Software Improves Shop Processes
Advances in CAM, NC simulation/verification packages help shops compete
By Patrick Waurzyniak
As the economy starts showing signs of recovery, updating the manufacturing software used with machine tool equipment can greatly aid shops' efficiencies in cutting parts. In order to stay ahead of the competition, investment-minded manufacturers have a wide range of new metalcutting software releases with which to update their machining systems to the latest advances available in CAM software packages and NC simulation/toolpath verification tools.
Several leading CAM software companies recently updated their offerings with the newer features including wider use of machining directly off solid models, automatic feature recognition (AFR) tools, high-speed machining, and more extensive multiaxis metalcutting capabilities.
"The latest developments in CAD/CAM are focused as much on boosting efficiency as on offering new machining strategies," says Mark Summers, president of CNC Software Inc. (Tolland, CT), developer of Mastercam software. "This may be a direct reflection of the current metalworking market. As the competition gets tighter, shops are just as concerned with streamlining their existing work as they are with exploring new machining possibilities."
Feed-rate optimization represents one way for manufacturers to optimize efficiencies using CAM packages like the new Mastercam Version 9.1, which includes an automated feed-rate optimization tool. "This tool can take an existing toolpath and vary the feed rate as the cutter moves through material," Summers explains. "It keeps a constant chip load on the tool and smoothly enters and exits corners. As a result, the toolpath runs safely at as high a feed rate as possible at all points of the machining process, which not only saves time but it delivers a more consistent finish and can reduce wear on the cutting tool and machine."
Summers says the trend toward greater efficiency can be seen across both CAD and CAM software. For example, CNC Software's Mastercam Direct is a new family of add-ins for CAD packages including SolidWorks, Solid Edge, Autodesk Inventor, and Rhino, which adds a Mastercam button directly into the CAD package's toolbar, enabling the user to easily launch whatever part they are working on directly in Mastercam, eliminating file translation or potential data errors.
CNC Software is also responding to increased use of rapidly evolving metalcutting technologies, such as multiaxis and high-speed machining. The latest version of Mastercam applies 3-D machining tools to five-axis techniques where they have previously been unavailable, according to Summers. Capabilities include multiple cutting passes, shallow cuts, and higher speeds, giving the user improved tool life and better overall finish.
"High-speed machining also is an area rapidly on the rise," Summers says, noting the latest Mastercam release delivers a suite of tools designed to give HSM users the smooth transitions, uninterrupted cuts, and other highly specialized motion needed with HSM techniques. "We're also supporting the latest advances in machine tools, such as Mazak's Integrex," he adds.
Solid-model machining has become more prevalent recently, with CAM packages allowing users to machine directly off models. With GibbsCAM 2004, which started shipping in December, Gibbs and Associates (Moorpark, CA) introduced a new 2.5D Solids module that helps address the needs of manufacturers working with the growing number of solid models from mainstream CAD systems, such as Autodesk Inventor, Solid Edge, and SolidWorks.
"Our 2.5D Solids is a giant step forward for people who machine directly from solid models, or people who want to machine directly from solid models, because our option is not only the CAM functionality, it's also the modeling functionality," notes company president Bill Gibbs. "We're trying to offer a very broad solution. People can create their own solid models and machine them, or they can import solid models and machine them, and both capabilities are fully supported in this option. It's available at a lower price point than our full mold-and-die solid modeling package, Solid Surfacer."
The module also includes some other new technologies, including a feature called the Hole Manager. "With the Hole Manager, we actually visualize a hole as a discrete feature," he explains. "They're not just simple cylinders, they're complex things that need multiple tools to machine and can have multiple diameters. The central piece of the Hole Manager is functionality called Automatic Feature Recognition [AFR], which will analyze a solid model for you automatically, find all the holes and all the orientations, and then, if you wish, automatically program these for you and generate the tools. We can take a solid model that has thousands of holes on it and literally in seconds, identify them, establish the processes, and machine them."
With its AFR capabilities, Hole Manager and a Hole Wizard helps users dramatically speed up part creation, according to Gibbs. "Automatic feature recognition is what builds all the hole information from a solid model," he says, "and once you have all this laid out, it's the Hole Wizard that is actually doing the tool creation and the CAM creation. All the pieces work together, and when you bring in a solid, you hit the AFR button, analyze the solid, hit the Hole Wizard button, generate the tools, and it generates the toolpath. So literally, it's that fast."
Another productivity booster in GibbsCAM 2004 is the Profiler, which allows users to interactively use a tool to draw part profiles. "One of the problems people have dealing with solids is how to quickly and easily identify the pockets in the area they want to apply tools to," Gibbs says. "So we have this new interactive tool you can drag around the screen, and it basically draws you the profile of the part anywhere you want to see it.
