Choosing the right CAD/CAM software for your job

The benefits to be gained from installing new CADCAM software can be considerable. An old system may be inefficient and slow and programming on the machine control may be leading to excessive non-productive time. A system which is complex to operate forces companies to rely on one person, reducing flexibility and leaving them vulnerable to any absences. The majority of parts to be manufactured are now designed in CAD, so the ability to interpret and manipulate data from numerous different sources is important, allowing companies to work with many more customers without any CAD Translation problems. Toolpath quality has a significant impact on cycle time, tool life, and the finish on the completed part. Picking a system which is efficient and reliable pays dividends.

These are just some of the drivers for investment in CAD/CAM software. Other factors to consider are the nature of the parts to be machined. Are they 2D, 3D or do they require 5-axis CNC machining? What machinery needs to be programmed? Is it high-speed, multi-axis, positioning or continuous 5-axis? What type of metals are being cut? What skills are available? Is someone already skilled in CNC programming? Is shop floor programming anticipated?

When shortlisting systems for consideration, the capabilities of the supplier play a key role. Local technical support is important, as is taking full advantage of training. Short cuts here can have a serious impact on efficiency. Problems with a CNC program directly affect production, stopping machines and causing damage. Conversely, smooth running CAD/CAM software will speed up deliveries, shorten cycle times and greatly boost productivity. Good suppliers will have the capacity to provide the necessary levels of service and will have a continuous development program geared to keeping customers at the forefront of technology.

Visiting existing customers with similar applications will help companies to form an opinion on the CAM supplier’s performance. Questions to ask include:

* How long do programs take to prepare?

* Is any G code editing required?

* What CAD files are imported?

* Have cycle times been reduced?

* Has the quality of the finished part improved?

* Is the support good?

Testing the performance of CAD/CAM software on your components is an essential part of the evaluation process. Here you can check for CAD compatibility, verifying that the design has been imported accurately into the CAM system, that it can be manipulated, and any repairs to the design carried out, ready for machining.


Ease of use is one of the most important aspects of CAD/CAM software. A system that is difficult to use will fall into disuse or will restrict flexibility. Easy to use systems can be very effective on the shop floor. Operators understand the metal cutting behaviour of their machines, programming them very efficiently while, at the same time, increasing their own productivity and levels of job satisfaction.

Systems which offer automated programming of 3 and 5-axis CNC code go a stage further, cutting out many of the steps required in conventional CAD/CAM software, making it possible to produce CAM data with one mouse click. Not only is this much faster, but the intelligence in these systems makes it very difficult to produce an error.

The trajectory of the toolpaths produced by a CAM system, and the accuracy of the postprocessed CNC code, will make a big difference to machine tool performance. Excessive air cutting, unnecessary rapid and retract movements, sudden direction changes, and wildly varying cutter loads will slow down machining, reduce tool life, and adversely affect the quality of the component. In the extreme, poor cutterpaths can damage the machine and scrap the part. Intelligent software which has been well developed will avoid all these problems. It will keep the tool in the material as long as possible and generate smooth entry and exit paths to the metal. It will also know where material is located from stock models, and will consider the limits of the machine tool itself.

5-axis CNC milling can be complex. CAD/CAM software will automatically change 3-axis into 5-axis toolpaths making 5-axis CNC machining achievable for any company. Consideration of tool lengths, rotary machine limits and the facility for collision avoidance rather than just collision detection are important features to look out for.

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