Modular Mavens

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by Kip Hanson

Software solution providers bring choice and flexibility to the CAD/CAM market

When buying a new car, people can select the paint colour, engine size, and whether their future grocery getter has a whiz-bang stereo and mag wheels. Why should buying CAD/CAM software be any different? Machine shops come in all sizes, each with their own unique needs and skill levels; no shop owner or department head wants to buy a CAM package capable of five axis machining and multitasking when all that’s required are basic toolpaths for a three axis mill. The good news is that, thanks to the majority of software providers today, there’s no reason to buy more than you need, but understanding how these companies package and sell their wares can help you avoid costly changes later on.

A 3D view
3D Systems Inc. is one such company, offering an array of design and manufacturing tools that includes GibbsCAM for production machining. Product manager Daniel Remenak says those shopping for CAM software should look for an integrated system, one that has been developed as a single, comprehensive package but allows different portions of the software to be activated according to the customer’s needs.

For example, a shop with a handful of vertical machining centres might start with a 3D milling license, but decide six months later to invest in a pair of horizontal machining centres and linear pallet system. In this case, the shop’s programmer would need the ability to layout a range of parts and programs across multiple tombstone faces. Remenak says this is an easy fix. “Just call your distributor and say, ‘hey, I have a new machine, with these new capabilities. I’d like to buy whatever modules are needed and maybe arrange for some training.’ The distributor would write up an order, send it to 3D Systems, and then we’d send the customer an email with instructions on how to update the license using our online tool. It’s a pretty simple process.”

Surfacing, five axis, high speed milling, and similar functionality is often an add-on with some CAM packages.  Image: In-House SolutionsLike the other contributors to this article, GibbsCAM and 3D Systems offer a variety of software options as well as complementary software packages. Customers might choose to purchase a mechanical design package, for instance, augmenting and in some cases replacing CAM package functionality. It’s also quite common to purchase two and a half axis machining and add modules later on for high speed milling, multi-tasking, blade and blisk machining, and others, including “non-chipmaking” capabilities like EDM or machine simulation. Remenak says that as each of these functions come online, existing programs are unaffected, except that additional post processing might be needed if moving a program to a new machine tool, or to take advantage of new software options.

Beyond the box
CAM Solutions Inc. is the GibbsCAM distributor for Ontario and Quebec. Director Al Martins agrees this ala carte approach is advantageous, but tells potential customers the modularity of any CAD/CAM system, i.e., “what comes in the box,” is secondary to designing a complete software solution. “It’s important to gather up all of the shop’s requirements when doing the initial assessment,” he says. “You should understand the entire manufacturing flow, including integration points with auxiliary processes such as inspection, product design, data collection and so on. It can’t just be about what parts they’re making now or expect to make tomorrow. You need to offer a solution that comes as close to the company’s dream situation as possible.”

Renishaw's QuantAM software slices the model prior to printing each individual layer in the additive manufacturing process.This isn’t always easy. Martins points to the “fluid state of machine tools” as an example of why CAM selection can be problematic, regardless of how many modules are offered by the software provider. “Everything is changing. When I started in the shop, paper tape was still being used and data transfer rates of 110 baud were exciting,” he says. “Machines were either mills or lathes. Today they’re everything but that, especially in Western countries, where five axis machining centres and lathes with nine or more axes are becoming commonplace. That’s where the CAM situation gets really complicated. Shops don’t know what they’re going to be buying a few years from now, which is why it’s so important that whatever software they purchase can accommodate a wide range of machine configurations.”

Turning a 360
Machine tools aren’t the only thing that’s complex. With more and more software providers moving to Cloud and subscription-based offerings, how CAD/CAM is deployed becomes another important distinction. One prime example of this is Autodesk Inc., whose Fusion 360 lets users work from a desktop or mobile device, collaborate on models and share them across the web, create three axis toolpaths or send files to a 3D printer, all for about $300 to $1,500 US per year.

Al Whatmough, CAM product manager at Autodesk, says there’s little “modularity” to his product: customers choose from standard or ultimate. The difference between the two is that ultimate offers advanced simulation and analysis, as well as five axis simultaneous machining (and costs more). It does not support super complex mill-turn centres or Swiss-style lathes (yet). But even the standard version provides high end CAD features such as freeform sculpting and parametric modeling, at a price point that inventors and manufacturers alike find easy to swallow (and is free to students and hobbyists). “The subscription based software model is obviously a radical departure from tradition,” says Whatmough. “There’s no big upfront cost or annual maintenance like there is with other CAD/CAM packages. It’s a pay as you go approach that many customers enjoy. And since it’s in the Cloud, there’s no need for heavy investment in IT infrastructure. It’s admittedly not for everyone, but it does provide excellent functionality with a very low entry barrier.”

Embracing SaaS
For those desiring a more traditional CAD/CAM experience, Whatmough suggests Autodesk’s PowerMill product as an alternative (some might know it as Delcam). Mark Forth, industry strategy and business development manager at Autodesk Ltd., who is based in Farnborough, UK, says PowerMill was once packaged along the lines of industry verticals such as aerospace, mould and die, and others, but has since been simplified into a “good, better and best” approach, eliminating the need to decide between “a bunch of individual modules.”

Modern CAD/CAM software integrates with other shop floor software systems, increasing efficiency in the programming office and reducing the chance for errors.  IMAGE: 3D SystemsFor example, PowerMill Standard (what Forth describes as “good”) meets the majority of machine shops’ needs today, with 3+2 machining, 2.5D and turning, machine simulation, and high speed three axis milling. On the other end of the spectrum sits PowerMill Ultimate (the “best”), which supports blade and blisk machining, ports and manifolds, and similar industry-specific toolpath generation. As with other Autodesk products, a subscription based (aka “software as a service,” or SaaS) model is the preferred offering, although Forth says perpetual licenses will continue to be supported for the foreseeable future.

“The beauty of a SaaS model is its significantly lower total cost of ownership. Maintenance is likewise much easier, with regular updates being pushed out automatically. Users can also subscribe temporarily to a more advanced package based on what’s needed for a specific job and then ‘downgrade’ later if they like. Some customers find it quite liberating in terms of support and overall investment.”

Modular or no, the purpose of any CAM system is to produce accurate and efficient toolpaths.  Image: AutodeskTaking control
Jon House is president of In-House Solutions Inc., Cambridge, ON, the exclusive distributor of Mastercam distributor throughout Canada. As with most software providers, In-House offers a range of manufacturing solutions, including robot programming and simulation, 3D measurement, and DNC software. To House, modular means the customer has complete control over what functionality they buy. “Software is complex,” he says. “The reality throughout the industry is that each shop is different, and they shouldn’t be made to pay for modules they don’t need. That’s why some of our customers use only the design module, while others have everything from mill-turn and Swiss to routing, nesting, surfacing…it comes down to whatever they need to get the job done.”

House recommends that shops do their homework before investing in any product. Training needs—both now and in the future—should be considered carefully. Taking a modular, one bite at a time approach to CAD/CAM is advantageous in this regard, as users can leverage what they already know when moving to new modules. Post-processing is another consideration. Adding functionality to a CAD/CAM system is generally triggered by the purchase of a new machine, so users should be prepared to buy or build a new postprocessor when adding on five axis milling, for example.

“We hope that all of our customers grow over time,” House says. “That’s why a modular CAD/CAM approach makes so much sense. They might start with a simple mill platform and then, as new customers and new kinds of work and machine tools come along, upgrade at any time to whatever complexity is needed in their software. This saves them money up front without limiting them later on. It’s the best of both worlds.” SMT

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