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Getting More From CAM and CNC Software

March 25, 2008
Space Explorer Space Traveler Space Pilot The single, most costeffective productivity improvement tool available to machine shops today is CNC-related software. Software makes hardware happen. A CNC mill or lathe is ...
Space Explorer
Space Traveler
Space Pilot

The single, most costeffective productivity improvement tool available to machine shops today is CNC-related software. Software makes hardware happen.

A CNC mill or lathe is just a pile of metal and wires until the g-code – the software – begins to drive it. Therefore, any improvement in the software that runs a machine will have a direct improvement in the productivity of that machine.

But what is a software ‘improvement’?

If a change to a CNC program reduces the amount of time it takes to machine a part while maintaining the same quality, then that is a software improvement.

If a software change improves machining quality without taking longer to produce the part then that too is a software improvement.

Being able to develop software that will machine more complex parts is an improvement.

And, being able to develop reliable software more quickly is an improvement.

The question is: What does it take to achieve those kinds of improvements?

The answer is: Better software tools and programmer training.

According to the 2007 American Machinist Benchmarking Survey, 80 percent of the leading machine shops use Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software, while only 62 percent of all other shops do.

Those numbers tell us two interesting facts:

The first is that it may be possible to run a leading machine shop without using a CAM software package. A full 20 percent of the leading shops indicated that they do not use CAM software.

The second is that leading shops are almost 20 percent more likely to use a CAM package.

The CAM software that is best for any given shop depends on the type of machining the shop does and the programming resources that are available to it.

Shops that are doing mold and die work are likely to use CAM packages that are solids oriented, single solution, core/cavity optimized and emphasize automated plate machining.

Shops that do general production usually have general and advanced requirements that include solids integration and general automation.

Choosing the right package takes time and experience, but one thing is true for all CAM packages —the highest productivity comes from using the most current release.

The CAM software market is vibrant and active, and has more than 15 major developers who are actively competing for a finite number of “seats” (copies of the software).

These companies are improving their products continuously to remain, or to become more competitive. In addition to having a large staff of program developers, they also have access to the experience of their existing customers, and a look at what their competitors are doing.

The result is a steady flow of rapidly improving software, and while no one likes to spend time learning the twists and turns of a new release, the time spent on such learning inevitably has a good payback.

In addition to staying current with the latest release of whatever CAM package is being used, getting on-going training for programmers also has a high return.

Here again, the 2007 American Machinist Benchmarking Survey numbers tell us that more than 60 percent of the leading shops give their employees more than 20 hours of training per year while other shops give less than half that much. CNC machining is a constantly evolving process. As the capabilities of machines and tooling improves, the software that drives them also needs to improve to get the maximum benefits from them. CAM developers have the time and motivation to rethink the way machining is done, the way tool paths are generated to maximize machine productivity. Keeping shop programmers up-to-speed on these changes and developments is critical to achieving top performance.

In addition to the training provided by the CAM developers, other organizations such as Tooling U ( and I Get It ( provide training courses. Never assume a shop’s programmers are as good as they can be, because even the best can have a hard time keeping up with all the latest developments in this fastchanging field.

Another area that is seeing significant productivity improvements is the integration of CAM software with various Computer Aided Design (CAD) software packages.

Several of the most popular CAM packages now are accessible from inside several of the most popular CAD packages, and others soon will be.

This marriage of CAM and CAD improves overall productivity dramatically while reducing errors that can develop when transferring files from one package to another.

In addition to CAM software, toolpath verification software is also a high-return investment. Many of the major CAM developers offer some form of verification module within their package.

There are two types of verification software.

One runs a simulation on the toolpaths that are generated by the CAM package; the other runs a simulation on the actual g-code generated by a CAM package’s post-processor.

Verification software uses a computer to make sure the g-code is going to do what it is supposed to do. The alternative is to run the g-code on a machine and hope it doesn’t go ‘THUNK!’

Then there are unusual one-of-akind software tools that can boost programmer and designer productivity.

One such package is Xpresso, voice recognition software from 3 Engineers, L.L.C. (

Unlike general voice recognition software that has to cope with the 500,000 word English vocabulary, Xpresso is keyed only to the commands used in various software packages.

Saying a command to Xpresso rather than selecting the same command with a mouse eliminates hunting through tool bars, menus and icons.

According to 3 Engineers, users can achieve maximum benefits from 3D navigation devices by keeping one hand on the mouse, the other hand on the 3D navigation device while activating commands and selecting from menus using voice commands instead of moving one hand or the other to and from the keyboard. This lets users keep their eyes on the screen and their mind on the design.

While software tools such as CAM packages and verification modules offer a high return on investment and the potential for significant productivity improvement, there are a few bits of hardware that deserve paying attention to.

The first is the 3D mouse.

If a shop is working in 3D, then every workstation should be equipped with a 3DConnexion ( 3D mouse. A 3D mouse is used by a user’s nondominant hand to position, rotate, pan and zoom the 3D model in one single, fluid motion.

3D Connexion said the days when 3D navigation meant endless mouse clicks to move around an object or to fly through space while remembering how to change views and control objects within the X, Y, Z axes are gone. Those tedious steps are incorporated in the operation of a 3D mouse, which also remembers the unique commands needed to manipulate 3D objects or scenes for different applications.

3DConnexion’s 3D mice are available in four versions: Space Navigator for under $60, Space Traveler for under $200, Space Explorer for under $300 and the Space Pilot for under $400.

With a 30 percent productivity improvement common for developers of 3D models, payback on these can be as quick as a few hours to a few days.

Another bit of hardware that can offer dramatic improvement in quality and overall productivity is to retrofit a new controller.

Older controllers usually have less program memory and operate slower than today’s controllers.

With today’s CNC programs growing larger to accommodate more complex parts, older CNCs may not have enough memory to load an entire program into the machine at one time.

This can result in machine halts while the next bit of code is loaded in. During a rough pass this only slows the machine down and takes longer to complete the part, but during a finish pass such delays often will create imperfections in the surface finish and diminish the overall quality of the finished surface.

Upgrading to a new controller can eliminate these problems.

Using a CAM package, staying current on it and taking advantage of recent hardware and software developments are the basics for getting the most out of your machines. The costs are relatively low and the returns are high.