Solutions you CAM afford

Just like their PLM counterparts, CAM vendors are beginning to focus on improving the process, as well as making it more affordable. Charles Clarke says now is the time to buy.

The mid-range modelling market was defined in 1995 by the introduction of SolidWorks, closely followed by Solid Edge and Inventor and a small handful of other modelling codes.

The critical characteristic of these developments was a major price drop in feature-based MCAD applications coupled with Windows ease of use. The initial idea was to offer about 80 per cent of the functionality of the higher-cost MCAD systems, such as Pro/ENGINEER, UG and CATIA, for about 20 per cent of the price.

The other key characteristic was the so-called ‘add-on’ applications — or partner products — enabled by the modeller’s API and Windows ‘plug and play’. These applications gave mid-range users integrated multi application CAx systems for the first time, for a fraction of the cost of the then current integrated (high-end) systems.

At the same time there was the beginnings of an ‘affordable’ CAM market, with independent vendors such as Pathtrace, Vero and Licom offering alternative Windows-based solutions to the high end offerings of PTC, UG and IBM/Dassault. These alternatives were brought into sharp focus and given extra impetus by the mid-range modelling market of the mid 1990s.

This new focus also brought new CAM vendors to our attention. Examples of these include SolidWorks, whose Certified CAM products include CAMWorks from TekSoft; GibbsCAM from Gibbs and Associates; EdgeCAM from Pathtrace; ESPRIT from DP Technology; Mastercam from CNC Software; SURFCAM from Surfware; and SolidCAM.

All of these vendors and their products represent good value for money and most of them can exist with any modeller. As with the rest of the CAM market, the product you buy depends on what you want to do with it and the kinds of machines you want to program.

For example, Licom’s AlphaCAM (now at V6) has evolved into a comprehensive suite of products covering everything from milling and turning to laser, flame and waterjet profiling, wire electrical discharge machining (EDM), and punching.

In parallel, the company has developed a range of modules for stone and woodworking applications. Licom has also developed AlphaCIM, which integrates all functions found in a typical manufacturing company, from costing and estimating through to dispatch and invoicing.

The focus today is on increased levels of automation. When this is combined with the software’s improved feature recognition functionality, operators can create complete libraries of user-configurable machining strategies for all their components.

They need only input the geometry of the part to be worked on, select the required machining style — including multiple roughing, turning, drilling and finishing routines, complete with nominated tooling and associated speeds and feeds — and the software will produce fully-specified CNC machining programs at the touch of a button.

AlphaCAM’s ability to combine any number of stored machining routines provides true ‘drag-and-drop’ compilation of new machining strategies, which can be checked quickly and easily using the system’s visualisation tools. As a result, these kinds of applications not only cut programming time and improve quality, but also reduce the skill levels required of inexperienced users for ‘right-first-time’ programs.

In parallel, the system’s ability to capture manufacturing parameters from programs produced by different operators allows companies to capitalise on in-house best practice, as well as achieve substantial cost savings on tooling through standardisation and rationalisation of their tooling inventory.

ESPRIT, for example, delivers powerful full-spectrum programming for two to five axis milling, two to 22 axis turning, two to five axis wire EDM, multitasking mill-turn machining, and B-axis machine tools.

It can machine any part geometry (solid, surface, or wireframe) and its universal post processing will produce G-code for virtually any machine tool. It also does solid simulation and verification with dry runs rendered as dynamic solids.

ESPRIT’s multi-tasking component provides capabilities for driving millturn machines, multi-axis lathes, and Swiss-style machine tools. It also provides synchronisation of simultaneous cutting cycles using any combination of turrets and spindles for milling or turning, factory-certified post processors for all the leading multitasking machine tools, and dynamic solid simulations for dry-run verification of the machining processes.

This is not ‘cheap and cheerful’ CAM — it represents over 20 years of R&D and reflects ESPRIT’s partnerships with the premier machine tool builders.

Software vendors focused on the mould design market, such as Delcam, Vero and Cimatron, have introduced a new generation of products for the design of cores and cavities, mould bases, and graphite electrodes. The products are solids-based, associative, parametric, knowledge-based, and have features that automate functions such as establishing parting lines and parting surfaces, bi-directional shrinkage, electrode design, placement of mould-base components, and interference checking.

The use of solid models as the basis for CAM has become increasingly commonplace. The primary advantage is that an unambiguous model is generated, thereby avoiding gaps, holes, or overlapping surfaces. And by establishing interoperability with a solid model, any change to the model can be automatically updated in the toolpaths. Design intelligence in a solid model does not get ‘lost in translation’ and CNC programming can begin as soon as you have a viable solid component, allowing manufacturing engineering to start much earlier in the process.

Many of the CAM software innovations have been covered by today’s mid-range offerings. Just like PLM, CAM vendors are beginning to focus on improving the CAM ‘process’ from feature recognition, automatic pocketing to organising the housekeeping of tooling libraries. Tomorrow’s integrated CAM tools will do as much to automate the business process of manufacturing as they do to cut metal.

Typically, powerful CAM software used to cost around £14,000. New products from reputable mid-range vendors are offering solutions for a fraction of that price. Almost all have free trial downloads, so if you have been thinking about purchasing CAM software there has never been a better time to buy.