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Vertical vs. Horizontal Milling: Which Is Better for Your Project?

You can use a milling machine to cut and produce the specific parts or components you need for your project. Rather than add materials through a process known as additive manufacturing — which is what a 3D printer does — a CNC milling machine helps you achieve your desired look or function by cutting away at excess materials, through a process called subtractive manufacturing. 

 

Several different types of milling machines can help you complete your next project. Two of those types are vertical mills and horizontal mills. Though they are different, both vertical and horizontal mills can work for a range of industries. By understanding which one is better for your business or project, you can minimize the risk of costly errors and equip yourself with the best tools possible to get the job done.

Read on to learn more about the different functions of horizontal and vertical milling machines, how to choose the best one for your project and when to consider using a custom manufacturing company instead.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Milling

The primary difference between vertical and horizontal milling machines is how the spindle axis moves — from side to side or up and down. Both of these machines have their merits, and the choice between the two often comes down to the specific needs of your project, your operating budget and the sort of timeline you are working with. It is worth noting that the machine you decide to use doesn't necessarily limit the types of projects you can complete. In many cases, you can use either a vertical or horizontal milling machine for your project-related tasks, as long as you know the correct operating techniques or add-on parts required. 

What Is Vertical Milling?

On a vertical mill, the rotary cutting head has a vertical alignment, causing the spindle to move up and down along the Z-axis while the machine is in operation. As the spindle moves, the cutters work to remove material as the rest of the machine moves and shifts along the X-axis and Y-axis to continuously position the object for further cutting. There are two types of vertical mills — turret machines and bed machines. The table on a turret milling machine can move both left and right and up and down, while the spindle remains stationary. This quality makes them ideal for a variety of applications. The table on a bed milling machine only moves horizontally, perpendicular to the axis, while the spindle runs parallel to the axis. 

What is vertical milling used for? Standard applications for a vertical milling machine include:

  • Plung cuts
  • Drilling cuts
  • Single-side projects
  • Projects with detail work that require a lot of visibility

Advantages of Vertical Milling Machines

Many industries rely on vertical milling machines for their various projects. Because vertical machines are versatile and highly accurate, they have several advantages.

  • Cost: Because casings are smaller and there are fewer complex, internal parts, the machine and the projects you complete with it often cost less on a vertical mill than on a horizontal one.
  • Simplicity: Vertical mills require no additional fixtures and are relatively simple to operate and maintain. The smaller learning curve means less downtime.
  • Availability: Because vertical milling machines are more common, it will be easier for you to find any parts or repair assistance you might need in the future. This availability is especially useful if you need to find a milling machine and begin using it quickly, as they are often the most readily available.
  • Space: Compared to a horizontal milling machine, vertical mills take up less floor space. For small shop owners, this means you have more room to work in or place additional machinery.

Because they are easy to use and do not require as significant of an initial investment as horizontal milling machines, vertical mills can be the perfect choice for someone new to milling or a business that is just starting.

Disadvantages of Vertical Milling Machines

Several advantages come with using a vertical milling machine, but always keep your project in mind. With a vertical mill, you may find it more challenging to handle some pieces because they often have lower-horsepower motors than horizontal milling machines. Compared to horizontal mill machines, they do not offer as fast of an output rate. Additionally, these machines often rely on smaller cutting tools than other milling machines.

What Is Horizontal Milling?

What is a horizontal CNC machine? On a horizontal mill, the spindle runs parallel to the ground, and uses slightly smaller — yet thicker — cutting heads to press against the project and remove material. Unlike vertical milling machines, you do not have a direct line of visibility as the machine cuts. Horizontal milling machines with universal tables can help you cut at various angles.

Horizontal mills are suitable for projects with needs such as: 

  • Groove cutting
  • Slot cutting
  • Gear cutting
  • Side-oriented detail work
  • Projects with multiple sides that require cutting
  • Projects that require large, heavy or bulky materials

Advantages of Horizontal Milling Machines

Although they're not as common, horizontal milling machines can be just as useful as vertical ones, depending on your needs. Some benefits of using a horizontal milling machine include the following.

  • Speed: If you need a machine that offers high output and a quick turnaround time, a horizontal milling machine can cut faster than a vertical mill, and may even be able to make more than one cut at a time. This speed comes at no sacrifice to precision, so they are a powerful tool for detailed or long-running projects. 
  • Capability: Horizontal milling machines have a larger capacity than vertical milling machines. They're capable of handling large, bulky or heavy materials with ease, and can make deeper cuts. They can also help you complete complex or multi-sided projects. 
  • Durability: Because they handle more cumbersome materials, horizontal milling machines are durable and long-lasting.

