CAD/CAM Integration: what's the right choice for you?

CAD/CAM Integration: what's the right choice for you?

If you are involved with CNC machines, you are probably involved with CNC programming and CAD/CAM systems. The biggest change in recent times for the CAD/CAM industry lies with the term "integration". Integration plays a very important role in the future of CAD/CAM products. There have been big workstation integrated CAD/CAM systems around for many years. The article looks into various ways of integrating manufacturing solutions. 

Now there is a new group of products touting integration as a key issue. They pursue integration through other means than single brand products. What is CAD/CAM integration? Is it good? Do you need it? It all depends on the type of integration and what your needs are. To understand CAD/CAM integration today, it makes sense to start with the steps that need to be integrated.

CAD (Computer Aided Design) is widely used to describe any software capable of defining a mechanical component with geometry, surfaces, or solid models. CAM is software used to develop NC programs. There are other types of CAD and CAM, but for the purposes of this article, only mechanical CAD and CAM are discussed. Engineering design and manufacturing uses CAD/CAM software for three distinctly different purposes:

Design Modeling. A mechanical design engineer uses CAD software to create a part. This definition of the part can be called its model. This model can be represented as a drawing or a CAD data file.

Manufacturing Modeling

A manufacturing engineer or NC programmer, uses CAD software to:

  • Develop a computer model of a part that was defined by a drawing.
  • Evaluate and repair the design CAD data to manufacturing tolerances. This is a surprisingly common task.
  • Create new part models from the original design to allow for manufacturability. This would include adding draft angles or developing models of the part for different steps in multi-process manufacturing.
  • Design models of fixtures, mold cavities, mold cores, mold bases, and other tooling.
  • NC Programming

    A manufacturing engineer or NC programmer uses CAM software to select tools, methods, and procedures to machine the models defined in the manufacturing modeling section described above. Note that the user that performs manufacturing modeling is usually the same user that performs NC programming.

    For these different products to work well together, they need to possess a high level of integration. Integration refers to how different software functions work together. There are three different types of integration to consider:

    Data Integration

    Data integration is the ability to share part models (common data files or a common database). This is the most important type of integration for CAD/CAM. An IGES surface file represents poor data integration, due to the amount of manual repair work frequently required for success. A Parasolid file sent from one Parasolid based software program to another, represents very good data integration, as the data comes through flawlessly. Two Parasolid based software programs sharing one Parasolid data file is even better, as both model history and associativity can be maintained.

    Application Integration

    Application integration is the way in which different modules work together for a single user. This can be achieved by having the different functions physically in the same computer program ("same" application or "inside" application integration). It can also be achieved with technology like OLE, which allows two different computer programs to work closely together, appearing seamless to the user (CAM "beside" CAD).

    How Integration Started

    In the beginning, there were only CAD systems. Engineers used CAD systems to draw pictures of parts. The first CAM systems helped an NC programmer/machinist/manufacturing engineer program from these drawings. This making of drawings, and programming parts from drawings, was (and still is) time consuming and subject to a lot of human error. Someone got the bright idea to eliminate this to-and-from drawing step, and integrated CAD/CAM was born.

    Until recently, integrated CAD/CAM meant buying the same brand CAD and CAM products. All developers provide high sophistication, high power, and high cost solutions. These products typically provide data, interface, and application integration. Because of their cost and complexity, these products do not provide ideal solutions for everyone. In addition, once the customer picks the CAD product he likes best, he’s kind of stuck with whatever CAM product they have. No mixing and matching of products is allowed.

    Best-Of-Class Solutions

    The disadvantages of the traditional integrated workstation CAD/CAM system has contributed to the growth of the standalone CAM market as we know it today. These CAM products focus on NC programming, or both manufacturing modeling and NC programming. In general they are faster, easier, and far less expensive than their workstation-based integrated brethren. This class of products has grown in sophistication to rival the capabilities of the traditional integrated CAD/CAM products, while maintaining their lead in simplicity, efficiency, and cost. The only problems they have suffered from is a lack of integration with the original design modeling CAD system, and a lack of ability to access the CAD market. Now that is changing.

    CAM in the new CAD Market

    CAM products are also moving into this solid modeling CAD world. Some CAM products have plotted the shortest possible path to a marketing claim of "solids-based solution". In several cases, this path has lead to an "inside" CAD application version of their product, where the product’s CAM capabilities are actually placed within the CAD software. This, however, can lead to a very limited set of CAM capabilities, not nearly the full feature set of the standalone versions.

    There is another alternative. Any CAD or CAM product based on the same modeler (solid modeling kernel) can exchange data as well as the big workstation systems do, providing a high level of data integration between different brand of products. Solid model standards include Spatial Technologies’ ACIS (.sat files) and Parasolid (.x_t and .xmt files) and Ricoh’s Designbase. These standards are becoming widely supported.

    Historically all CAD/CAM solutions offering high levels of integration have achieved it by putting all functions in the same computer program. This is one reason why some people think that there are big advantages with same application integration for CAD/CAM. Today’s technology provides flexible alternatives to the old same application approach.

    How To Decide What’s Right For You

    The first step in deciding what is right for your shop is to understand that you now have options. You are no longer trapped in to buying an large, expensive, workstation CAD/CAM system if it is not right for your needs. Nor do you have to settle for less than adequate data translations from standalone products. Examine your needs. Do you get most of your CAD files from a variety of sources? Or, do you receive CAD files from primarily a single source? Then look around for the CAD and CAM products that fit the needs of your shop best - focusing on ease of use and suitability to the type of work that you do. Armed with the facts and the new capabilities available to you, you are ready to make an informed choice.

    Dreambird's comments

    Hexagon Production Software, earlier known as Vero Software, was always this kind of "traditional" software developer that the article talks about. The author states that the large-scale workstation-based software with multiple functions is always complicated and too expensive. However, Hexagon Production Software solutions were able to evolve the way that they're now capable to achieve the highest level of integration, using both traditional and new approach. Software solutions for metal, wood and stone processing have common interfaces and function with no data loss between solutions. Being based on Parasolid kernel gives them ability to open, edit and manipulate all files from third party systems without errors and problems.

    Addressing the mentioned high price of solutions like this, we would like to say that Hexagon Production Software are modular. Every module of software performs a certain function of manufacturing process and can be purchased separately, so the customer won't have to pay for modules that he will not use. Later in the future, if the manufacturing expands or implements any new technology, the customer can purchase more modules that will be completely integrated in the existing solution with a short learning curve.

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