In the 1940's sci-fi short novel called "Things Pass By", Murray Leinster talked about an arm which draws things in mid-air, flowing molten plastic and hardening it where it stays. This was the stuff of fantasy back then, ok they also thought we'd have flying cars and live on the moon , but 3D printing has been one of the sci-fi subjects which has revolutionised the way we manufacture and engineer things nowadays.
Today, you can sit in your own home designing your own parts, hit print, and out will come a 3 dimensional representation of your design, and it's fully functional, ready to use. We are living in an amazing time!
3D printing has endless uses. You can make trinkets, keyrings, models, tools, or other fairly complex parts. From your individual at home, or a commercial business manufacturing prototype components for motorsport or the manufacturing industry. My first play with additive manufacturing came out of necessity. I had built a track-ready motorcycle, just for using on a race circuit. One of the first times using it at Donington park in the UK, I was flying along a set of curves down a steep hill, called Craner Curves, and anyone who's ridden there will tell you, it's not for the feint hearted. Anyway, when flipping the bike side to side, I accidentally flipped the ignition switch and cut the engine... NOT what you want to happen! Luckily I stayed on and was ok, so I set to work to stop this happening again. I produced a cover to sit over the switch, to prevent my hand from knocking it off. Job done.
This is an ideal use for simple 3D printing. A simple sturdy component that fits a purpose.
However, there are companies out there producing, much, much more complex designs than this, in metal. So what does this mean for the future of manufacturing? Well, lets look at the current situation. You have either Additive Manufacturing, or Subtractive Manufacturing. The majority still default to Subtractive, in the form of machining. It's cost effective, widely accurate and if really pushed with 5+ axis machine tools, can make pretty much anything. You can use plastics, metals, wood, high density foams, the list goes on. You can either buy a small DIY CNC router for home use, or a fully fledged Haas VMC with some serious material removal capabilities, so there's something to fit all budgets. Now here lies the issue; Time.
In an age where we want everything yesterday and time is considered a limited resource, machining can come with certain restraints. Often machine shops are stacked out with high work loads (which for now is great!) which means your part may not make it onto the machine for a few days. then once it's ready to machine, the part has be programmed and set up - depending on the part, this could take another day or maybe more. If you want a sample for fit and function, it has to be set up and machined before production can begin, which can prove challenging. 3D printing is a different story - once your part is ready (with a little tweaking to make it printable) it can be printed pretty much straight away with minimal fuss. Your fit and function sample can be tested before a CNC machine has even been powered up. Now, this can be done relatively cheaply, however that comes with a problem. Cheap machines are unreliable and inaccurate, and often tie themselves in knots, for example if it's a filament fed machine. You can leave a part running all night only to find a puddle of mushy plastic everywhere the following morning. Really the most accurate and usable method is laser sintering, then this comes with a much, much larger cost. Also the cost for the materials can be massive. Then again, the cost of waste from machining a part from billet can be pretty high too if you're only making small batches.
3D printing really does have it's place, however I believe that it will never replace machining. There may be a time fairly soon when the two machines are combined, for example we do see printed parts with post-op machining done... I think the future won't necessarily lie with the method itself now - there is plenty of development work making 3D printing better and better all the time, this is inevitable. If anything, it will get that good that it may eliminate the requirement for casting processes. 3D printers are already in use printing moulds in sand rather than traditionally hand packing them.
What really is the future is how these processes are going to be managed. Industry 4.0 is pushing more and more automation, and along with it more companies are popping up where you upload a 3D model to a website, then a few days later your machined part arrives via courier. I think further development of this is where it's at. It's already happening. I've seen a factory in the UK with about 20 vmc's with one operator just loading billets, all making injection moulding tooling to go all over the world in all industries. None of it is programmed by a human being, not even the quoting - it's all taken care of via software and is turned around ultra fast.
Imagine a super fast and accurate VMC that can 3D print metal components through the spindle then do a tool change and create machined faces with cutting tools... have I just invented AddiSub Manufacturing? I'd better get to the drawing board....
A question often asked, is "What's the best CAM software package?" But the real question that you should be asking is this; "What's the best CAM software package for me?"
Even now, in the UK especially it still surprises me how many engineering companies haven't fully integrated a CAM software package in their CNC machine shop. It's 2018! Get your business up to date and take advantage of what your real capabilities can achieve!
There are many things to consider before committing to expensive software, but which one is the best for you and how do you know? Here I'll talk a little about some packages and why they'll be good or not so good for your shop.
