December 27, 2010
Better Times Ahead For Manufacturing Technologies?
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Jeff Rowe - Managing Editor

by Jeff Rowe - Contributing Editor
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A lot of estimates that I've seen lately from CAM software and service vendors, their customers, and some analyst firms indicate that 2010 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for revenue. In fact, indications are that this year might approach the previous record, which occurred in 2005, when purchases reached their peak before a four-year period of decline that showed signs of ending earlier this year.

So what's caused all this possible reason for optimism? Actually, a number of factors. First, anything to do with the viability of manufacturing and production, including CAM, is very dependent on the global economy and the demand for goods to be produced. Second, the level of spending on technology in general is key to the demand for CAM software and services, and that has been on the rise. Third, the number and types of production machines that might require CAM software and services, and to what extent they might be required has also seen an increase in deliveries and installations.

Keep in mind that last year was an especially bad year for machine tool sales, and the software and services that run the machines typically lag months behind the machines in terms of sales, but things have picked up this year. This points to a probable good late year for CAM revenue.

So, with the indicators pointing a positive direction, most CAM vendors are cautiously optimistic about sales and growth for 2010.

As far as trends in specific CAM technology areas go, two of the hottest continue to be software that facilitates automatic feature recognition (AFR) for faster and easier generation of tool paths and programming multitasking machine tools with multiple spindles, turrets, and operations. The functions and benefits of both AFR and multitask machines are fairly intertwined. Finally, relative CAM software prices continue to fall, making it not only more affordable, but also providing a quicker tangible return on investment that can make it an easier sell to management. CAM software today is somewhat analogous to what so-called mid-range CAD software became about a decade ago - capable,
easier to use, and priced for a wider customer base.

Automatic feature recognition is the capability of a CAM software application that saves time and minimizes errors by directly reading CAD models and recognizing 2D features, such as holes, pockets, and even turned features. Because this type of software is typically rules-based, through automated processes, it helps you automatically map out a strategy for optimizing machining operations. Some AFR software can recognize features and deal with different sides of a part, minimizing or eliminating multiple setups once the part is on a machine. To further minimize multiple setups, ideally, AFR can be used in tandem with multitask machines that can handle multiple machining operations.

Multitasking machines are a means for companies to capitalize on technology, because they are highly automated and can reduce manufacturing time and scrap, as well as overcome the persistent and growing dearth of highly-skilled machinists. These machines can turn, mill, drill, tap, and perform other machining operations in a single setup, thus minimizing the sheer number of setups and possible errors associated with manual operations. However, programming a multitask machine can be a very complex proposition, especially synchronizing tool paths with minimal or no manual editing intervention required once the program is entered into a machine.

Multitask machines continue to evolve, and so must the software that runs them. Currently, dual turret and dual spindle machines are prevalent, but some vendors say they have programmed six-spindle machines with several different turret and tooling configurations, and providing up to 22 axes for machining, thanks to articulated arms. Again, programming multitask machines is no small task, but the labor saved makes manufacturing companies, especially those in North America, more competitive.

Virtually all CAM companies are working to develop software that makes machining more efficient by exploiting high-speed machining on conventional and multitask equipment. These same CAM vendors are also attempting to take as much pain out of the increasingly complex task of programming as possible. Of course, their goal is to make their customers as competitive in the world arena as possible. How successful the CAM vendors are ultimately depends on how successful their customers are, and this year's indicators seem to be pointing toward success for both parties.

In North America, even after a sharp downturn, manufacturing still accounts for approximately 20 percent of the economy, over 60 percent of its exports, and over half of its total research and development expenditures. While these are impressive numbers, are they enough to maintain the position and prestige of innovative manufacturing practices in North America?

Manufacturing companies know full well that they must equip their workforces with tools for anticipating, identifying, and solving problems. These same companies must respond to regional and global trends in product demand and adjust their product development processes accordingly. On top of all this, manufacturers must be aware of what's going on in the many links that comprise the raw materials-to-marketplace supply chain, as well as overall business practices and the business climate, the state of education for attracting future workers, domestic and foreign government policies - the list could go on and on.

On the “people” side, progressive manufacturers are increasingly replacing their historical top-down management structure with team approaches that encourage input from the factory floor regarding product and process improvements. On the “tool” side, there are indicators that point to the fact that overall spending is rising for computer software, hardware, and production machines in what many manufacturers believe will fulfill the promise of technology-induced gains in productivity and profitability.

The price/performance ratio has increased dramatically in the past few years with regard to many aspects of the overall corporate IT world, including hardware and software. However, IT specific to manufacturing (we'll narrow it to CAM tools) has also made great strides in terms of capabilities, while at the same time, has tried to overcome the misconception that it is too expensive, difficult to learn and use, and may not integrate well with existing systems and processes.

For CAM tools it's almost as important to what not to base a purchasing and implementation decision on as it is what to base the decision on.

First, realize that regardless what a vendor says in its advertising and marketing literature or what a salespersons says verbally to you in your office, there is no such thing as a CAM product that does everything for everybody. The ideal CAM system should be well-suited for both beginning and experienced programmers - it should guide new users, but streamline the process for experienced users. Also, because no one CAM product fits all needs out of the box, ensure that it is customizable and can be tailored to your production machining practices and the types of parts you produce, even as those needs change, and they will.

Second, don't be overly swayed by just the capabilities and features that are available in the CAM tools you are evaluating. It's easy to get overly optimistic when demoing a product and rashly thinking that it will solve all of your machining problems. Take a step back and you'll be able to make a more rational decision as to whether the CAM tool is right for you while avoiding possible buyer's remorse.

Third, during any demonstration, if at all possible, insist that you test your parts and machining processes with the CAM software you are evaluating. Any software can and will look like the ideal choice in the hands of an experienced application engineer with his or her parts. It can be, however, quite a different story if the CAM product (or person conducting the demo) hesitates working with or encounters problems with your parts. Better to learn these lessons up front before making a commitment you may be sorry for later.

Fourth, evaluate CAM products that are used widely in both industry and education. Finding qualified programmers to code your machines will be easier because you will have a larger pool of technical and practical talent to pull from.

Lastly, determine if the CAM product you are evaluating is expandable and scalable. In other words, although it may meet your current needs, make sure you won't outgrow it in several months or a couple of years. The vendor should be able to help in this regard and offer an upward migration path as your needs and requirements grow.

In the increasingly competitive manufacturing environment, it is more important than ever to have the right tools for the job - a task that grows more complex, but also more vital.

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-- Jeff Rowe, Contributing Editor.

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