"The bottom line is that if working from a solid is not a lot faster and a lot easier than old-style working from geometry, the software really hasn't done its job," Gibbs concludes. "That what this is all about--improving levels of productivity that you can offer the user."
GibbsCAM 2004 also includes full support for Windows XP as a Microsoft-certified "Designed for XP/2000" application adding several enhancements to the look-and-feel of the interface that improve ease of use. The updated software also allows users to run multiple GibbsCAM sessions at the same time and be able to transfer information between the sessions using Windows' cut or copy-and-paste capability.
Multitasking machining capabilities hold the promise of boosting productivity by combining milling and turning operations, but programming for the complex machines has presented significant hurdles for CAM suppliers. In addition to offering improved 3-D modeling, Esprit 2003 CAM software from DP Technology Inc. (Camarillo, CA) includes four product lines: SolidMill, SolidTurn, SolidMillTurn, and SolidWire. DP's latest release introduces SolidMillTurn, a new line that includes Traditional, Advanced, Production, FreeForm, and FreeForm five-axis levels for the programming of multifunction, multiaxis lathes; Swiss-style machines; and dedicated multiaxis machine tools.
"This gives users the ability to program anything up to complex five-axis milling on the same machine tool," says DP Technology vice president Chuck Mathews. "It gives synchronization, if they have multiple spindles, or the ability to use multiple cutting tools simultaneously. It also gives the user simulation, so they have a very high-quality simulation of machine movements, and the postprocessing.
"Multitasking systems seem to be a very healthy part of the market, in comparison to traditional vertical and horizontal machining centers," Mathews adds. " I think that has to do with the productivity those machines offer. We like to say that on a good multitasking machine, you can do what would traditionally take four different setups in two different machine tools. If you can do it on one setup on one machine, if that proves to be true for a given customer, it's a pretty big increase in productivity. It appears that manufacturers such as Mori Seiki and Mazak are succeeding in selling those machines, but they do have a challenge with the programming. With the Esprit 2003 SolidMillTurn package, we feel we've demonstrated a real competency in being able to properly program these machines."
NC simulation and verification tools such as Vericut software from CGTech Corp. (Irvine, CA) also enable productivity improvements for manufacturers by eliminating the need for manually proving out NC programs. With its latest release of Vericut Version 5.3, CGTech has added several new features, including a CNC Machine Probing capability that simulates the movements of machine tool probes.
"We added the ability to actually detect when the probe tip contacts something, stops there, and then feeds back the positions, and it also reports any collisions that might occur along the way," notes product manager Bill Hasenjaeger. "Our goal is to protect the investment people have in the actual probe and probe tips."
Another new feature is the OptiPath Learn Mode, which allows users to put Vericut into a learning mode that can automatically improve feed rates and spindle speed optimization. "We can put Vericut in a mode where we're doing the simulation and it's actually recording all the cutting conditions for a given tool. Based on the original programmed feed rate and spindle speed, which it uses as a baseline, it applies that and learns from the original NC program to make it better. In this way, the user can optimize the program and reduce the time without really being a cutting expert."
On the performance side, Vericut 5.3 also adds a much faster material removal algorithm. The fast-milling mode supports 'fixed-tool axis' material removal at any tool orientation around the workpiece. Aimed at customers with large NC programs, the feature shortens program prove-out and optimization time, according to Hasenjaeger.
"For people making massive NC programs, it's roughly anywhere from 5 to 20 times faster, depending on the conditions and situation, but it's orders of magnitude faster than standard Vericut," Hasenjaeger says. "It's designed for these large three-axis milling programs that have lots of little short motions typical of mold-and-die-type machining, and for people who don't really need or care to see the animation so much as they want to get to the end result of each cutter and be able to have Vericut catch the errors that occur."
Machine tool simulations from CGTech and from Delmia Corp. (Auburn Hills, MI) that simulate the kinematics of machine tools and factory cell layouts also are becoming more popular with machine builders. In conjunction with the recently released CATIA Version 5, Release 12 (V5R12) update from Dassault Systemes (Paris) and IBM Corp. (Armonk, NY), Dassault's subsidiary Delmia also released its Delmia V5R12 suite of software tools that includes new NC machining functionality allowing NC process planners to refine processes and machining simulations enterprise-wide.
"We are expanding our offerings with the machine tool builder, where we integrate that with the ability to do kinematics," notes Peter Schmitt, Delmia vice president, business development. "It's a new set of functionality we packaged and take a CATIA V5 model from a machine, and add our kinematics definition. The key advantage is it enables you to validate the systems very early in the cycle."
This article was first published in the January 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.