Buying CAD/CAM Software
What users should consider when purchasing manufacturing software
By Patrick Waurzyniak
To stay competitive, today's CAM users need the best machining software available for their manufacturing operations. In a tough market, manufacturers require the most efficient solution to run complex machine tool equipment as productively as possible.
Several factors weigh into buyers' decision-making when looking at CAM software. Users must consider not only technical capabilities of a particular package, but also factors that include ease of use, support issues, cost advantages, and overall installed base when evaluating the pros and cons of any software solution.
When considering CAM packages, buyers should think about their machines, their parts, and their people, notes Bill Gibbs, president of Gibbs and Associates (Moorpark, CA). "It's all too easy to lose sight of the 'big picture' and drown in the millions of features that make up a modern CAM system. Not only is their sheer number daunting, but it takes a computer CAM expert to understand what they all do, and why a specific customer should care.
"Far simpler is to evaluate how a specific CAM product services a prospect's specific needs," Gibbs adds. "What CNC machines do you intend to support with this software? Are they all supported well by the CAM software? What parts do you plan to machine? Does the CAM software do them well? Will your people be successful programming your parts for your machines?
"A good idea is to let your programmer get his hands on the software, perhaps as part of an assisted demo, and get a feel for what his task will be with each specific CAM product. The evaluation isn't complete until the G-code output is examined. Differences in programming time, setup time, and part run time make the biggest value difference in CAM software, not the product's purchase price."
Technical considerations are important as well, he adds. "It varies with the buyer, the machine, and the parts," Gibbs notes, "but in general, I like strong verification of cutting graphics, integrated solid-modeling capabilities, associative data structures to make changes fast, professionally built postprocessors, and a product that feels fast and easy to use."
Solid support is key with CAM software, which is often described as difficult to learn. "Ease-of-use varies user to user, and is an over-used claim in our industry," Gibbs states. "In the best case, there is still a need for training and support. If you are doing your own postprocessors, you will need a lot of support, as most machinists are not experienced postprocessor developers.
"A good support plan should clearly identify what is being provided, by whom, to whom, when, and at what cost," Gibbs says. "Nothing is really 'free.' You will find that your biggest costs with a new CAM system are not the purchase price, or the direct support costs, but rather the training costs in terms of your people's time, and perhaps in machine downtime, if good programs are not produced soon after installation. By all means negotiate the best package price possible, but be clear what support you have purchased, and what additional support is available. Free support isn't your goal, making good parts is your goal.
"Much CAM software today is sold through independent resellers/dealers. Commitments for support may be from this reseller/dealer company and/or from a CAM company (the factory). Neither is inherently better than the other. There are good CAM dealers in the world, and not-so-good. Talk to their existing customers if you can. A small reseller's support weakness is 'good intentions' but too few people. With factory support, you have a bigger organization to lean on. Having both gives you the most options."
Buyers should look at the completeness of solution, quality of sales and support team, and global support coverage when looking for a CAM package, says Glenn McMinn, president, Delcam North America (Windsor, Canada, and Birmingham, UK). "Delcam has a broad product line with four CAM products to serve general-purpose production [FeatureCAM], high-volume Swiss turning [Partmaker], artistic CAM [Artcam], and highend, state-of-the-art milling [PowerMill], in addition to our solutions in inspection and CAD," McMinn states. "CAM customers should look for a supplier who can address their broad needs.
"The quality of the sales and support team has always been a big differentiator. Our resellers and direct sales staff attend internal training sessions throughout the year so that they can provide the solutions customer require. These standards apply not only to our North American group, but to our entire global team. With an increasing number of customers looking for support of their global operations, a strong global CAM company is required.
"If you have a focused CAM need, look for a product designed for your application. If you're looking for a general-purpose tool, investigate the quality of CAD import, simplicity of toolpath creation, and accuracy of postprocessing."
Regarding support, a CAM company first of all should design its software to minimize support issues, he adds. "Creating a consistent user interface that minimizes programming time, and thoroughly testing the product, reduces the customer training and support requirements. With that said, support is still very important to our customers."
Providing training classes, both online and in person, makes software users much more productive, he adds, and having a support staff with shopfloor experience also is crucial. "We're also doing a lot of work with machine-tool vendors to create post-processors ahead of customer need," McMinn says. "Strengthening those relationships takes away a lot of the hassle of part programming for our customers. The last point sounds obvious, but listening to our customers is still at the heart of our support strategy."
