When the engineering software vendor announced it was moving from integrated CAM to a total CAD/CAM solution industry watchers took note.
Jean Thilmany, Contributing Editor
For engineers and design companies, it’s not difficult to find integrated computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing technologies. Yet, the announcement of SolidWorks CAM, released in October as a SolidWorks 2018 add-on, has created a small buzz in engineering technology circles.
It’s no secret that engineers struggle to create designs that are easy to manufacture while machinists complain about receiving unworkable CAD models.
An imperfect fit
CAM software uses the CAD models to generate the toolpaths that drive computer numerically controlled manufacturing machines. Engineers and designers who use CAM can evaluate designs earlier in the design process to ensure they can be manufactured, thus avoiding product costs and delays.
Without CAM, manufacturers can be on their own when programming machines to make the CAD model. And not all those who design in CAD enter design features into CAM to control the machine tools. Without CAM, manufacturers use the CAD design to program the tools themselves.
“The general idea has been that engineers design something and then the manufacturing people eventually figure out how to manufacture it,” says Sandesh Joshi. “With integrated CAM, they’re not as disconnected as that, but there’s still a disconnect. This SolidWorks tool could close that disconnect.”
Closing the CAD/CAM disconnect
Joshi is chief executive officer at the CAD outsourcing firm Indovance. Previously, he spent six years on the SolidWorks research and development team.
The SolidWorks offering could ramp up the number of CAM users by making the tool available to more engineers and designers, Joshi says. The SolidWorks 2018 release marks the first time that SolidWorks is providing the CAM product as part of its design solution.
SolidWorks CAM is “powered by” CAMWorks, in the vendor’s parlance. Before the October release, CAMWorks, from HCL Technologies, was one of many third-party CAM tools available for integration with the vendor’s CAD program.
Of course other CAD vendors offer integrated CAD and CAM solutions.
Siemens PLM Software, for example, also offers CAMWorks as an embedded solution within its Solid Edge CAD program. NX CAM, also from Siemens PLM Software, is integrated with other NX solutions, which allows NC programmers and manufacturing engineers to associatively access design, assembly and drafting tools in a one part-manufacturing environment, according to that software maker. And CAM features are integrated into the Fusion 360 design tool from Autodesk.
But rather than taking on two separate software solutions, CAD and CAM can act as one system within SolidWorks CAM, Joshi says. That could make CAM easier and more straightforward to the software’s users.
The solution is fully integrated with SolidWorks so users need not leave the familiar SolidWorks environment, says Mike Buchli, senior SolidWorks product and portfolio manager. It supports feature recognition and can generate machining operations directly from native SolidWorks files or from imported data. Toolpaths are automatically updated based on changes to the model.
If SolidWorks 2018 engineers and designers feel they’re working within one integrated system–rather than two separate but connected software systems—they might begin to automatically use CAM and to consistently consider manufacturability as they design the product, he adds.
The vendor’s tool opens the way toward making CAM ubiquitous on engineers’ desktops, much as 3D CAD is now more-or-less used across an industry that once relied on 2D drawings, he said.
The part process from CAD to machining will never be a “one-click process,” Joshi says. But it certainly can become more streamlined through the use of a common CAD and CAM system.
“The difference is engineers would be using CAM as they design so manufacturability is easier,” he says.
“When we build assemblies, we have clash detection. Similarly, CAM gives us red flags for manufacturability right at he design stage, saves a lot of time and money,” Joshi says. “Today all design engineers don’t necessarily deal with CAM, so having access to that will help engineers design for manufacturing way ahead in the product design cycle.
“Some kind of machining cannot be done, and if that’s true it’s better to change the design right away rather than during the manufacturing process,” he says.
The system offers tools to validate and improve part and tool designs, including part-manufacturability checks and tool-motion simulation, Buchli says.
In a blog post introducing the tool, he outlined other benefits, such as the capability to:
–Recognize certain types of geometry to understand how those features will be manufactured, and how much it will cost to manufacture.
