Why Tolerances are Important

As rocket projects become more complicated and with the advent of cheap and readily available machinery, and machinery services (3D hubs for example) a lot of people are starting to push the limits with what is being made in the garage.

When it comes to rockets you are never going to get it right first time and you will soon find yourself in the iteration process as you improve on your designs. If you are having to remake parts from rough or non-existant drawings you may find yourself in a dilemma with parts not fitting and potentially botching a few.

From a mechanical standpoint, there are a few things you can do to make your life easier, a simple tolerance is one of them.

We must first understand what a tolerance is, in engineering, a tolerance is the limit or variation of a physical dimension. This can be set by yourself on how accurate you want your part or it is sometimes set by the machine used, a bad operator can also play a part but for this write up I will not consider this.
As a general rule the higher the tolerance you put on your part the more it will cost, if I wanted a shaft with a diameter of 20 mm ±0.1 mm (19.9 mm to 20.1 mm) this would be easily achievable on a lathe with no extra tooling. If I was to make this ±0.01 mm (19.99 mm to 20.01 mm) then things start getting harder, the shaft would now require a grinding process to achieve this, meaning more time and man-hours and thus a more expensive part.

Not only is cost a factor, but also the fit of the part, which is what we probably really care about matters. If my 20 mm diameter shaft had to fit inside a hole, a bushing for example, and if there were no tolerances involved then how would I know it would fit every time? It could be oversized, undersized or it could be ok.

Luckily for shafts and holes (or anything concentric like a rocket tube and bulkhead), there is a simple ISO tolerance letter/number designation system to make life easy, shown below.

Fits (Credit: Machinery Handbook 29th Edition)

To go along with this, there is a handy Limits, Fits and Tolerance calculator from Amesweb which makes this ISO system easy to understand.

Let’s look at out 20 mm diameter shaft and the bushing it must go into. From the above chart I’d like a sliding fit, with a basis on the hole (hole limits are maintained but shaft limits can vary), therefore I want a H7/g6 tolerance on the shaft and hole.
Plugging this into the above-mentioned calculator yields the following,

As can be seen, I have a nice tolerance dimension that will always enable a sliding fit, but what are these dimensions?

My bush dimension becomes 20 mm -0 mm on the lower end and 20 mm +0.021 mm on the upper end, while my shaft diameter becomes 20 mm -0.020 mm on the lower end and 20 mm -0.007 mm on the upper end.
This gives me a range that I can make each part too, and as long as each part is within that range I will always have a sliding fit, no matter who or where it is made.

This is a very basic introduction, more specifically relating to cylindrical components and fits. In a future post, I’ll go into a bit more detail into the next steps you can take to ensure your parts are concentric and cylindrical using the Geometric Dimensioning, and Tolerance (GD&T) language as well as covering the three basic types of tolerances you may see on a drawing.