New CAD/CAM software tools improve productivity and boost
By Patrick Waurzyniak
As manufacturing retrenches, CAD/CAM software can help manufacturers squeeze the most performance out of machine tools with the latest programming techniques. Advanced simulation and synchronization for simultaneous five-axis machining and multitasking machine tools head up a long list of cutting-edge CAD/CAM software capabilities for programming today's increasingly complex machinery.
Speeding programming efficiencies means offering software users more flexible and powerful methods for toolpath creation. "Customers are demanding more flexibility from their software to help them decrease turnaround and accept more jobs," notes Mark Summers, president, CNC Software Inc. (Tolland, CT), developer of Mastercam software. "This flexibility takes the form of not only toolpaths, but the ability to accept any and all CAD files. We see this in markets that were primarily tied to one industry, such as automotive. These companies have had to diversify into different types of work."
The use of solid models, and the ability to program them directly, is another powerful driver for today's users, Summers notes. "The technical aspect of this takes many forms—from being able to read any solid file, to automatic programming with our software's new 'Feature Based Machining' functionality, to actually embedding CAM systems into CAD packages," he says. "Another strong trend in CAM today is anything that streamlines the production and gets parts off the machine faster, including high-speed-machining techniques and the growing use of multiaxis machines in even the smallest shops."
In the latest version of the company's Mastercam software, CNC Software has built in new tools aimed at driving down shops' costs by getting parts off the machine quicker with a better finish, Summers adds. The company also has added its completely embedded product, Mastercam for SolidWorks, Summers says, allowing SolidWorks users to program their parts directly using Mastercam's toolpaths.
"Other advances to look for are toolpath optimization based on both the machine and the specific tool, and relationships with tooling database providers to help streamline and standardize tooling," Summers states. "Some enhancements, such as multicore processing, look to reduce the time it takes to create a toolpath. Others provide better tool motion and new ways of cutting, such as hybrid toolpaths, a technique called 'dynamic machining' that moves the tool in a much more intelligent way, and more high-speed toolpaths that can be used on standard machines."
Capturing design intent, including features and tolerances, more innovative programming for multicore processors, and early migration to the upcoming Microsoft Windows 7 operating system are all factors that will affect manufacturing operations, says Chuck Mathews, vice president, DP Technology Corp. (Camarillo, CA). "On the computer-technology side, people want the software to make better use of multicore equipment. Windows 7 is coming up relatively quickly; we have people actually using it in production today, even though it's a beta version, so that presents a lot of challenges for us to update our software. And, of course, dealing with a new Windows operating system is a challenge for the users.
"CAD-to-CAM data exchange is evolving, moving away from just geometry to include more of the design intent, such as features and tolerances, which are the two most common things that people ask for," Mathews states. "Capturing design intent means including part features, with holes and pockets, along with the geometry, so you have the context of the geometry."
CAM customers also continue to demand new strategies for programming newer, more complex machines, Mathews adds. "The most common complex machines are these millturn, Swiss-turn, and five-axis machines," he says, "where the demands are in the postprocessing and the simulation. Because the machines are capable of more complex movements—many times it's actually simultaneous and synchronized—controlling them puts a lot more demand on postprocessing and machine simulation."
Programming for multicore systems potentially can speed up processing times on large data files. "Multicore is the generic term for dual-processor, but it could be two, or four, or eight processors," Mathews notes. "The difficulty for the software company is that multicore requires special programming to be able to take advantage of two or more cores. As the software developer, we have to do some work, and it's not trivial. The benefit to the customer is that computational-intensive or timeintensive tasks will run faster. We're seeing that the average is about a 40% reduction in run time. If you're calculating a complex 3-D toolpath that took an hour, now you're down in the 35 to 40-min range, and that's a big benefit to the customer."
Getting back to basics means offering machine tool customers ways to cut costs on machine time and on programming time, notes Bill Gibbs, president and founder, Gibbs and Associates (Moorpark, CA), a subsidiary of Cimatron Ltd. (Givat Schmuel, Israel). "In light of the current economic chaos, we're going back to the basics and we're really taking a hard look at what's important," Gibbs says. "Our priorities are, number one, save machine time, and number two, save programming time. To save machine time, the number one priority is cut the part faster, and the number two priority is to take fewer mistakes to the machine and spend less time setting it up."