–Read tolerances and surface finishes and make decisions about how to manufacture the product
–Automatically apply best manufacturing strategies so manufacturing processes faster and more standard
–Automate quoting and compare it to traditional methods to ensure all aspects of the part are accounted for ahead of time
Fewer codes in the future?
The introduction of SolidWorks CAM holds the potential for another big benefit for both designers and manufacturers: the possibility of a key to the elusive quest for CNC standardization, Joshi says.
If the CAM tool becomes popular among SolidWorks users, Joshi can envision a day when the software automatically produces the G-codes that drive the machines that manufacture the part.
Right now, manufacturers struggle to drive their machining processes directly from their design software. The CAD systems don’t “speak the language” of various machines such as cutters and laser cutters, CNC mills and lathes.
“There are different flavors of G-codes depending on the CNC controller,” Joshi says. “The basic commands and operations generally will work on all machines but there are particular specialties and differences.
If SolidWorks CAM becomes widespread with designers who already use the vendor’s CAD program, the vendor “could potentially create codes for the end machine used for manufacturing,” Joshi adds. “The designer may not have to worry about that up front, but it makes manufacturing a lot smoother.”
With enough popularity, others will adopt those same end-machine codes, he says, creating a more-or-less-standard manufacturing-machine programming code.
And he knows of what he speaks. Currently, designers often rely on machinists and production engineers to develop strategies to effectively make the part.
“Job shops and manufacturing generate G-code for their CNC machine tools based on the CAD models they receive,” Joshi says.
Technologists at his company help interpret “on the back end” how to machine CAD designs, he says. He sees the issues manufacturers have with CAD designs.
“These companies get models from anybody and everybody and they don’t necessarily have all the types of CAD software. So they’re importing raw data rather than inclusive parametric models,” Joshi says. “It still works, but it’s more work.
“If the process is more integrated from end to end, it’s more likely to be seamless,” he adds. “If something has to be changed or modified it can be done quickly rather than going to engineering and coming back and being modified for machining.”
At SolidWorks World 2017, held last February, at which SolidWorks CAM was teased, Buchli related the benefits integrated CAD and CAM can mean for a company, specifically CP-Carillo, of Irvine, Calif., which makes pistons and connecting rods for high-performance race vehicles. The company saw a “significant increase in throughput” when using the then-integrated SolidWorks and CAMWorks, Buchli said in February.
Before using CAMWorks, the manufacturer input SolidWorks model geometry into the Mastercam program to create toolpaths and generate G-codes.
“We programmed each custom piston order manually, slowing down manufacturing,” says Karl Ramm, former CP-Carillo senior technology manager and project developer.
“Each job would take about 10 minutes for non-complex pistons and up to 40 minutes for complex pistons–and that’s programming time alone,” Ramm adds.
When the company brought in the integrated CAD and CAM solution, “custom orders that took days to design and program went down to hours,” Ramm says. “What used to take five to 15 minutes takes seconds now.”
The time-savings comes because the process is automated. Designers load custom criteria into a database and launch SolidWorks. The design application automatically pulls in that criteria and the designer can then create the new piece, which it transfers into CAMWorks. The CAM program then automatically generates new toolpaths and posts them to CNC machines in the shop, Ramm says.
The capability to share that kind of design and programming knowledge between engineering and manufacturing speaks to one of the biggest benefits of an integrated CAD and CAM system, Buchli says.
Another benefit is consistency of workflow. At CP-Carillo, custom orders always follow the same path. Design engineers and manufacturers know what’s expected of them when creating and manufacturing custom orders, Buchli adds.
SolidWorks CAM is much too new to see if any of Joshi’s predictions about standardization and popularity will play out.
But product lifecycle management consultancy CIMdata Inc. says it welcomes the decision to package and offer SolidWorks CAM.
“It protects the investment of CAMWorks users and adds proven CAM capabilities to SolidWorks,” according to a CIMdata statement.
While it remains to be seen if SolidWorks CAM is a step beyond the type of integrated CAD and CAM systems that exist today, Joshi and CIMdata are certain the engineering software vendor has taken a step in the direction down which the industry must travel to iron out disconnects between engineering and manufacturing and to save manufacturers costs and development time in the future.
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