Metal fabricators profit by design

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For job shops, design software has come a long way, with Computer Aided Design (CAD) applications increasingly well-integrated with Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM). As the technological capabilities extend to include business-centric functionality such as pricing, so too has the technology moved to embrace the particularities of various processes, including sheet metal fabrication.

“We are seeing the integration of CAD/CAM in virtually all machine shops,” says Craig Therrien, Product Manager at Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks in Concord, MA. “For SolidWorks, we have seven fully-integrated  CAM applications that run inside it. So, if you make a change to your part design, the CAM program can update automatically. This is good for job and sheet metal shops.”

In fact, sheet metal is a crucial part of SolidWorks business, with the company coming out with new features that are reflecting three trends: the need to use native language; the need to address the requirements of designers and manufacturers; and the need to integrate costs.

“Sheet metal is huge for us,” says Therrien. “Our software uses the terms that sheet metal workers understand; and it is intended to work with both designers and manufacturers.”

But it is SolidWorks’ automatic estimating and quoting functionality for sheet metal fabricators that Therrien is most excited about.

SigmaNEST’s CAD/CAM software for tube cutting.

“We visit customers all the time,” he says. “We survey them and ask them: What do you need? The number one thing they told us was that they needed to trend the cost of their designs. It can perform, but it also has to hit a target cost.”

The result, after two years of research, was a software advance that now allows for parts to be automatically costed as they are being designed.

“We have three types of customers – pure manufacturers, pure designers, and those who do both – and this is designed for all of them,” says Therrien. “If you are a manufacturer you already know your costs; the materials are all defined. But the problem has been that it takes longer to quote than to slap a design on the machine.”

What has surprised Therrien is the degree of trust and cooperation among designers and manufacturers. By working together designs can be built to pre-costed specifications, which reduces the risk on both sides.

“The external vendors want a good relationship with the designers,” says Therrien. “As a result, they’re willing to build custom templates for their designers. Now, with automatic quoting costs can be adjusted. After all, the manufacturer wants the designer to stay in business.”

Therrien says that SolidWorks can bring in whole processes from other CAD systems, which can then be automatically converted into a SolidWorks sheet metal part. The time savings can be impressive.

“The whole process of delivering quotes has gone from up to five hours a day to forty minutes. Now a person can be freed to call customers or to get on the floor and fix problems. It represents a significant increase in productivity. And there are no errors – the program does not make mistakes.”

The features war heats up

One challenge for sheet metal fabricators is the dizzying array of features now available among today’s software leaders. Many of these are for tasks that may not come into play in a smaller job shop, yet are now standard fare. The trade-off between ease-of-use and power has always been an issue with software vendors, and remains so to this day.

“Walking a user through the machining process, synchronizing operations and proving out programs before they get to the shop floor are all important factors,” says Bill Gibbs, President and Founder of Gibbs and Associates, the California-based maker of the GibbsCAM application.

So is understanding to what extent you want – or need – to engage more complex tasks such as multi-axis machining, which are not in play for many fabricators, but which are nonetheless often part of the overall manufacturing process. Having design visibility can deliver significant time-savings and error-reduction, with powerful CAM systems necessary to take full advantage of the latest advances, much of which now include machine simulation to support accurate, high-speed environments.

“The ability to remove more material faster, while maximizing tool life and part finish are all important to customers,” says Robb Weinstein, senior vice president of Sales and Strategic Planning at Gibbs and Associates.

To help ensure this, GibbsCAM has a plug-in for Spring Technologies’ NCSIMUL application, which assists programmers with NC program analysis and verification, and provides machine-tool simulation with error and gouge detection. One could argue that this is well beyond what is required for a sheet metal application, but user-defined machine-tool models are required here, too. In fact, anything that gives the user more visibility, speed, and power is desirable. Mastercam, which brands itself as the most widely used CAM software worldwide, is well aware of this.

“Mastercam also has built-in machine simulation which uses the programmed tool paths to demonstrate the motion of the tool and part on a model of the customer’s machine,” says Kelly McCormick, controller at In-House Solutions, a Mastercam reseller with headquarters in Cambridge, ON.  “Blade Expert is a new tool path that has been added to Mastercam specifically to aid users in the machining of multi-blade parts. As a result, the time needed to create the necessary tool paths for this style of part is drastically reduced.”

The logic is simple enough. If there are symmetrical tool paths, as is often the case with sheet metal, generation time can be reduced as paths performed on a single blade can be copied and applied to the other blades on the part. As well, in sheet metal applications “live” geometries also have relevance.

“A live geometry is one that can be edited or modified at any time,” says McCormick. “If this geometry is modified, tool paths that are referencing the modified paths can be regenerated to account for the changes to the geometry without having to reselect any of the geometry.”

The bigger picture

Advanced CAD/CAM software can allow product engineers to fully evaluate a design’s performance before ever building a physical prototype. Simulations can be done on large assemblies, as well as on smaller components to focus on critical areas. But getting the financials right, and having the data flow into larger manufacturing solutions, is also key. This is where integration with a larger solution can help.

“Genius Solutions develops manufacturing management software designed for small to medium-size enterprises,” says Julie Bouffard, marketing coordinator at the Montreal company. “It is also an integrated solution for the CAD program SolidWorks, bringing the essentials of Genius Manufacturing to designers and drafters.”

Specifically, the software module is called GeniusWorks, which integrates the essentials of the company’s flagship program, Genius Manufacturing, to allow designers to share SolidWorks items and bills of material.

“We specialize in Make to Order (MTO) and Engineer to Order (ETO),” says Bouffard.  “No special skill is required; you just need to get some training.”

The result is significant time savings with few – if any – mistakes due to duplicate data entry. The software can also access inventory and transaction histories, link production drawings to work orders, and track the hours spent on design and R&D projects. But to get the most value you have to be willing to take some – but not a lot – of time to get your people up to speed.

“Genius software is quick to set up and easy to use,” says Bouffard.  “We offer a complete package:  we develop, we do the implementation, we support, and we have classroom training to help our customers improve.”

Aside from the Genius Manufacturing solution to optimize operations the company, which is a Microsoft Gold Partner, the company also has Genius Productivity, which establishes standard times for processes and then measures for productivity improvements – or delays.

Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks 

In-House Solutions 



Top image: Lantek Systems 

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