More efficient programming for multitasking machining (MTM) is under development now for the upcoming Version 10 of GibbsCAM, according to Gibbs. The new MTM module aims to dramatically reduce the time required to produce postprocessors for such complex machines. "We need to offer more flexibility in how we define the complex kinematics of the machines, and one of the big benefits of us doing this will be that we can reduce the time that we spend on postprocessors," Gibbs notes. "We have a very strong emphasis on high-quality posting for these complex machines, and also high-quality simulation of these machines, to save on setup times and catch mistakes, and maintain clearances.
"We've come up with a redesign that we think is going to be a huge step forward in reducing the amount of time it takes to build a postprocessor, improving the quality of both simulation and the postprocessors, as well as increasing the variety of machines that we can handle in what you might call a mathematically perfect way," Gibbs adds. "It's quite the challenge because as we build this universal software that is supposed to handle any machine configuration, we now realize that the imaginations of machine tool designers are quite abundant."
In addition to MTM, the company is revamping its feature-machining capabilities, which also will be part of GibbsCAM Version 10 scheduled for release later this year. "We think this dramatically increases the efficiency of a GibbsCAM user; it reduces his programming time, and it helps automate the programming of solid models," Gibbs says. "A third area of this next release is called CAD attribute import. While we do some of this already, we want to greatly enhance our ability not just to bring in part designs from CAD systems, but also to bring in all the other information, which is technically called attribute data, where the designer of the part has put extra information into the CAD file besides just dimensions, besides what we call the geometry of the solid model. And this includes things like telling us, 'this hole is ¼-20, or that surface needs a 30-µin. finish.'
"This kind of data exists in many of the CAD files, and we aren't utilizing it as well as we could at the moment. Where the data pertain to manufacturing, we want to bring it in and allow its use in feature machining. These things are closely related, so we can use the CAD data in conjunction with feature machining. In fact, frequently the attribute data will identify and define the features on the part, and this is where these things come together."
Manufacturing operations intended to boost efficiencies are adding more automation in the planning phase, including CAM programming, while also looking to make better use of existing resources such as tools and fixtures, notes Vynce Paradise of Siemens PLM Software (Plano, TX), a unit of Siemens Industry Automation Division (Nuremberg, Germany).
"It's a highly competitive marketplace in component production, generally speaking, so everyone's trying to be more efficient," notes Paradise. "People want to make better use of advanced machine tools, and we're trying to be more effective in connecting between planning and production."
Since purchasing the former UGS in January 2007, Siemens has been working toward forging tighter links between its PLM software and its NX CAM software for users on the shop floor. "There's an interest by major customers, particularly in machinery, aerospace, and medical devices, in connecting better from planning systems—the means of defining the manufacturing plan—to the point of execution on the shop floor," Paradise notes.
The company has developed a common information platform linking the virtual world—with part design, tooling and fixture design, CAM and simulation, tool libraries, process planning, and CMM programming—with shop-floor applications, including those for CMMs and machine tool controls. Later this year, Paradise says that Siemens will introduce its new NX 7 CAM software that will include an updated module for CMM programming. It evolved from the Valisys software owned by the former Tecnomatix software developer, which UGS acquired in 2005.
"If I'm not delivering that manufacturing process plan directly to the shop floor on time, it's obviously reducing the value of doing the plan in the first place," Paradise says. "If I make mistakes in the plan, they're going to show up on the shop floor. When they show up on the shop floor, they're often caused initially by bad planning or delivery of the plan, or poor synchronization between the planning environment and the shop-floor environment."
Better feature recognition, as well as improved simulation and collision-avoidance capabilities, is available in the updated EdgeCAM software from Planit Holdings Ltd. (Reading, UK, and Southfield, MI). "The key direction of this release is around improving the tools and automation," notes Russell Franks, Planit's chief technical officer. "We have our Strategy Manager, which includes knowledge-based or rules-based capabilities, that has been significantly extended alongside feature recognition.
The new EdgeCAM 2009 R1 version also adds further support for complex machining including milling, turning, and mill-turn capabilities, and it expands the system's Toolstore capabilities with an improved user interface, better tool selection, and performance upgrades.