Among support offered to software buyers, services are a key ingredient, according to Chuck Mathews, vice president, DP Technology Corp. (Camarillo, CA). "A CAM system for most manufacturers is comprised of software and services. I believe too often the service portion of the equation is overlooked," Mathews states. "Typical services usually include training, postprocessor support, ongoing technical support, software updates, and service packs. These service elements should be carefully considered in light of who is providing them, and how experienced and qualified they are relative to the types of CNC machines the manufacturer has and the type of parts he makes. In today's manufacturing world, with ever more complex machines, the first factor that will influence the level of success the manufacturer will have with his CAM system is related to the provider of the services.
"Today, many manufacturers that are considering replacing their existing CAM system are doing so to take advantage of the capabilities of the latest generation of machine tools, and/or the latest manufacturing techniques and cutting tools," Mathews adds. "Manufacturers are finding limited support for newer equipment and techniques in their older CAM systems.
"As an example, mills that can perform turning and lathes than can perform milling [mill-turn] require a CAM system that has integrated programming for both milling and turning, and synchronization of simultaneous multiple machining operations; a typical example would include Swiss-style and B-axis machines," he adds. "A specific technical example is the new B-axis contouring cycle in Esprit 2008 that is designed specifically to achieve higher performance levels from multitasking machines by fully using the rotational capabilities of the B axis.
"While traditional lathe contouring cycles rotate the B axis once at the start of the cut, the B-axis contouring cycle allows for dynamic, continuous rotation of the B axis throughout the cut, as the tool follows inner and outer contours without stopping for tool changes. This allows a single tool to reach areas that would otherwise be inaccessible due to the tool's geometry. The new B-axis finishing cycle reduces the number of cutting tools required, and the number of tool changes, resulting in a smooth and step-less surface and, ultimately, a significant savings in both time and money."
Good support is also important to the success of CAM system implementations. "However, the foundation of a successful implementation is the acceptance and commitment of the CAM operators," Mathews notes. "The three elements that these operators will need in order to maximize their success is quality comprehensive training, well setup postprocessors, and responsive ongoing technical support. It's important that all three are delivered by an application engineer who is experienced with the type of machines and type of machining the manufacturer does. If the manufacturer starts with these basics, they are very likely to consider the software easy to use because they are comfortable and successful with it."
The key element for a support plan is offering direct access to experienced support staff to quickly help resolve problems, he adds. "This should not be an individual but a team, so that support is readily available throughout the day in whichever time zones the manufacturer is working," Mathews says. "An electronic tracking system should be in place to record support activities, allowing staff to be held accountable to the customer and to certain performance levels. This makes it easier to provide a higher level of service."
CAM buyers should ask many questions, notes Mark Summers, president, CNC Software Inc. (Tolland, CT). "There are many items that should be considered when purchasing CAM software. This is a big investment and you want to get the most out of the software you choose to purchase," he says. "A few good questions you should ask are: how large is the user population; what type of support is provided; how long has the reseller been in business selling the product; is there good local training available; and is the company still growing, hiring, and regularly releasing software?"
Of those questions, Summers contends that a widely used software package will help ensure that users will be able to find qualified programmers, and that there's a strong community for support and idea exchange. "A company that offers top-notch support will be an enormous benefit to you in the long run," he adds. "Technical support should be available through the reseller and the software company itself. If the reseller has been successfully selling and supporting the software for years, chances are that they have a strong company based on a good product and they will be there when you need them. Look for evidence that the reseller is willing to go the extra mile for you. Choosing a product supported by a responsive reseller with satisfied customers is a good start."
CAM buyers should look at flexibility and ease of use. "Frequently, these do not go hand in hand," Summers notes. "A system that appears overly simple in a demo may lack flexibility and severely limit the user's ability and future growth. It may look flashy, but does it do your job? Similarly, an overly complex package may offer a lot, but may be too difficult to use effectively. Look for a software package that strikes a balance; one that offers ease of use out of the box, but includes a deep set of additional tools that can be called upon when needed."
Key technical features including feed-rate optimization can greatly aid CAM users. "Ideally, feed rates should decrease as the tool cuts more material, and increase as the tool cuts less material," he adds. "This helps keep a constant chip load on the cutter for longer tool life and more efficient cutting. Does the software automate this process for you?"
Gouge avoidance and the latest multiaxis or HSM techniques also help users. "Ask to see examples of automatic gouge protection or undercut protection on various types of toolpaths," Summers says. "This is not something that is always shown in demonstrations, but is crucial to properly finished parts, as are frequent advances in state-of-the-art machining. A software package that frequently includes new strategies for advanced techniques, such as multiaxis and high-speed machining, will help users stay ahead of their competition.
"Because of the myriad of differences between machine tool types and machine tool manufacturers, there is a higher level of support associated with a CAM product than almost any other software. In addition, since CAM software is powering a physical cutting process, even small mistakes can be devastating. With a strong support network in place, even the most experienced programmer can be confident in getting a valuable answer to questions."
This article was first published in the December 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.