CAM works inside CAD

Feb. 22, 2007
It's important to consider the context in which a CAM program will be used when evaluating it.

James Thompson

The Hole Recognition tool in SolidCAM inspects the geometry and the history tree of the SolidWorks model to generate toolpaths for machining all types of holes, including complex counterbored, countersunk, and threaded ones.

SolidCAM lets users easily program custom procedures unique to the nuances of machines such as the horizontal boring machine at Alpha Engineering & Design. It's the second-largest such machine in the Colorado region.

For instance, SolidCAM is excellent when considering how well it contributes to work on the production floor. Customers send us a variety of file formats for parts they want us to manufacture, so it's useful to have a system that quickly converts data into usable form, and without demanding a lot model repair or drawing conversions. SolidCAM works inside of SolidWorks 3D MCAD software, which accurately imports many 2D and 3D file formats that let SolidCAM efficiently generate CNC programs for them.

Another important CAM consideration is a program's ability to generate "posts." These are subroutines for often-repeated machining actions specific to a particular CNC machine. Without posts, it would be necessary to have station operators who understand G-code (raw CNC machine language) manually fix a part's program.

In fact, when it comes to posts, SolidCAM lets users easily program commonly used cuts and calculations. This is not always the case with other CAM software. In fact, before acquiring this CAM package, I paid consultants to write custom procedures. Although the results were close to what I wanted, they weren't great. Also, other CAM programs often use proprietary languages, which makes it hard for me to program with much success.

Another useful SolidCAM feature: It lets users edit common tasks. This comes in handy because the CNC machines in our shop, like most machine tools, have slightly different nuances. For example, they have different canned cycles and use various M--codes to execute certain operations. The CAM software lets users modify posts for each machine.

In terms of production efficiency, the software's programmability and ease of use is almost priceless. Users need only send a model through SolidCAM to the machine tool, set up the material, and hit Go. There's no need to review the G-code or perform a dry run 2 in. above the part to make sure there are no bugs in the programming.

Other great features come from combining the software with SolidWorks. For example, the program module in the package lets users define raw stock, fixtures, and target parts before a project goes to the shop floor. These CNC layouts are visually displayed in SolidWorks so users can verify that a cutting tool won't gouge into a nested piece or a clamp won't interfere with a cut.

The CAM software also has a visually intuitive layout. For example, home position is obvious. This comes in handy when using multiple coordinate systems.

The close coordination between CAD and CAM means users can send more than just parts to CAM. Users can model complete projects, including machine pad, fixturing, vises, and several nested parts, in one run. Users can document projects in SolidWorks and then print fully dimensioned setup sheets for operators. These sheets contain instructions on the position of raw stock and clamps. Visual instructions show what has already been programmed, so operators need not rethink problems. Users can even send entire project into SolidCAM all at once.

The software has saved me from many problems that plagued previous CAM systems. These include hundreds of hours spent remodifying G-code, which delayed tooling, and the expense of parts that had to be trashed. SolidCAM gets tool paths right the first time.

The software comes from SolidCAM Inc., 915 Ray Ave., Croydon, PA 19021, (800) 808-1419,

James Thompson is vice president of Operations at Alpha Engineering & Design Inc.(AED) in Ft. Collins, Colo. AED has produced custom machinery for the vacuum and scientific industry since 1999. Visit for more information.

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