CAM Gets the Most Out of a Five-Axis Router

Feb. 8, 2007
Our company provides fast turnaround on difficult projects that involve design, engineering, prototyping, and fabrication.

Doug Poscich

A SolidWorks model of a prototype sea-kayak imports into Mastercam X2 and quickly opens. The wire-frame view allows fast model manipulation.

Mastercam lets users break up surfaces of a model into areas and then assign cutting techniques to each. The selected buttons at the top of the Backplot dialog box (left side) are telling the software to display the tool, toolholder, and rapid moves on a surface that was broken down into smaller sections.

The software lets users select elements such as lines, curves, and splines by color and assign the color to a specific type of tool path. This is helpful when programming nested parts or complex geometry. Here, for example, green is assigned to outside contours. Users can box-select all the green elements and quickly define the operations to perform. Tool numbers in the Operations Manager pane (left) are the same because this particular program requires performing a manual tool change.

Central to our operation is making parts and tooling on an advanced, five-axis Thermwood CNC router with a 10 10-ft dual table (each table-half can index separately). Mastercam X2 software efficiently generates multiaxis toolpaths for this machine and does so with several features we find particularly useful, such as:

Seamless translations. We receive designs in many forms, from hand sketches and Adobe Illustrator files to sophisticated 3D models. Mastercam has a large library of translators that allow cleanly importing data from almost any digital source. For example, the program flawlessly imports Catia, SolidWorks, and IGES files and opens them almost as quickly as Mastercam files. X2 also allows modifying product and tooling designs directly in the program, which helps keep work continually moving forward.

Numerous customizable palettes let users add, remove, and rearrange icons to keep select features and functions only a mouse-click or two away. This may not seem like much, but when there are hundreds of options for creating a CAM program, working from a customized workspace is an enormous timesaver.

Color coding different areas of a model allows assigning machining operations to each color. The software then programs everything an operation requires. Otherwise, users have to laboriously select one feature at a time. Color coding eliminates many manual programming errors such as overlooking an area of the part for cutting or assigning the wrong operation to it.

Breaking up contoured surfaces leads to more-efficient cutting because routing involves many trade-offs based on factors such as material, part geometry, available tools, and machine capability. X2 lets users break up the surface of a model into any number of areas of any size and shape using tools such as Surface Trim, Surface Extend, and Mask. Users then assign a variety of cutting techniques to the areas based on appropriate factors. We use this capability daily and it has helped improve part geometry, increase machine throughput, and maximize tool life.

Verification and backplotting are ways to verify toolpaths. They help us eliminate scrap and prevent the machine head from crashing into a part or fixture. For 2D cuts, visually inspecting a realistic representation of the part may be sufficient. Five-axis work, however, typically requires continually using the backplot function. This sends an animated probe through cutting sequences and alerts users to inappropriate moves before they result in damage.

The Backplot function also helps estimate job costs. Based on material and tools used, a backplot generates an accurate estimate of how long it will take a machine to cut a part. The backplot also lets users modify an estimate with human factors such as manual tool changes, giving shops a realistic basis for assigning costs.

A big plus is helpful training and support. Our distributor provided one day of Mastercam X2 training at minimal cost with our purchase of the software. When we reach the occasional impasse, a call to our distributor or the manufacturer quickly sets us straight.

We currently have the basic package. We plan on purchasing a more-advanced package as the need arises and cash flow improves. In the meantime, we find the workarounds that let us do things the advanced package would perform more efficiently. The distributor and Mastercam have been quite willing to show us how to use workarounds.

A minor gripe: the software has so many options, I don't have time to experiment with them all to find out the ones best for the business.

Shortly after installing the router, we designed and manufactured a test sea-kayak to demonstrate our five-axis prototyping and manufacturing capabilities. The kayak has extendable pontoons that give the vessel stability so users can stand up and fish from it.

We went from design to a workable prototype in one day in just over a month. I generated the toolpaths for the kayak and parts in Mastercam, between other work I was doing, in just a week. We cut the hull from a block of foam set up diagonally on the router table. Then we laid fiberglass over the hull, and manufactured and installed levers, arms, and pontoons separately. This is a level of productivity I had never before experienced.

Mastercam X2 comes from CNC Software Inc., 671 Old Post Rd., Tolland, CT 06084, (800) 228-2877,

Doug Poscich is President, 5th Axis Inc., Stonington, Conn., (860) 535-2385, Check out the kayak at

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