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MCAD Tech News #88 (Jan. 16, 2003)

16 Jan, 2003 By: Joe Greco


A Bit of Mid-Range History

In the mid-1990s, the introduction of SolidWorks from SolidWorks Corp. and Solid Edge from EDS represented a major price drop in feature-based MCAD applications. The initial idea was to offer about 80 percent of the functionality of the higher-cost MCAD programs, such as Pro/ENGINEER and CATIA, at about 20 percent of the price. Their success was the beginning of a new genre of MCAD software called mid-range. This was not the first time something like this had occurred, as AutoCAD and other programs did the same thing in the 2D CAD market about a decade earlier. And it wasn't the last time either, as these mid-range products are themselves now finding the developers of lower-cost MCAD applications such as Alibre, INOVATE, and ParaLogix giving the same 80-for-20 proposal to potential customers.

Why Not Mid-Range CAM?

If this has always seemed to be a trend in CAD, why hasn't this also happened in the Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) market? The entry cost for 3-axis machining has been in the $12,000 to $18,000 range for the last decade or so.

There have been exceptions to this, namely BobCAD/CAM and IMService. Over the past dozen years or so, BobCAD/CAM (http://www.bobcadcam.com) has offered CAM for under $1,000. The company is currently offering Version 18, which brings 3-axis machining to the user for $895. IMService (http://www.imsrv.com) sells a plethora of CAM software. Its highest priced package is called Vector|32 for $795, although the company also sells Vector 3D for $1,595, which is basically the same package with surface modeling. IMService also offers STLWork 2 for $395. This package creates 3D toolpaths from solid models in a variety of formats, including STL, obviously. For $300, users can purchase DeskCNC, a product for creating and simulating CNC programs used for pocketing, drilling, contouring, and 3D-surface machining. It can also scan images and use them for engraving, and it includes a configurable post processor. Until recently, however, these companies have stood alone. Over the last few months a slew of low-cost CAM products have come to fruition, some from well-known and respected companies.

IMSI

A few months ago, IMSI, the developer of the low-cost CAD and design software TurboCAD, introduced TurboCADCAM for $995. It delivers 2D CNC programming capabilities for milling, drilling, tapping, reaming, boring, engraving, and pocketing. But it does not have turning capabilities. The software employs a Wizard-style user interface in order to generate the standard G-Code needed for the desired controller, and there are tools to edit this code, if necessary. TurboCADCAM also includes translators for reading in a variety of 2D and 3D CAD formats, including DWG, IGES, and STL. Recently I downloaded a trial copy and found that the user interface was similar to other IMSI products--a bit cluttered and unorganized, but workable. The tutorials were helpful and are included with the software. Go to http://www.turbocad.com for more information or to obtain the 30-day demo version.

Roland DGA

Another well-known vendor is also the author of a pair of low-cost CAM products. Roland DGA Corp. has ProMill 3-Axis and ProMill 4-Axis at $1,499 and $2,999 respectively. The 3-Axis package, which was actually introduced in 2001, includes horizontal roughing and finishing as well as parallel finishing and standard drilling operations. In June of 2002, the company announced that for, an extra $1,500, users could perform 4-axis continuous machining, parallel finishing, engraving, simulation, and toolpath animation with the new 4-Axis program. Both applications include basic translators for importing common formats such as STL, AutoCAD, and VRML, but only the 4-Axis package has a pair of $500 options for advanced interoperability. The first gives the user IGES and VDA-FS capabilities, while the second add-on handles Parasolid as well as native SolidWorks and Solid Edge files. Both ProMill 3-Axis and ProMill 4-Axis also handle 2D functions such as profiles, pocketing, and engraving while offering an extended set of tools to choose from, such as end and corner mills. Finally, both programs can also generate tool list information and machining-operations reports. More data is available at http://www.rolanddga.com.

MecSoft Corp.

