AlmaCAM nesting for laser cutting. Eric St. James of Paramount Machinery, who distributres AlmaCAM software in Canada, says if you have software that  manages parts files more efficiently, you'll save time and money right at the start of the process.Click image to enlargeby Nestor Gula

CAM software drives your machines–and your business

There’s a lot of new terminology creeping into the head offices and boardrooms of manufacturers: Industry 4.0; big data; cloud computing; the Industrial Internet of Things.

It’s clear we are in an information revolution and that is changing the way manufacturing will move forward.

“I was at a show in Hanover, Germany in November, recalls Martin Bailey, general manager at JetCam International. “There was a company selling Rover Arms and it had industry 4.0 compatible on the stand. I asked what does that mean in terms of your equipment?

The person at the company booth told Bailey that the robot arms work at about 700 millibars of pressure, but when they get to 600 millibars of pressure, the company is “notified about it and the first thing the customer hears is when we’re ringing them up to make an appointment to replace them. It’s all about trying to streamline processes, make things happen a bit more autonomously wherever possible.”

As automated machinery speeds up the workflow, manufacturers need efficient software that will control all the machines at once and give management a view of what is happening on the shop floor. “If you have software that manages part files more efficiently, you are going to start saving time right at the beginning of the manufacturing process,” says Eric St. James, president of Paramount Machinery Inc., who represents fabricating software provider AlmaCAM in Canada. “You can generate machine code faster because most CAM software has almost completely automated the process. You can import multiple CAD drawings and generate code with two or three clicks of the mouse. You’re gaining efficiency in the office by generating machine code faster and the code itself, in many cases, is going to be more intelligent. It will amass more parts into the same sheet and it will fully leverage all the machines’ features, giving you more efficiency on the shop floor as well.”

 An example of multi-sheet nesting using JetCam's nesting software. Click image to enlargeBut cutting, punching or bending parts is just part of what a robust CAD/CAM software package does. While on a simple level the operator will be able to enter the part number and the quantity, “a lot of other information can go into that, work order information, delivery information, routing information,” says Mike Boggs, sales manager at Striker Systems. “I’ve seen scenarios where companies have multiple programmers and as you watch them program most, of the time is spent not doing any nest calculation or observation or anything you would generally associate with programmer responsibility. It’s simply typing in part numbers and then adding quantity to it to then add into a nest one at a time. So, integration with an ERP/MRP system can automate that process and the nest jobs or the data is there and can be imported. The nest jobs are built automatically off of that.”

CAD drawings are an important part of manufacturing these days. Although most modern CAD/CAM software systems do have a CAD component they are mostly about the CAM part–driving the machines. “There are a lot of CAD packages. They generally export DXF files to a CAM software package like ours,” says Gary Hochstatter, general sales manager at Shop Data Systems Inc. “Once a manufacturer can import these DXF files into their CAM software, then a toolpath is applied along with lead ins and lead outs. The next step is to nest all of the parts in the job on a sheet of material so the machine can cut them out as efficiently and productively as possible.”

JetCam's simulator function in its software. JetCam's Martin Bailey says the aim of CAD/CAM software is about streamlining metal fabricating processes to create efficiencies.Click image to enlargeOne of the most prominent ways of creating efficiencies is making sure the machine is cutting parts out of sheets in the best possible way. Nesting components of CAM software will design a map of the parts that will make the most out of the machine’s time and the material to be used so there is less scrap and more work being done. “The whole idea of nesting or what we call dissimilar part nesting is to do just that,” says St. James. “The premise is you are going to cut as many parts as you need out of the same material and then move on to a different material and repeat the cycle. Advanced CAM software will now import, right from your MRP software, all the parts that you want to make for the day, sort them into the different material categories automatically, and then nest all the parts made from the same material into sheets. Again, this sequence of events can be largely automated. Then all you are doing is loading the proper material onto the machine and pressing start.”

All the drawings and parts that you have from your CAD software will be separated and ordered by the software into the most efficient cutting or punching solution. “Typically, the MRP software produces a CSV file; a spreadsheet with the pertinent information the CAM software needs to produce the part,” continues St. James. “That CSV file is imported directly into the CAM software, which breaks everything down by material along with the proper quantities and generates the appropriate code for the specific machine. Different nests can be programmed for different machines depending on the process required (i.e. laser, punching, plasma, etc.) because CAM software is often equipped with multiple post-processors. You can actually break down these nests by machine.”

There have been advances here as well, as nesting software is continuously evolving to get the most productivity from the machine and parts from a sheet. Bailey cites common line cutting as an example. “Rather than separating each component with a bit of skeleton, we use a single cut to separate them, saving material and getting more part from the sheet. We’ve got some example tests where components can
be cut up to about 50 to 60 per cent faster using this method.”

Gary Hochstatter, general sales manager with Shop Data Systems, says CAD drawings are an important part of manufacturing today. These different CAD packages general export DXF files to a CAM software package, like Shop Data System's CAM software. Click image to enlargeOne reason some manufacturers are reluctant to embrace new manufacturing software is the fear that implementing it will disrupt the harmony of the shop floor and force much large and unexpected upgrades in other parts of the manufacturing process. This is a legitimate concern for companies running legacy machinery or machinery from various OEMs.

“Legacy machines are not a problem,” says St. James. “If it has a CNC control you can program with software.”

Most manufacturers of laser cutters, punch presses or press brakes have developed their own systems to run their machines. “The only disadvantage to that is that the only thing that software is going to support is the equipment from that manufacturer. Independent software companies such as ourselves are going to be able to generate a program via post processor, machine driver for any of the various manufacturers that are out there,” says Boggs. “Some of the companies that we encounter do in fact run multiple product solutions just because that’s what, over time, they ended up acquiring. Where we come in is when they get to a point where they realize that’s not very cost effective and they want to consolidate that into a single solution.”

Keeping legacy software too long brings about a whole new set of issues however. Making sure your new software will run older machinery and vice versa is critical for companies to maintain a smooth workflow. “The biggest challenge with older software is ensuring that it is compatible with the latest operating systems and hardware,” says St. James. “I have spoken with customers who are running 15-year old CAM software on an old Windows 95 PC, for example. This software is generating production code for several machines and the entire operation is dependent on that one PC. By upgrading to a current version, you’re not only getting better software, but you can now run it on a better and faster PC with a better operating system that’s serviceable as well. In this day and age having a manufacturing operation dependent on an obsolete operating system and hardware is almost suicidal.” SMT

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