MCAD Tech News #149

20 Jul, 2005 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Cadalyst MCAD Tech News

The Right Choice

Finding the perfect CAM solution is essential if you want to stay competitive — here's how

In the United States, based on statistics from various sources, I estimate that manufacturing accounts for about 20% of our economy, more than 60% of our exports and probably more than half of our total research and development expenditures. These numbers are impressive, but are they enough to maintain our position as an innovator in manufacturing practices on the world stage? That's a debatable and critical question we must ask ourselves in today's increasingly competitive manufacturing environment.

All manufacturing companies are mindful that they must equip their workforces with tools for solving problems using innovative methods if they want to stay competitive. These same companies must constantly respond to regional and global trends in product demand and adjust their product-development processes accordingly. On top of all this, manufacturers must be aware of what's going on in the many links that comprise the supply chain, as well as overall business practices and the business climate, the state of education for attracting future workers and domestic and foreign government policies. This lengthy list just seems to get longer with time, further complicating an already intricate tangle of issues.

Overall spending appears to be rising for computer software, hardware and production machines in what many manufacturers believe will fulfill the promise of technology-induced gains in productivity and profitability.

The Role of CAM
One of those promising tools is CAM (computer-aided machining) software. The price/performance ratio of manufacturing technologies has improved dramatically in the past few years, just as has occurred with technologies in the wider corporate IT world. IT specific to manufacturing — CAM — has also followed that trend. At the same time, it has also battled misconceptions that it's too expensive, too difficult to learn and use and may not integrate well with existing systems and processes.

How do you cut through the confusion and find the right CAM solution? As is true for corporate hardware and software, for CAM you should know just as much about what factors not to consider as you should about what to consider when making purchasing decisions.

Which CAM Products to Evaluate?
Begin your search for the right CAM system by surveying the Internet to get an overview of CAM vendors and their offerings, attending trade shows, talking with other manufacturers and consulting with your professional organizations, such as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Narrow the field to those products geared to the type and volume of work you do and the type of machines you use.

I also recommend that you evaluate only CAM products that are used widely in both industry and education. Finding qualified programmers to code your machines will be easier because you'll have a larger pool of talent from which to draw. Some excellent products exist that have been developed by small companies or created for niche applications, but be doubly careful when deciding if one of them is really right for you.

How to Make a Purchasing Decision
So, on what do you base CAM purchasing and implementation decisions? Certainly not hype or emotion.

Is it adaptable? Realize that regardless of what a vendor says in its advertising and marketing literature or what a salesperson says to you in your office, there is no such thing as a CAM product that does everything for everybody. The ideal CAM system should be well-suited to both beginning and experienced users. It should guide new users, but streamline the process for experienced users.

Also, because no single CAM product fits all needs out-of-the-box, ensure that yours is expandable and scalable, so you can tailor it to your production machining practices and the types of parts you produce, even as those needs change — and they will. The vendor should be able to offer an upward migration path to respond to your growing requirements.

Does it work with your parts? During any demonstration, insist that you test your parts and machining processes on your machines using the CAM software you are evaluating. Any software can and probably will look like the ideal choice in the hands of an experienced application engineer using the parts he or she conveniently brought along for the demonstration. However, if the person conducting the demo hesitates to use your parts, or if the system encounters problems with them, you'll know right away that this probably isn't the system for you. Better to learn these lessons up front, before making a commitment you might regret later.

Be realistic. Don't be overly swayed by just the capabilities and features of the CAM tools you are evaluating — the sheer number will be daunting and may prompt a poor decision. It's easy to get overly optimistic when watching over the shoulder of an expert application engineer demonstrating a product and (often wrongly) believing that product will solve all your production problems. As difficult as it might be, take a step back so you can make a more rational decision about whether the CAM tool is right for you while avoiding possible buyer's remorse soon after the purchase.

Find the Perfect Match
As the manufacturing environment becomes increasingly competitive, finding the right tools to literally run the manufacturing machine becomes more complex — and more important — than ever. But it's not an impossible dream. With careful research, you will find CAM products that fulfill all your requirements, and the positive experience will lead to a much quicker and quantifiable ROI.