Midrange CAM sports high-end features

Feb. 5, 2004
VisualMill 5.0 (VM5) CAM software boasts of improvements in most every area. The developer says the enhancements in this update put it at the same level as CAM packages costing three times as much.
Speeds and feeds for plunge roughing are assigned through simple inputs and with an image to assist beginners.
Tools are assigned to the library with a simple and descriptive file form.


One of the first improvements you notice is that both the 2D and 3D tools are more accessible than in the previous version. For example, it lets users simply click on the new Lines tab on the right side of the screen to display the polyline icon along with related tools.

A good user interface goes beyond convenient icons. It should also function like other Windows software to ensure smooth transitions from program to program. And VM5 does work more like a Windows program than previous versions. For example, it has unlimited Undo/Redo capabilities, a useful timesaver.

The user interface also trims user time by eliminating operation steps. The new method for selecting holes is a good example. They are now selected based on color, size, layer, or all three. Color carries information such as threaded or not. The graphical toolpath editor has also been simplified to reduce clicks.

Improvements to the user interface put it among the most easy-to-use programs. The developer has subtly changed its browser. A tab has been added to display the stock used, which joins the existing Geometry, Tools and MOps (machining operations) tabs. The tabs are smaller now but readily accessible. Another step-saving change to the browser is that selecting any tab shows icons related to the tab's function at the top of the browser. For instance, picking Tools presents icons for creating a new tool, loading and saving a tool library, and getting information on a tool.

To create 2D and 3D geometry, new tabs called Points, Arcs, Curves, and Surfaces replace similar submenus and add capabilities for 2D work. For example, there are now rectangles and rounded rectangles under Lines, and Curves has tools for helixes and support for TrueType text. An Edit Curves tab is new. It holds an array of helpful commands such as edits that change a curve's start point, reverse its direction, as well as split, join, and offset a curve. In addition, the software adds layers for managing part geometry.

Despite the improvements, VM5 is not yet up to 2D capabilities of products such as MasterCAM or VX CAD/CAM. But that could change if similar enhancements are made in the next update.

While the added 2D tools are a plus, the heart and soul of VM5 is machining, and here it makes enormous strides. For instance, this upgrade improves milling across every level. Upgraded functions in two-axis milling range from facing and pocketing to profiling and engraving. New two-axis commands include remachining, V-carving, and thread milling. Meanwhile, pencil tracing with flat mills and bullnose cutters has been added to three-axis commands. And horizontal-hill machining is improved.

Parallel roughing and curve-projection machining are examples of the software's new four-axis tools. Engraving and Parallel Finishing have been made more powerful. The company also claims a performance boost that lets the software complete tasks in 20 to 25% of the time previously needed. My tests confirm the figures.

The program performs rapid and plunge collision checks as well as detecting collisions with the toolholder. This is a powerful new option that even some more-expensive CAM programs don't offer.And toolholders can now be defined at the same time as the tools and in the same user interface. When upgrading a CAM program, developers often seem to concentrate on one or two areas. But VM5 improves on every aspect of the application, even areas that were already strong. The software sells for about $5,000 and comes from MecSoft Corp., 17905 Sky Park Circle, Suite N, Irvine, CA 92614, (949) 654-8163, www.mecsoft.com.

-- Joe Greco

The author, a consultant and software reviewer, lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.

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