Today's CAM software offers manufacturers a wealth of new capabilities, but many CAM packages are often seen as expensive and difficult to use.
Some key software purchasing factors include not only thoroughly examining the CAM package's technical capabilities, but also weighing which program offers superior ease-of-use, support, or cost advantages. Manufacturing Engineering surveyed CAM software developers for their advice on what users should seek when buying CAM packages.
"With 20 years of experience delivering Mastercam software to shops worldwide, we've seen the CAM checklist change with the industry," notes Brian Summers, vice president of CNC Software Inc. (Tolland, CT), developer of Mastercam software. "However, there are a few constants that remain important in all CAM purchases and upgrades."
Test your own parts: Among Summers' recommendations, software should be checked by users with their own test parts; the software should be easily expandable; CAM packages should be open to all CAD packages; and CAM software should include superior support. To assist users evaluating new CAM systems, CNC Software has produced a booklet on the topic available at the company's Web site at www.mastercam.com.
"Test parts should be your parts and they should be made using your machining preferences," Summers says. "Make sure you see the software work with parts that are similar to your own, so you can get a feel for the capabilities and ease of the CAM software. Canned demos always look good. The real test is the important parts--your parts on your machines. That is the true test of how a product can add value to your shop.
"It's important that your software be able to grow and change with your shop," he adds. "If you add different or more complex types of machining, it's crucial that your software is ready to go."
CAM software also should be open to all CAD packages, Summers notes. "Your CAM package will need to accept native files from a wide variety of packages, in a wide variety of formats--solids, surfaces, wireframe, STL, and more. It's also a big help if your CAM software can model in these formats as well."
Superior support also plays a key role. "An often overlooked element of CAD/CAM selection is your software dealer," says Summers. "Dealers are often the key to the most successful CAD/CAM setups. They can help you get up to speed quickly, and are there to help when you run into a problem. Ask around about your local CAM dealer's support--it can be one of the most important elements of your decision."
Technical capabilities are a basic consideration for CAM software buyers. Among Summers' suggestions, look for true support for today's top-of-the-line machines including: true high-speed machining; automated feedrate optimization to save money, cut time, and reduce tool wear; and new "smart" toolpaths that can evaluate a part and generate multiple-strategy approaches for a single pass.
"Other buying decisions can definitely include ease-of-use and cost," he says. "Ease-of-use can be essential, and as mentioned before, the best way to test a system's true ease-of-use is to see an example of work similar to your own. Although cost is clearly a consideration, value is perhaps a better consideration. What are you getting for the money? Will it fill your needs now and in the future? Does the maintenance program deliver value to your shop?"
Another element frequently considered is finding experienced programmers. "If a CAM system is widespread or used heavily in the educational system," Summers notes, "it can be much easier to find qualified programmers ready to start cutting chips."
Comparing CAM features is the wrong place for a CAM buyer to start, notes Bill Gibbs, president of Gibbs and Associates (Moorpark, CA). "They get us too focused on small specific things, and distract us from important issues," Gibbs says. "The important issues are big and easy to understand. I usually wrap them all into a single question: How well will my people be able to program my parts on my machines? You just can't go wrong looking for the best solution in these three areas."
Regarding 'my people,' Gibbs asks: "Who will be programming? Sometimes the programmer is a design engineer, a machinist, an operator, an experienced CNC programmer, an experienced CAM programmer, or a manufacturing engineer. What is their level of education and experience? What computer software are they already skilled at, if any? Who will be primary (full time) users and who will be secondary (infrequent) users? What is your turnover rate? All these factors should be part of your decision.
"A machinist will have a harder time learning an 'expert-friendly' CAM system intended for college graduate CAD computer geeks than he will a system intending machinists as its primary user," Gibbs notes. "You can always try a CAM system yourself, with assistance from the CAM salesman/demo jock. Program a simple part. Test drive it. See how it feels. Does it make sense? Are you lost in menus behind menus? Typing your fingers off? These last two are not good signs.
"It takes more than pretty screen graphics and Windows compatibility to make an easy-to-learn and easy-to-use CAM system," Gibbs states. "You can easily spend more money learning a CAM system than it costs. Remember your time has value. You can spend this much again on every employee you train, on every new hire, and hard-to-use CAM systems take longer to program parts, so you lose money on every job. In the first year these costs can be 10x the software purchase price. It's a very big issue. 'Expensive good' software can be cheaper than poor 'free' software."
Your mileage may vary. "Everybody doesn't make the same parts, and you don't make the same parts all the time," " Gibbs says. "You have parts that are typical of your bread-and-butter work. You have other parts that, while less frequent, are your hard parts to program. You need a CAM system that is absolutely the best at your daily type of parts, and very good on your hard ones. I give the edge to your regular parts only because you will spend so much more time working on them. You can also give more value to a CAM system that is good at parts you think you'd like to do in the future. Be careful, as you aren't expert on these parts yet. You only need the CAM features you are going to use.