"We're moving toward active collision-avoidance," Franks adds, regarding functionality included from a third-party package. The system also features enhanced automation tools, including the introduction of in-process stock, he says, which saves users machining time and also reduces overall programming time.
Productivity enhancements for the complex programming required by simultaneous five-axis machining has taken on higher priority in this difficult economy, notes Glenn McMinn, president, Delcam North America (Windsor, ON, Canada).
"There seems to be less focus on capacity building, and more emphasis on productivity and complex programming," McMinn states. "This works in our favor with our suite of programming tools for complex machines. People are watching their costs, and some are working with a scaled-back workforce. This means that ease of use and speed of calculation are becoming even more important."
Complex machines are defined as five-axis simultaneous mills, Swiss lathes, or turn-mill machines, and Delcam addresses each of those areas with its PowerMill, FeatureCAM, and PartMaker software. The company is doing well in medical and aerospace industries, he adds.
"There's a strong focus on mass-customization products, as opposed to mass production of the same part," McMinn notes. "Orthotics and dental are big areas for us in mass customization. There is the recent release of our DentCAD product, as well as the continued development of Dentmill, and we continue to develop our orthomodel and orthomill products for the creation of custom orthotics. Both of these solutions leverage our experience in reverse engineering, CAD, and CAM as well as our expertise in creating simplified interfaces for vertical markets. You will also see greatly improved toolpath performance across our entire product range. This will be a major enhancement for many of our products, and provides a lot of value for maintenance and new customers."
In addition, later this year the company will release its new Delcam for Solidworks offering, he adds. "Many of our customers already use Solidworks. We are now providing Delcam's leading toolpath technology and feature-based interface within this CAD environment to provide our customers with an alternative product that is tightly integrated into this design environment."
Improved workflow for CAM software users is available with new offerings from Geometric Technologies Inc. (Scottsdale, AZ), a unit of Geometric Ltd. (Mumbai). "For years, CAM software improvements focused on offering many new features, but the fundamental workflow remained the same," notes Bruce Wiener, director of R&D-CAMWorks, Geometric Technologies. "Today, many CAM systems are adopting new workflows in their products that require users to retrain themselves. As creatures of habit, this can be a difficult challenge for the end users and the companies they work for.
"Manufacturing companies are investing in new machinery that may be beyond the experience of the NC programmers and the machine operators," he adds. "Learning how to program and run these new machines presents new learning curves that can be costly, frustrating, and time-consuming."
With its CAMWorks offering, Geometric Technologies provides NC programmers with tools to more efficiently, accurately, and safely program machines, Wiener says. "Equally important, we offer software to generate toolpaths that run faster on the machine tools they are programmed for. In addition, we will introduce functionality to bridge the experience gap between the current workforce and the requirements of new machine and cutting-tool technologies."
NC simulation and verification software tools also are crucial for proving out machine tools prior to cutting metal on the shop floor. "The trend of the past few years continues, with software developers realizing the need to make easier-to-use software tools, but tools with higherlevels of automation and sophistication," notes Bill Hasenjaeger, product manager, CGTech Corp. (Irvine, CA). "A very important, and often overlooked, component of the CAD/CAM software industry is to provide not just product support, but assistance in actually helping customers improve their processes. NC manufacturing is very complex by nature, and a CAD/CAM supplier's industry expertise should be used in support of their customers in every way possible."
With its upcoming Vericut 7 release, CGTech is focusing on optimizing Vericut's process flow and internal algorithms, as well as implementing hundreds of customer-driven enhancements. "Vericut 7 will feature improvements that affect overall usage, and reduce the time required for manufacturing engineers to use the software to help develop, analyze, inspect, and document their NC programming and CNC machining processes," Hasenjaeger says. "Additional improvements to Vericut's core simulation engine results in more accurate and faster machine motion and material-removal simulation.
"Manufacturers are constantly faced with having to do more with less," he adds. "The pressure seems even greater this year, on a global scale. Finding new and creative ways to improve the efficiency and quality of jobs that have been running the same-old way for years in the workshop may be critical to the survival of many businesses. They may have to do it with less resources (people, skills, consumable tools), and a general hurdle is learning and implementing new manufacturing methods and new tools to help improve existing processes."
This article was first published in the April 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.