Because they are faster and more rugged than vertical mills, horizontal milling machines are an ideal choice for businesses or operators that need to produce a lot of cuts each day.

Disadvantages of Horizontal Milling Machines

Although horizontal machines have their advantages, one possible drawback is the cost. Due to the precise nature of the work you complete on these machines, they tend to be more expensive than vertical ones. However, if you regularly require a high level of output for the same type of project, the investment may soon pay for itself. 

Another factor worth considering is that these milling machines are less common than vertical mills, so finding parts or skilled laborers may be more challenging if needed. A horizontal milling machine will also take up more space in your shop than a vertical machine will. If you have limited floor space, but still require the speed and physical capability of a horizontal machine, consider working with an outside parts manufacturer.

Which Type of Milling Machine Should I Use?

Both vertical and horizontal milling machines are compatible with CNC technology, which means you can input data into a computer-based software program to create your finished project. CNC milling machines also let you create identical replicated cuts, making them a very efficient tool. Due to the level of control, accuracy and precision it provides, CNC milling machinery is ideal for the medical, marine, aerospace, transportation, electronics, oil and gas and military and defense industries. When paired with CNC technology, your vertical or horizontal milling machine will help you save time and produce high-quality products.

Are vertical or horizontal milling machines better? It comes down to a few different factors, including the type of milling you require and your budget.

What Type of Milling Do You Need?

When you compare horizontal and vertical milling machines, your final decision should come down to the size and shape of the materials you use, as well as the types of projects you complete and your time frame for completing them. You should also consider how much you can afford in comparison to those factors.

  • Size: If you are tackling a large project or one that involves heavy or bulky materials, a horizontal milling machine might be your better option. The same is true of projects with parts that require cutting on multiple sides. 
  • Shape: The shape of your project's materials is a crucial factor to consider. If the material is bulky or oddly shaped, choose whichever machine is a better fit.
  • Projects: If you want a machine that is adaptable to several different types of projects, choose the one that can help you complete the broadest range of tasks — especially if you do not have the budget to purchase several add-on parts or the floor space for more than one machine.
  • Time: If you are using a milling machine to complete daily tasks or for a long-term project that requires a regular, fast turnaround time, a horizontal milling machine is ideal. For less time-sensitive projects, a vertical machine is an excellent choice because it is simple to use and more affordable.

As time goes on, you might evolve from one type of machine to another. For example, many people start with a vertical milling machine because of the small learning curve and lack of available floor space, but eventually add a horizontal mill as their operations grow. Alternatively, if you choose a horizontal mill for its ability to handle heavier materials, you may phase down to a vertical milling machine if your projects become smaller-scale or use lighter materials.

What Is Your Budget?

Vertical milling machines are often a smaller initial investment than horizontal milling machines, making them ideal for those operating under a tight budget. However, every project is different — what is affordable to complete on one machine might be different on another, depending on the type of cutting tool you are using or what kind of turnaround time you require. Always analyze your current and future projects, as well as the type and weight of materials you expect your milling machine to cut through. Although a vertical machine might be a more affordable initial investment, make sure you are not using materials that are too heavy or thick, or you may end up spending those savings on repairs or replacements. When it comes to your budget, don't forget to also factor in the cost of the cutting tools you will need to complete your project.

Something to keep in mind when it comes to project costs is the learning curve associated with each machine. Vertical mills are prevalent across the industry, so it is usually easier to find a machinist with experience operating and troubleshooting them. If you choose a machine that you are unfamiliar with or do not seek outside training, this could result in wasted materials or botched projects that can add up over time. It can also be dangerous if used by an untrained professional. One of the best ways to avoid this issue is to work with an experienced manufacturer with the knowledge and tools necessary to help you finish your project efficiently and on time. 

Let American Micro Industries Help You With Your Project

If you need custom, made-to-order parts for your business or project, American Micro Industries can help. With CNC machine milling, we can produce your custom part to meet your exact specifications, with particular attention placed on the intricate details and quality of the final product. By entrusting us with your project, you eliminate the potentially hazardous and costly learning curve associated with in-house milling, and you can reallocate that time and money elsewhere in your business. Because we have years of industry experience across several sectors, you can expect a quick turnaround time.

In addition to CNC machining services, we are also happy to provide: 

  • Die-cutting for electrical insulating components, gaskets and packaging inserts
  • Laser cutting for electrical insulation components
  • Prototype machining 
  • Hot plating and custom soldering 
  • Insulation materials

At American Micro Industries, our mission is to be a full-service partner for you and your business. That's why we also offer a variety of secondary operation services to help you save time and money and improve the overall quality of your operations. Secondary operation services can include mechanical assembly, shielding, engraving, printing, packaging or direct shipping from our facility. 

Visit American Micro Industries online to learn more, or request your free quote today.