"Buying features for other classes of parts may be a waste. Any advertised feature may be valuable, or a total piece of junk. The best approach is to test a CAM system on your own parts. When a CAM system has the features needed by your part, the programming time will be less, the program created will be more efficient. You know what a good part looks like and how long it should take to cut. Evaluating these issues makes sense to me--yes/no questions to buzzword features taught to you by CAM salesmen doesn't.
Regarding machines, Gibbs notes "your parts are probably parts that can be machined on your machines, otherwise you have problems more severe than CAM selection problems. Machine types are easy; three - five axis horizontal and vertical mills, two-to-four axis lathes and mill-turns, and multiaxis multitask machines (MTM) machines. CAM systems either will or won't support your machine types.
"Quality of postprocessors is an important issue," says Gibbs. "Are you buying a turnkey CAM solution, or are you planning to do your own posts? The latter choice is not a favorite of mine. I want to cut chips and make good parts, not learn how to customize postprocessors. I want the problems to be an expert's, not mine. Your posted output should look good, be compact and efficient, use your control's capabilities well, and should not require manual editing to run. You should not have to update your postprocessors when a new CAM version comes along.
"In addition to all of the above, look for a good company, with a good reputation, happy customers, good tech support, training services, and a program for future software updates."
Tailoring CAM to shop needs is a primary goal for anyone evaluating new systems. "In today's market, there are a myriad of options available to CAD/CAM users," says W. Thomas McCollough, Jr., vice president of software development for Engineering Geometry Systems (EGS), developer of FeatureCAM software. "The most critical thing to keep in mind when shopping for a CAD/CAM system is to define your individual needs. There is no 'one-size-fits-all' package, but if you can identify your shop's specific requirements, selecting the best solution for you is much easier."
When determining a CAM system's capabilities, those that are originally developed under Windows can best provide critical ease-of-use functions, such as cut-and-paste, drag-and-drop, right-click menus, icons, and wizards, McCollough notes. Other things to look for include flexible programming options, he says.
"Look for a CAD/CAM system that is easy to use for both beginners and experienced programmers," McCollough notes. "Programs should walk beginners through part creation and offer suggestions. The software should also allow experienced users to skip steps and program even quicker. It's also very valuable to have a program with a part library that remembers what you've done in the past. The current part then only needs to resemble a previous part and the program remembers the rest."
Postprocessing capabilities are a must, as CAD/CAM systems are useless if they can't post to the machines you are using, he adds. "Look for a system with postprocessors included with the software, and the ability to create new postprocessor and modify existing ones."
CAM systems also should allow users to customize the software to fit the types of parts they are designing and manufacturing. "Companies need to be able to define their own sets of features along with specialized machining processes so they can improve the productivity of their shop," McCollough notes. "CAM systems typically provide a selection of standard features, but many companies specialize in a specific product that has its own set of standard shapes. In those cases, it's easier for the company to create their own user-defined features and add them to the set of standard shapes already provided by the CAM system.
"User-defined features can be used to define virtually any 3-D shape, with the only limitation being your imagination. Unlike static shapes saved in a library, user-defined features are created dynamically by allowing the user to enter the dimensions they want to use to create a unique shape. It's up to the person defining the custom features to decide which dimensions are locked, and which dimensions can be input by the user."
Defining objectives before buying new software is key in evaluating CAM systems, says Chuck Mathews, vice president of DP Technology Corp. (Camarillo, CA). "We recommend that buyers start with a clear definition of the scope and objectives for their CAM purchase," says Mathews. "When they clarify what they are trying to accomplish, it becomes easier for manufacturers to evaluate their alternatives and ultimately measure their success.
"Measure individual CAM products for suitability and productivity," he adds. "Is the CAM system able to do the job out-of-the-box? What requirements are needed to attain this level of productivity, such as operator/programmer skill levels, training needs, etc.?"
Mathews sees four important feature sets for any CAM software. Among these, users need geometry to verify the part geometry in common usage that can be easily read/created in the CAM system. Another is machining processes, where users must know whether the toolpath patterns and axis control needs of the manufacturer or application are available within the system. Regarding postprocessors, Mathews says users should know if the postprocessors available with the system can support the user's machine tools and required G-code formats. With regard to simulation and verification, he says the system needs to provide performance that accurately represents the configuration of machines to assure accurate computer-based dry-runs and program prove-outs.
"Avoid buyer's remorse by investing enough time to make an informed decision," Mathews suggests. "Limit the detailed evaluation to a maximum of three products; this is especially important for more-demanding applications. Fully evaluate the estimated return on the investment as you take into consideration how the CAM system can be the throttle body for the entire shop. Open your mind to change and avoid being average by choosing a product because it feels safe."
This article was first published in the December 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.