We've all been there, that moment when you get handed a drawing and you think "errrm... how the heck am I going to do this?" Also, we've all seen the videos and demonstrations of some funky shapes and profiles being cut on a 5 Axis machines, made from a material packed with lead so they can run it at a million metres a minute to show off - making you feel that programming and machining skills are inadequate. Well let me tell you, you're wrong. You're simply not using the right tools for the job. It's like using one of those old hand-winding drills and being jealous of the guy with his new Makita hammer drill.
So what's available to you? And what's best for your machine shop? Well that depends on the following, in no particular order:
1. Budget - this one's self explanatory
2. Ability to learn - and with this I mean is your time "free" enough to learn
3. Flexibility - will the software work well with my machine(s)?
4. Is it suitable for the components I'm manufacturing?
All CAM packages essentially do the same thing - they basically convert drawn or generated toolpaths from your PC screen from a 3D or 2D model, into G-code for your CNC machine to read. Some are great for 2D profiling work, others are perfect for creating 3-dimensional toolpaths over complex geometry, like a mould tool for example - something that you'd never dream of writing code for these days. However, a lot of these higher end packages contain multiple features which not every engineer or shop is going to require and often, fully adopting these doesn't always go that well - as they can just do too much for what you need. That's not to say that these software packages are no good - far from it, they are superb tools for the job. It's just that you as a consumer may be over estimating what you really require.
If you're small-ish job shop with a couple of decent machines, you may not really require the all singing, all dancing latest version of Siemens NX - this really would be a money-no-object direction, and can take some learning. Consider, that generally F1 teams default to NX, not that it's the best because it's the most expensive, but because some of the applications within the software can really be put to their paces in an F1 manufacturing environment. For a smaller company, the budget can be much less, also with a considerably shallower learning curve.
Lets say you have no CAM experience whatsoever, but want to venture into trying out some new things with your machine. You may even be a hobbyist. The outright winner here would be Autodesk's offering, Fusion 360. Fusion 360 has been around for a few years now as a full blown, cloud based CAD/CAM package, and is now really growing some legs in the market and becoming a real consideration for a lot of machine shops. It's cheap, (even free for a year on a Start-up or Educational licence) and it's really, really easy to use. There's also a huge community following on their support forums so if you're stuck and need a hand, you can jump on there and join the discussion. Alongside this, there are a few Autodesk employees on YouTube who post regular tutorial and Q&A videos - I'd be stunned if even the greenest of CADCAM users couldn't make something well within a week of studying alongside the support of someone like Fusion360 expert - Lars Christensen.
Fusion is not so much a focused CAM package however - it's a very well rounded piece of software which specialises in 3D and 2D design, for manufacturing in general, offering drawings, assemblies, 3D printing integration and so on, also with the CAM side of things, there isn't really much restricted to base users, with multi axis programming available right out of the box.
A proper CAM package that I am a big supporter of is OneCNC, it does support 3D and 2D design work however I will say it's perhaps not as intuitive as other design packages and I have often found users like to use different software for design, and OneCNC for the CAM side. However this is where it shines. The user friendly interface is so easy to learn it's unreal, and compared to other packages it's fairly inexpensive, especially if you are able to recoup the cost after a few jobs have ran. The support is superb (I can only talk from the perspective of OneCNC UK) but I have heard that support elsewhere in the world is really good too, also once you've got the software, you have access to a support forum of other users, including OneCNC staff who can help. A big (really big) plus is the post processor support - unlike a lot of other CAM packages, it comes pre-loaded with libraries of post processors which are pretty much ready to run for almost every machine you can think of, at no extra cost. Also if your post isn't present, a quick call to support will more often than not see you running with a post that works. This sort of support is a big winner for OneCNC and makes it stand out fro the rest. This flexibility is one of the reasons why it's the main CNC CAM package I turn to all the time.
These are 2 great packages, and can easily hold their own now with the likes of Solidcam and Mastercam, which are both awesome in their own right, and there are a lot of shops out there swearing by them, but that doesn't mean they're the best for you, they may be though and that's the point.
You need to think about what it is you're making and how much you have to spend. Also consider your ability and time to learn. OneCNC and Fusion360 are incredibly fast to learn. In the past I've trained a non-machinist to go from becoming a push-button operator to a proficient programmer in around a year, using OneCNC as part of the process. Writing programs for a multi-axis Haas VMC from scratch, even with up to 20 different offsets. Obviously a lot of that is down to the individual, but if it wasn't for OneCNC being so user-friendly then I'm not sure it would have gone so well.
Follow Lars Christensen on his YouTube channel here
Find out more about Fusion 360 here
Also find out more about OneCNC here and find your local vendor for a demo.
In the meantime, have fun making stuff!