Photochemical machining (PCM) is a metal fabrication technique that serves as an economical alternative to other manufacturing processes, such as CNC machining, punching, laser and waterjet cutting, and electrical discharge machining (EDM). When used to create precision thin metal parts, it offers several advantages, including higher customizability, lower tooling costs, and faster turnaround.
At E-Fab, we use photochemical machining to produce a wide range of precision thin metal components for use across a diverse set of industries. The process allows us to create parts with complex or intricate geometries to tight tolerances at competitive prices.

Photochemical Machining Process

Photochemical machining is an umbrella term referring to several different processes, including photochemical machining, chemical blanking, microchemical milling, and photo etching. Industry professionals use these processes to take a part design—typically developed using AutoCAD software—and fabricate the desired part from sheet metal. See our PCM Design Guide.

Stages of the Photochemical Machining Process

A PCM operation typically involves the following stages:

  1. Creating the phototool—a component containing a negative image of the desired part used to block UV light from reaching specific sections of the workpiece
  2. Cutting, cleaning, and applying photoresist—a light-sensitive compound—to the workpiece
  3. Placing the phototool on the workpiece
  4. Exposing the workpiece to UV light, which hardens the exposed photoresist
  5. Washing off the unhardened photoresist
  6. Etching the unprotected areas using specialized etching equipment and etchant
  7. Removing the hardened photoresist to reveal the finished part

Advantages of Photochemical Machining

When used for the manufacture of precision small and thin metal parts, photochemical machining offers a number of advantages, including:

  • Lower costs. As photochemical machining operations employ chemical etchants and digitally rendered designs to produce a finished part, the cost of tooling is minimal compared to mechanical machining operations. Additionally, the process accommodates part designs with greater complexity or requiring tighter tolerances without significantly raising the cost of production.
  • Faster turnaround. The digital nature of PCM part designs facilitates quicker production of prototypes and production-quality pieces. Even if a customer requests changes to the part design, design engineers can easily modify it through computer software without having to invest in new tooling.
  • Broader production versatility. The PCM process is highly versatile, accommodating parts made from a variety of metals in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Additionally, the process is suitable for prototype to full-scale production runs.
  • Higher quality surface finishes. PCM produces parts with minimal surface burring, reducing the need for additional finishing operations.

 

Photochemical Machining Capabilities at E-FAB

At E-FAB, we use photochemical machining to process a variety of metal and composite materials into parts for a wide range of industries. The following table outlines some of our capabilities:

PCM processes available photo etching, chemical blanking
Part thicknesses ≤.060 inches
Materials worked copper, beryllium copper, brass, bronze, tin, nickel, nickel silver, molybdenum, steel, stainless steel, Monel, spring steels, aluminum, magnetic alloys, Duroid laminates, polyimides, PTFE, ceramic substrates, Kovar, and other common and exotic materials
Secondary services bonding, creating vias, coating, and plating
Typical turnaround 1–2 days, expedited shipping upon customer request
Industries served aerospace, communications, computer, defense, electronics, hybrid circuits, flex, rigid-flex circuits, interconnect, laser, dental, medical instrumentation, military, ordinance, optical, antennas, power semiconductor, semiconductors, RFID, RF microwave antenna, military, tactical, weapons systems, solar, fuel cells, and other high tech OEMs
Typical products Microwave circuits, spaceborne antennas, EMI shielding, mess screens, seals, dielectric coated copper conductors, micro-insulated and non-insulated contacts, etched scales, mechanical parts, shims, etched masks and miniature springs, etched step lids for hybrid packages, flex circuits, RFID, RF microwave antenna geometry patterns and assemblies, miniature CNC machined forming dies and formed contacts, encoder disks and large and small encoder strips, PCB thermal layers, planes, frames, heat sinks, fences, stiffeners, separators, and carriers

Partnering With E-FAB

At E-FAB, we pride ourselves on our ability to collaborate with our customers on the development of cutting-edge technologies. Our highly qualified staff works closely with each customer to evaluate their unique needs and assist them through all phases of their project, no matter the size or complexity. For additional information on our photochemical machining capabilities or to partner with us on your next project, contact us today.