Another company not quite as well known as IMSI or Roland DGA is MecSoft, but its powerful low-cost CAM package VisualMill 4.0 could soon make this developer a household name in the CAD/CAM world. This product sold in 1999 at a cost of $3,495, but was recently reduced to only $995 for a trial period. At the same time, the previous 3.0 version was made available as a free download. Currently both versions handle drilling, roughing, finishing, and 2- and 3- axis milling--with Version 4.0 adding 4-axis capabilities. It also adds file import options that go beyond 3.0's STL only, as IGES, Rhino, DXF, DWG, VRML, RAW, and Point Cloud files can be used. Both products contain a custom G-code generator that enables users to create their own post processors tailored to any controller. MecSoft will soon be announcing extra cost modules for reading Parasolid files as well as native parts from SolidWorks and Solid Edge.

By the end of January 2003, the cost of 4.0 will go up to $2,000. Even with the new price and upcoming optional modules for 5-axis milling and turning, the Vice President of Worldwide Sales & Marketing, Greg Haywood, doesn't see the entire bundle ever selling for more than $4,000. The key, says Haywood, is extremely low overhead, combined with high sales volume, which allows the company to be profitable.

Despite the price, Haywood feels that VisualMill 3-axis machining is superior to higher-cost products because it was designed with 3-axis in mind. Also, there are 4-axis features not found in products such as ProCAM from TekSoft, which costs around $12,000. As far as defending his software against other low-cost CAM alternatives, he says, "don't take my word that we are better--look at what the developers of Rhino, Alibre, and INOVATE have chosen for a CAM solution partner to complement their low-cost CAD products." In addition, he feels that users will also save time and money because the software requires almost no training. To test this, I loaded VisualMill 4.0 and imported an IGES file. Within a few minutes, I was able to add a piece of stock material, pick a tool, and run a milling simulation, without referring to the help file--very impressive. For more information, go to http://www.mecsoft.com.

TahlCAM

Almost 10 years ago the principals at an engineering firm in Tucson, AZ called Tahl Inc. decided that, in order to get a good CAM program for the AutoCAD software they were using, they would have to develop it themselves. The result was TahlCAM, a 2D CAM application that has been used in-house since 1995, and recently the company decided to start selling it through http://www.cadopolis.com/index.asp for $499.

I loaded it into AutoCAD 2002 last week and found it to be fairly easy to use. The user interface pretty much follows AutoCAD standards. And, with a little phone help from developer Jim Short, I was able to run some fairly complex toolpath simulations. The software uses the concept of clipboards with each one containing 10 lines of NC programming information. Users essentially create the programs by simply selecting standard commands that are placed into these lines, and typically one line is used to control one tool. Individual lines can be turned off if not needed in order to verify a separate portion of the toolpath.

In addition to milling, the software also does drilling, and one of its most impressive features is the nine possible ways to set up a drilling sequence. I also like how fast it changes the depth of a pocket as well as how the on-screen animation shows the tool moving in a true path with offset. While there is no turning, the ability to create ISO-standard G-code programs is powerful. Developer Short feels that users will find the concept of using AutoCAD to create toolpaths attractive, especially for the price. Check out the developing Tahl Inc. Web site at http://www.tahlcam.com for more data.

Conclusions

Simple, powerful CAM software doesn't have to cost $12,000. New products from reputable companies are offering solutions for a fraction of that price. Almost all have free trial downloads, so if you have been thinking about purchasing CAM software, your waiting has paid off.

Relevant Links

BobCAD/CAM: http://www.bobcadcam.com

IMService and Vector|32: http://www.imsrv.com

IMSI and TurboCADCAM: http://www.turbocad.com

Roland DGA Corp. and ProMill 3-Axis/ProMill 4-Axis: http://www.rolanddga.com

MecSoft and VisualMill 4.0: http://www.mecsoft.com

Tahl Inc. and TahlCAM: http://www.tahlcam.com

TahlCAM on cadopolis: http://www.cadopolis.com/prodTahlCAM.asp?TheCategory=CatNone&TheSubcategory=SubNone&TheKeywords=


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