Rapid CAM software ramps-up production

CAM Assist can create optimal machining strategies with a simple click of a mouse
CAM Assist can create optimal machining strategies with a simple click of a mouse

Advanced manufacturing software developer CloudNC is reinventing CAM programming to dramatically reduce the time it takes to implement machining. Ed Hill visited its state-of-the-art factory in Chelmsford to see it in action.

Manufacturers are familiar with the benefits of automation when it comes to robotics, loading systems, and integrated (Smart) manufacturing systems, and the advantages they bring in terms of productivity, consistency, reliability, and mitigating recruitment issues, but not so commonly when it comes to the software that has become such an integral part of the modern production process.

Now, however, one company is revolutionising this aspect of metalworking production. CloudNC has developed a software solution that massively reduces the amount of time it takes to input machining strategies into a CAM package through manual programming.

CAM Assist is the brainchild of CloudNC’s co-founder Theo Saville who, while studying manufacturing and mechanical engineering at the University of Warwick, became used to the speed and convenience with which parts could be produced using 3D printing technology.

The DMG Mori DMU 60 universal machining centre is just one of a wide range of milling and turning machines at CloudNC’s factory in Chelmsford
The DMG Mori DMU 60 universal machining centre is just one of a wide range of milling and turning machines at CloudNC’s factory in Chelmsford

When he realised that 3D printing was unlikely to totally disrupt component production, (particularly when it comes to the mass production of metal parts) he turned his attention to what he identified as the ‘heart of the majority of manufacturing’, the CNC machine tool.

“The CNC machine is fundamental to the manufacturing process,” he begins. “Whether it’s mould and die production, tooling, fixtures or end use components, so much production can’t be achieved without it, so if you can speed up the process from receiving a CAD file to taking the finished part off the machine you can hugely increase productivity.”

The main bottleneck where CloudNC has focused its software development is CAM programming. Even for an experienced CAM programmer, creating a machining strategy (toolpaths, cutting speeds and feeds, cutting tool selection etc.) with all the numerous variables can take hours or even days. With the help of CAM Assist this can be reduced to a matter of minutes or less.

In fact, CloudNC claims that by using CAM Assist, programming time can be reduced by as much as 80%. It works by using a combination of data-driven optimisation and artificial intelligence to produce the machining strategies. The technology is more along the lines of a chess grandmaster-defeating supercomputer, than generative AI that has been in the news so much recently.

Prompt progress

Observing the process in action it’s hard not to be impressed. In the example I was shown a rectangular aluminium part (approximately 180 x 120 x 50mm) with various shaped pockets, profiles, grooves, holes, and other surface features, was programmed in around a minute and, once the billet was prepared, directly machined on a Haas VF-2 vertical machining centre. 

Theo Saville loading the aluminium billet onto the Haas VF-2 VMC ready for machining
Theo Saville loading the aluminium billet onto the Haas VF-2 VMC ready for machining

“CAM Assist first examines the thousands of ways a surface of a component could be machined,” Mr Saville explains. “It then works out what are the most efficient ways and reduces them to a much smaller number finally selecting an optimum. At its core CAM Assist is like a machining technician. It has a practical understanding of the physics and processes of cutting metal so it can make the sort of decisions that a machinist would make.”

After CAM Assist has produced an initial tooling strategy an experienced CAM programmer can refine it further if required. And the benefits of CAM Assist go far beyond just the reduction in time it takes to programme a component for machining.

“Once you have a machining strategy, you can quickly provide a quote for a customer, you can give design for manufacture feedback, you can place the part into your production schedule and shorten lead-times, and your programmers can use the time saved to programme more parts, making them much more productive,” Mr Saville affirms.

Probably the most significant benefit of CAM Assist is to help overcome the skills gap in metalworking by making the most of the expert staff already available, and by upskilling or training new staff to be productive CAM programmers more quickly.

“Experienced programmers are retiring but they are not being replaced,” Mr Saville notes. “In ten years’ time, demand for components is expected to double, but the amount of programming capacity is declining. So firstly, we need to make the existing programmers more productive and secondly find ways to make it easier for people to train and enter the industry. With CAM Assist we can get a junior programmer producing genuine parts within a week.”

