Software has become a fact of life in American manufacturing. CAD/CAM requirements differ among companies, so it's not surprising that many find it necessary to customize their systems to meet their particular needs. A company's customization may sometimes take up to one year to complete. With this in mind, what do design engineers and their companies need to effectively use CAD/CAM to make molds and parts and what do companies need to have in place for them to do their work effectively?
While this may seem obvious to some, many companies become so impressed by the gadgets and features that software developers throw at them that they sometimes forget what they need. In order for design engineers to fully use CAD/CAM to make molds or parts, four key elements need to be in place:
1. The hardware and software tools should be kept up-to-date through a software maintenance contract and regular hardware updates, thereby assuring compatibility of all of the equipment involved.
2. The designers must be provided with comprehensive and ongoing training on the software products they use in order to maximize the benefits that the company will receive from its equipment and people.
3. The design engineer must develop a clear understanding and compassion for the methods, process and needs of the manufacturing engineers.
4. The CAD/CAM system that a company chooses must perform the job it is advertised to perform. This should include a demonstration on your own parts because the most powerful systems with the best features are useless if they won't run your machine properly. Most buyers, unless they have experienced problems with previous systems, tend to overlook this very important point. This can be costly and time-consuming a moldmaker - so let the buyer beware.
"Design engineers simply have to know more these days," says Paul Dyke, product manager for Studio Tools at Alias/Wavefront, Inc. (Toronto, Ontario) - a 2-D/3-D graphics technology provider. "They have to be multi-disciplined, they have to be able to cross boundaries and be specialists and generalists at the same time. Teamwork skills have become critical and the only way companies can help engineers thrive in this new world of engineering is to supply them with the right tools."
Software Needs Checklist
Data translation between CAD and CAM software applications is very high on the list of problems for buyers. The standard format IGES and the popular VDA in Europe are often flavored by software developers to fit their database structures. When choosing a system to fit your manufacturing needs, make sure that the system provides a flexible IGES support that can be customized to work with your company's existing software or software you may be purchasing in the near future.
Most manufacturers hope to expand their operations so that they can offer more services to customers and gain additional customers. They also may bring in more sophisticated machinery to decrease mold/parts manufacturing costs. With this in mind, choose CAD/CAM systems that will grow with your company.
Among the things to look for is high-speed machining that can save time and money even on your older machines. For example, if you are planning to add a four- or five-axis machining center, make sure that you can upgrade your software to support these operations.
In addition to being able to perform the mold/parts work that you need done today, make sure that your company's chosen CAD/CAM system allows you to achieve your longer-term goals with minimum difficulties. Check to see that vendors provide upgrade paths that take into consideration your previous software systems.
The common features - or add-on applications - that can be optional cost items are toolpath verification, post processors, custom post processor development and communication utilities. Find out from the vendor what its policy is for upgrading to the next level of its software system, and get it in writing.
"The requirements for a given mold/part can vary greatly from company to company based on many factors," says Chuck Matthews, VP of marketing for DP Technology, Inc. (Camarillo, CA) - a CAM system developer. "Such as a company's design standards, the manufacturing process to be used or the industry the company is serving - the same part designed for aerospace or medical companies may require completely different design requirements based on the government regulations for the industry being served."
The Power of CAD
The power of CAD has not been fully utilized by most companies, which is associated with the skill and experience level of the CAD operators. As the average operator's skill and experience levels increase, companies will be able to increase the benefits they receive from CAD. Alternately, CAD software companies can improve the ease-of-use of their software to reduce the skill/experience levels required to maximize the benefits received.
George Bousted, automotive business unit technical manager for Dassault Systemes of America (Troy, MI), a global software developer for the CAD, CAM, CAE and product life management markets, says that he has not seen any company - large or small - even come close to fully utilizing the power of a CAD system, let alone a series of integrated software systems.
Large companies put together teams of people to define "new" ways of doing things and these teams aren't usually made up of people who have the engineering and requisite skills to define product-engineering systems. The bigger the company, the less chance you will find engineers actually in charge of something. Small companies don't have the technical breadth to utilize all of the capabilities that a CAD system provides, nor do they have the time to learn all of it or the resources to purchase and implement it. However, the people working in smaller companies typically have a larger breadth of understanding because they have to wear multiple hats.
Being supplied with all of the tools and gadgets in the world does not a good design engineer make; however, design engineers need to know how to use the tools before sitting down and creating a mold/part. The hardware, software and databases do not do the designs - the engineers do. A big misconception out there is that you can train people to use CAD/CAM, when in reality engineers have to be pretty proficient already - it's the idea in the engineer's head that gives life to the various CAD/CAM gadgets.
"A CEO in the past could walk through a design studio and know what his engineers were designing; seeing blueprints and design sketches pinned up all over the walls, catching glimpses of models sitting out on their desks," says Bousted. "Nowadays, everything is stored in the depths of the computer's mainframe, which means those in the company have to know where the file is and, most importantly, know how to bring up the work. Only the engineer can access it."