Measurement / Quality Exclusives

Advanced Aluminum Alloy Replacing Granite in CMMs

As CMM customers become more knowledgeable, CMMs manufactured with granite are becoming obsolete

March 31, 2014
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Today a Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM) is typically not installed in the perfect operating environment of 20-degrees C +/- 0.5-degrees C. As a consequence, the material used in the CMM structure is critical to ensure that the maximum CMM accuracy is maintained. The CMM accuracy specification today is many times better than what was offered by the earlier generations of Coordinate Measuring Machines when CMM structural material science was less critical.

Granite was used as the build material for the very early CMMs more than 40 years ago. The granite surface plate was already established in manufacturing, because of its wear resistance, slow thermal response and relatively low cost. It was a natural progression to build CMMs with granite.

In manufacturing, a granite surface plate is only used as a base reference and any thermal growth has no impact on its function as long as the plate remains flat… its size is not relevant. However, this is not the case when considering a high accuracy CMM frame structure.

All materials have a coefficient of thermal expansion and some materials expand more than others. The popular materials used in CMM frame construction over the past four decades are shown in Fig. 1.

The thermal expansion of aluminum is 3.5 times that of granite, yet over 80% of CMM’s supplied annually have an aluminum frame. The reason has to do with the rate of Thermal Diffusion.  The rate at which the CMM frame responds to a temperature change is very important to ensure the retention of maximum CMM accuracy. All materials have a different rate of thermal diffusion, Fig. 2.

Thermal Diffusion

The Thermal Diffusion of aluminum is 60 times faster than granite. This actually results is less thermal growth than granite since the aluminum acts as a heat pump and stabilizes quicker to the changed temperature. Granite takes eight hours to fully dissipate thermal changes, and when factory shift change is typically eight hours, granite can be still stabilizing as the shift finishes…advantage aluminum!

Thermal Diffusion is one of principle reasons that modern CMM frames are produced from advanced aluminum alloy… but not the only one.

Error Compensation

All CMMs today are error compensated, because the demanded CMM volumetric accuracy is impossible to achieve with built-in mechanical accuracy only. Even granite CMMs are error mapped today. CMMs have 21 degrees of error compensation which updates the CMM metrology software with compensated CMM X-Y-Z position real-time, Fig. 3. The measuring scales used by the CMM also need to be mapped against a laser reference standard and their errors included in the map.

CMM Accuracy comes from the Measuring Scales

The measuring Scales should be fixed to the CMM structure only at its reference end to allow for a free-floating scale thus allowing the CMM structure to move independent of the measuring scales, Fig. 4. This is achieved by mounting the scale in a track. Most granite CMM suppliers fix (glue) the measuring scales directly to the granite inducing additional measuring errors as the structure expands.

Heavy granite CMMs also require large heavy duty motors to drive the heavy CMMstructure. These motors create local heat which can directly dissipate through the CMM frame causing measuring errors. Typically granite CMM suppliers install cooling fans inside their machine covers in an attempt to minimize the impact of these local heat sources on the CMM frame…advantage aluminum.

Thermal Compensation

Most CMM suppliers offer thermal compensation on their CMMs. The machine scale temperatures are monitored and the error map is adjusted according for thermal growth, Fig. 5.

Granite, unlike aluminum, does not expand at a uniform linear rate and therefore the thermal compensation of a granite CMM is less precise than that of an aluminum frame CMM due to the linear expansion of aluminum…advantage aluminum.

Heat Reflection

Aluminum reflects about 90 percent of radiated heat and emits only a small percentage of the heat that is taken on. This low transmission makes aluminum the ideal CMM material because absorption of thermal changes is critical to maintaining CMM accuracy, Fig. 6.

It is also well documented that dark colors (black granite) will heat up more than light colors (silver aluminum). This is another huge negative for use of granite in CMM frames…advantage aluminum.


Granite is a porous material acting like a sponge and absorbs moisture when the atmosphere is humid. This moisture absorption by granite results in structural deformation of the CMM frame that cannot be compensated inducing CMM measuring errors. The use of a granite CMM in high-humidity regions is not recommended.

The all-granite CMM myth - IT IS NOT ALL GRANITE

The all-granite CMM is a myth. The air bearings and central carriage are manufactured in aluminum. The vertical bridge beam supports are also typically produced in aluminum or steel so only the bridge beam and Z ram are produced in granite. This means the all-granite CMM does not expand uniformly when subjected to a thermal change.

Z Axis Stiffness

The stiffness of the CMM Z ram is critical to ensuring accuracy. The greater the CMM Z measuring range, the more critical becomes the Z axis stiffness. As shown in Fig. 7, the Modulus of Elasticity of Aluminum is 33% stiffer than solid granite; granite Z rams are core drilled to reduce mass and allow cable management making them even weaker still. Some suppliers switch to ceramic from granite for their Z ram material on taller measuring range CMMs due to the low stiffness of granite…advantage aluminum.

To summarize…What is The Perfect CMM Structure?

  • Lightweight CMM structure offering good dynamics without use of large heat producing motors.
  • Free floating measuring scales
  • Frame produced from heat reflecting material
  • Frame produced from fast reacting material to thermal changes
  • Frame has linear and predictable expansion
  • Frame material not affected by humidity
  • Frame components produced from common materials
  • Stiff Z axis column

For these reasons, that’s why more than 80% of Coordinate Measuring Machines produced annually have aluminum frames and almost all of the granite CMMs still produced, are built by local Chinese & Indian suppliers.

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Source: Quality

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