The Next Chapter for CAM

2 Aug, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

As CAM matures, it is becoming easier to use -- and profitable

I’ve witnessed many changes in the manufacturing market, and one of the most significant ways that it has changed and continues to change is in how it's influenced by technology and CAM (computer-aided manufacturing). Unlike CAD, where prices have dropped relative to functionality, to a large extent CAM has not enjoyed the same situation. Historically, CAM has had a high initial cost, high maintenance fees and a high learning curve. Add to that high salaries for those who've run these systems. These are all major hurdles that hindered wider acceptance of CAM -- the same obstacles that CAD overcame more quickly.

One recent development that has opened up more options for CAM is multitasking of both people and machines.


As manufacturers have cut back on staff, there are fewer machine specialists, such as lead programmers and technical experts. These specialists have largely been replaced by people who are required to multitask by programming and running machines. Likewise, the advent of MTMs (multitasking machines) with multispindle and multiturret configurations have replaced many conventional single-process machines. MTMs are a growing segment of the machine tool market because of their multiprocessing ability that reduces overall manufacturing times, as well as the ability to machine complete parts with little or no human intervention.

Of course, multitasking, either by people or machines, wouldn't be possible without CAM's advances in ease of use, CAD/CAM associativity, data interoperability, internal multiprocessing capabilities and lower costs.

Like manufacturers themselves, CAM vendors must deal with the fact that traditional single-process machining is being replaced by MTMs. Unlike single-process machines, such as mill, drill and lathe, which just a few years ago that could be programmed by hand, today’s MTMs require CAM software that can exploit everything that the machines can do. This has demanded that CAM software keep pace with MTMs. This is a delicate balance, though -- keeping human tasks as simple as possible while maximizing the capabilities of the machines to handle complex processes and resulting parts. As MTMs continue to evolve, requiring fewer setups and performing more processes, a huge burden falls on CAM to keep pace, while at the same time making the programmer/operator’s job easier -- a very tall order.

More Friendly = More Success

Increasingly, CAM vendors realize that with today’s economy and the fact that manufacturing companies must squeeze the most productivity possible out of their employees as well as their machines, ease of learning and ease of use have come to the forefront. CAM products have become friendlier and more intelligent (with capabilities such as automatic feature recognition) with more integrated machining knowledge that adapts to common tasks. User-friendly CAM products also let casual users (those who work less than 20 hours per week and those who have large time periods between CAM sessions) become more productive more quickly.

One of the most significant advances in CAM usability has been in the area of programming automation. Many CAM systems now provide specialized, user-friendly interfaces as well as automated tools for quickly building macros and integrated manufacturing process and tooling knowledge bases that really expedite work for the nonspecialist machine programmer.

The Language of Manufacturing

3D manufacturing has become more of a reality in the past few years thanks to improved data interoperability and CAD/CAM process associativity. Although far from perfect, ISO standards such as STEP attempt to provide a common ground for 3D models. The ultimate benefit of STEP, or any neutral format for that matter, is to provide a data format that contains rich 3D data that prevents mistakes in the manufacturing process. In other words, better data (along with better CAM) can permit less-experienced machinists to perform at higher levels with better results.

As with data interoperability, time and experience have improved the historical disconnection between CAD, CAM and their respective practitioners. Associativity connects everything, and has improved to a large extent because CAD vendors have allowed third-party CAM developers better access to and understanding of the data structures contained in 3D models. A vital part of associativity is the ability for toolpaths to be associative to model geometry, so they both update as the 3D model changes. This interoperability is a beginning stage of an open source mindset. How far this mindset will go is debatable, although I don't think it will too far because most vendors are extremely protective of the design data they create.

More Spendy?

Finally, there is the issue of the cost of CAM applications relative to other technical software, such as CAD, CAE and PLM. It’s true that CAM may be more expensive than other types of technical software, but it handles geometry as well as physical processes and sequences in the context of time -- something that most other software does not have to concern itself with -- and these are a complex issues. Today, CAM software is well-priced for what it can do and who can use it, even compared to a few years ago.

Dreams Become Reality

All CAM vendors are attempting to do what just a few years ago was deemed by many to be nearly impossible -- create software that could handle more complex machining tasks, while being easier to use as well as more affordable. I’m happy to report that this dream is becoming more of a reality all the time, and will only continue to improve.

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