to answer in order to select the right machine for your application.

If you’re primarily machining aluminum, you may prefer a spindle capable of higher speed, such as 20,000 rpm, with higher rapid traverse rates, especially if you’re using smaller-diameter tools. Likewise, if you’re machining stainless or alloy steel for complex mold surfaces, you will likely be using small tools and high spindle speeds to achieve exceptionally smooth surface finishes.

Be aware that some machines are designed for cutting only aluminum. Others are suitable for steel and tough alloys, which require more rigidity, higher horsepower, lower spindle speeds, slower rotary speeds, higher torque and stronger box ways to make deep cuts with bigger tools. Machining different grades of steel, titanium alloys or even harder materials may require a heftier machine. However, this hefty machine would also need to rotate the table excessively fast to achieve adequate surface speeds for cutting aluminum. The result might be disappointing.

  • How much space do you have?

  • How big are your parts?

  • What’s your cutting speed?

  • What materials are you cutting?

  • What surface-finish quality do you require?

Five-axis machines today have advanced machining capabilities and can be used in a wide range of work.

3+2 or Full Five-Axis?


The simplest and least expensive way to get at five sides of a part is with a 3+2 machine configuration. For small to medium machines, that typically means a three-axis machining center with a tilting rotary table to position the part. This of course can be accomplished with an auxiliary two-axis table on a standard three-axis machining center. But a machine with an integrated tilt table likely will offer better machining performance and is easier to set up and program. Larger 3+2 machines have a spindle head that tilts and rotates for the additional two axes.

With a 3+2 machining center, the fourth and fifth axes are locked down while the part is machined. Still, almost any plane of the workpiece can be presented to the spindle, and surprisingly complicated parts can be cut efficiently.

The next step up is adding full simultaneous contouring control to an otherwise similar machine configuration. The primary advantages of full five-axis control are that you can now dynamically tilt the tool into the cut, away from interference zones, or keep the tool vector constant as it feeds across sloped or free flowing surfaces. These are the reasons why five-axis machining is so widely used for aerospace components, orthopedics and increasingly in die mold machining.

For several other kinds of parts, five axis control facilitates more efficient use of cutting tools. Tilting the cutter relative to the workpiece surface enables better utilization of the milling flutes, often cut with the side rather than the end of a cutter.

The ability to access more features of a part is simply more pronounced with full five-axis control, as the tool can dynamically tilt away from interference zones on the part. Full five-axis control provides the opportunity to detail hard-to-reach features—such as the corners of pockets or bosses—and create smoother surfaces in the process. This capability can eliminate the need for secondary processes, such as sinker EDM in die and mold work.

Horizontal or Vertical

Horizontal five-axis machines are normally equipped with an automatic pallet changer (APC) ready to be installed on the shop floor. If you’re machining aerospace components that have deep pockets or waffling designed to reduce finished-part weight, the high volume of chips will naturally drop into the conveyor. In addition, horizontal five-axis machines tend to be heavier and more rigid, which helps when cutting steel and titanium.

In contrast, vertical five-axis machines tend to be more agile for processing smaller parts. VMCs tend to enable better operator access and can often take heavier cuts, but clearing chips can be inconvenient. High-pressure, through-the-spindle coolant delivery comes in handy to remedy chip accumulation.


Horizontal five-axis machines tend to be heavier and more rigid, which helps when cutting steel and titanium.

With a trunnion style machine the 4th and 5th axes are executed with a tilting rotary table.

Swiveling-Head or Trunnion Style

There are pros and cons to different types of machine designs. If you’re loading heavy parts, the non-tilting table on a swiveling-head machine is often preferred, because this type of table offers greater rigidity for holding big, heavy parts. The swiveling head enables the use of shorter, standard tooling, because all tool rotations occur above the part. Swiveling-head machines tend to be more versatile, lending themselves to using multiple fixtures, vises or tombstones. This somewhat simulates the appeal of an HMC.

A trunnion-style machine is often preferred in moldmaking, because both rotary axes are contained in the trunnion table itself and the spindle head is stationary. This configuration is similar to that of the three- or four-axis machines most moldmakers are already used to. The spindle head reaches out over the tilting table, providing better undercut capabilities and some access to the underside of the part. As the spindle head itself does not rotate, trunnion-style machines tend to be more effective in heavy chip removal and can use full X, Y and Z travels to accommodate large parts.


The swiveling head enables the use of shorter, standard tooling, because all tool rotations occur above the part. Swiveling-head machines tend to be more versatile, lending themselves to using multiple fixtures, vises or tombstones.



Five-Axis Options and Add-Ons

Five-axis machining is complex and requires expertise and substantial investment, not only in the machine itself, but also in CAM and simulation software.

Five-Axis Programming and Controls

Commercial CAM systems and CNC software have evolved to make the application of 5-axis technology easier, safer, and more productive

Workholding Considerations for Five-Axis Machining

A five-axis machine has more flexibility in its movement to reach all surfaces, but it can only do so if the fixturing or workholding allows access.