How to Use Probing (Surface Mapping) in High Speed Machining

by | Sep 30, 2014 | Blog

12 min read

CNC Probe locates the centers of holes and bosses and performs edge finding for quick part referencing.

Probing is one of the features available on DATRON high speed milling machines that earn our German engineers the greatest accolades.  But many machinists coming from traditional backgrounds using conventional CNC equipment are not certain how to employ this function in their applications and are unaware of the ultimate benefits of surface mapping and 3D probing. A CNC probe is an instrument that can measure a material’s surface by contact. The measurements can be used to ensure uniform depth of milling and engraving.

In a perfect world, the material blanks that we receive from vendors would be perfectly flat – a starting point that would help to guarantee that our finished milled parts will be characterized by uniformity. In reality, this just isn’t the case.  For example, two pieces of ½ inch 6061 aluminum from a single vendor could vary in actual depth from one another. There could even be a variance of depth from one end of the blank to the other, or multiple peaks and valleys over the entire surface of the sheet. With some applications, a variance of thousandths or microns may not make a difference to the manufacturer. But for many manufacturers producing parts for aerospace, electronics and medical, tight tolerance is required and accuracy is critical to their success. So the premise for surface mapping in CNC milling is that a machining center with an integrated probe can take measurements at various intervals or locations (custom matrices) across the surface of the material blank, feed that data into the control software and adjust the milling program accordingly to maintain an even depth of cut regardless of the blank’s innate surface variance.  This is all done dynamically, before the milling even begins which helps to minimize waste and maintain part uniformity. But not all parts are flat and therefore they don’t begin with a flat work piece like sheet material.  These parts may begin with rounded blanks like bar stock.  In the case of firearm manufacturing, gun companies often have to machine on rounded parts like steel gun barrels, or curved parts like gun receivers made of metals such as steel and aluminum.

CNC Probe integrated on DATRON high-speed milling machines for surface scanning, part position referencing, accuracy and part uniformity.

The DATRON CNC Probe for surface mapping detects and compensates for irregular material surfaces.

An example of this would be engraving serial numbers, which is a process that is regulated by the ATF (Alcohol, Tabaco and Firearms) because they mandate that serial numbers are engraved at a particular depth (currently 0.003”) to make it harder for them to be honed off for use in criminal activity.

For milling or engraving on rounded surfaces, a probe like DATRON’s Z-Correction Probe is required and in many cases a rotary axis is also necessary. To machine round stock or engrave on round work-pieces, the 4th axis provides the necessary flexibility. The 4th axis integrates virtually seamlessly with the CNC machining control. The 4th axis can be used to substitute either the X or the Y axis, and can be dynamically switched under program control. The 4th and 5th axis together provide the flexibility needed for the most complex work-pieces. The 5th axis is used to independently rotate the 4th axis, each axis independently and dynamically controlled by the appropriate machining program. As a result, machining at an angle on a round part is easily accomplished.

But, there are still more great uses for an integrated CNC probe.  Take part identification or part location for example. Part identification is when the probe takes measurements to determine which blank has been set up so that it can automatically run the appropriate milling program. This strategy is often used by manufacturers who have a variety of similar but different parts to produce.  Again, using firearm manufacturing as an example, 1911 hanguns often have similar size and shape but come in a variety of different calibers – from 9mm, 45 mm etc.  So, if the manufacturer uses a milling machine with integrated probing for part identification, even if the machine operator places the wrong blank in the machine, the machine can be programed to run the program appropriate for that particular part.  This eliminates waste, and in this heavily regulated industry that eliminates headaches as well.

In terms of part location, a machine such as the DATRON M8Cube with integrated probing and the 3D Probe Extension can probe features unique to a particular part to determine the exact position and placement of that part on the machining table. This includes finding centers of holes and bosses, edge finding and pre-measuring blanks before the machining starts. The 3D-Probe extension enables the Z-Correction Probe to function in three dimensions. Intuitive programming allows machining programs to adjust themselves to the particular work-piece on the machining bed. Material variations in X, Y, and Z can be compensated dynamically to maintain part quality and uniformity. For further quality control, work pieces can be checked after machining almost like a built in CMM (Coordinate Measuring Machine). Finally, don’t tell your competitors, but, certain parts can even be probed for the purpose of reverse engineering.


High-Speed CNC machining is more than 60,000 RPM spindle-speed. When you’re making small or complex parts, you need speed and precision at every stage. DATRON AG engineers didn’t just invent a faster, more precise cnc machine. They re-interpreted and optimized your entire machining workflow from start to finish.

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Tech Tidbit - Multiple Execution

Multiple execution can be used for batch machining parts on a vacuum table, or for having several parts in a fixture, or multiple vises. This is ideal for a job shop, where multiple small-to-medium parts are needed.

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If you’re struggling with micro drills, it might be time to upgrade your hardware. High precision tool holders like the Schunk Tribos system, along with high-RPM HSK spindles, can make a world of difference when working with micro drills and end mills.


When running a job with thousands of similar sized holes, drilling is clearly the method for you. However, for a wide variety of holes, and some extra tool change capacity, bore milling might be the better option. Learn more about milling vs. drilling:

Betsy Jasper is the co-founder of @tarkka_design, and a resident at the Autodesk BUILD Space in Boston. She utilizes the M8Cube for easily making parts that would be too tricky on a typical VMC.

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