CAM Assist is currently available to Autodesk Fusion 360 users but versions for other CAM packages are in development
CAM Assist is currently available to Autodesk Fusion 360 users but versions for other CAM packages are in development

Factory fundamentals

CloudNC can certainly prove the effectiveness of its software in terms of day-to-day production. The other arm of its business is manufacturing subcontracted CNC machine-made parts from its factory in Chelmsford.

“We took the view that in order to develop CAM Assist we would need to know how to operate as a world-class precision engineering company ourselves, so we created the factory in order to increase our knowledge in the existing manufacturing marketplace. All the knowledge that we develop here is inputted back into the CAM Assist programme being developed by our software engineers.”

The machining capability in Chelmsford ranges from high-end multi-axis milling and turning machine tools to simpler 3/4-axis shopfloor workhorses. A deliberate choice as CloudNC wants to test and prove CAM Assist’s capabilities across a spectrum of machines. The factory also has a fully equipped quality and inspection department with CMMs, scanners and profile projectors.

Undoubtedly, CloudNC must be doing something right as it can already list a number of high-profile aerospace, automotive and defence companies amongst its customers.

CloudNC has state-of-the-art quality and inspection equipment for CNC machined parts produced at its factory
CloudNC has state-of-the-art quality and inspection equipment for CNC machined parts produced at its factory

Roll on the roll out

Currently CAM Assist is only available as an add on to Autodesk Fusion 360 CAD/CAM users with 3-axis machining capability. This is all part of CloudNC’s approach to get feedback from introductory customers and make further improvements. Although, CloudNC is developing versions for other CAM package providers in the industry and also 5-axis (3+2) machining.

“We realised it was better to add CAM Assist to an existing CAM package than to introduce a completely new one,” Mr Saville adds. “Users are already familiar with the software that they use. If they disagree with the strategy CAM Assist produces, they can easily adapt or reverse it – or if the software only gets them part way to a solution, they still have all the manual tools at their disposal to complete it. It’s a much better way of delivering the benefits of CAM Assist and its value to companies and programmers.

“We’ve actually been developing multi-axis strategies for several years but we decided not to release it to customers at present. We wanted to launch a 3-axis product that was very reliable and get our customers’ feedback and from that understand their additional issues and requirements.

“Our software developers are also working hard on versions for other CAM packages such as Mastercam, Solid Edge CAM and Siemens NX CAM Pro, and we welcome users of those packages to contact us if they want to be part of the Beta testing.”

All the knowledge acquired on CloudNC’s shopfloor is fed back to software developers developing the CAM Assist programme
All the knowledge acquired on CloudNC’s shopfloor is fed back to software developers developing the CAM Assist programme

CAM assist is available as a managed install from the CloudNC website and Autodesk App Store for Fusion 360 users, for £1891 per year.

“Higher tier options with more features will become available as we develop them and incorporate feedback from our customers. Nevertheless, we intend to keep the basic option economically priced as we want to make it as widely available as possible,” Mr Saville affirms.

The impact that this new software can have on manufacturing is undeniable. Reflected in the fact that CloudNC has been able to garner investment for its state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities and large team of software engineers from capital firms Atomico and Episode 1 Ventures and cultivate strategic partnerships with the likes of Autodesk, DMG Mori and Lockheed Martin.

“These companies are visionaries in this space. They looked at our technology when it was significantly more nascent, saw the problem we were trying to solve and backed us from the beginning. Now we have a product up and running and available to the market.”

All the staff at CloudNC can access CAM Assist when required
All the staff at CloudNC can access CAM Assist when required

And for UK companies particularly, CAM Assist offers efficiency savings to help them compete in the global market and accelerate innovation.

“The costliest factor for any CNC machining company is their spindles not turning, and yet lead-times remain stubbornly the same. 3D design and simulation has advanced tremendously: we can conceive components increasingly faster with things like generative design but until now there has been no equivalent in manufacturing.

“The slow rate of how rapidly parts can be made is a handbrake on innovation,” Mr Saville concludes. “Ultimately, I would like to get to a point where it is as easy to manufacture a complex machined part as it is to generate an image with AI.”

CAM Assist is available for a free trial period at: https://cloudnc.com/cam-assist  

CloudNC
www.cloudnc.com

Company

CloudNC

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