Integrated CAD-CAM Workflows Speed the Prototyping Process
Barb Schmitz posted on September 30, 2013 |

CAD software developers are constantly under the gun to develop new features to enable users to innovate better and design products faster. After all, their customers are the ones responsible for conceiving and designing the next great product.

On the CAM software side, however, users simply want the right toolpaths that produce good parts…the first time.

Engineers have a workflow built around their CAD software; CNC programmers have a completely different one. As the cost of machining technology began to drop, making it more accessible to more companies, an interesting thing happened. Engineering departments began to recognize the benefits of bringing CNC machining in-house to reduce the headaches and bottlenecks associated with outsourcing parts (scheduling, costs, quality control issues, etc.) to third-party machine shops.


Companies bring CNC machining in-house

As more and more companies began buying CNC machines, a growing number of designers and engineers responsible for prototyping began getting involved in the machining process, either finding themselves in front of the actual CNC machine or close by, interacting more frequently with the people who ran the machines. Despite being closer to the machining process, the engineers needed training to create the toolpaths needed by the machines.

The CAM software workflow is completely different, which can frustrate engineers and designers who have little desire to learn a new tool. After all, engineers don't necessarily want to be CNC programmers; they just need to create toolpaths.

HSMWorks, a small company in Denmark, recognized that there was a growing need for CAM software that was integrated with users' CAD software, much the same way simulation and analysis software had been for years.

Anthony Graves, former executive at HSMWorks, now with Autodesk, says, “We recognized that if we could create a workflow where there wasn't a mental shift required to move from modeling to generating toolpaths, it would eliminate a major reason why many engineers were reluctant to even look into doing this themselves. It would remove the intimidation factor commonly associated with CNC programming and reduce the learning curve normally associated with adopting a new tool.”

In 2008, the company rolled out HSMWorks, CAM software that is seamlessly integrated with SolidWorks 3D CAD. HSMWorks was designed specifically to work in a way very similar to the CAD system, in this case SolidWorks, and users loved it. “They don't have to use our software everyday to be proficient because it works like the CAD tool that they do use everyday,” says Graves. “If you make the software work like the tool they are used to working with, they are going to be more productive.”

In October of last year, Autodesk purchased HSMWorks. Autodesk plans to continue both the support and development of HSMWorks for SolidWorks, releasing a new version, HSMWorks 2014, this fall. Next spring the company will unveil Inventor HSM, which will offer the same level of seamless integration with Autodesk's Inventor 3D CAD software.


CNC Machines and 3D Printers: Shouldn't be an either-or proposition

At around the same time the cost of CNC machines began to fall, the price of 3D printers also began to drop as well, putting the technology for the first time within the reach of most companies. Engineers recognize the value of being able to turn their design into a physical object, whether for testing or simply to observe the fit, feel, and function. And, in many cases, engineers need to produce a physical part in the material it will ultimate be produced in. A close representation isn't enough. In cases like this, CNC's are often the right tool for the job.

In fact, in many cases using a CNC machine to produce a prototype can actually be faster than using a 3D printer. For example, to create a prototype of a fairly simple small part, it could easily take a couple of hours on a 3D printer. Faster than if you were outsourcing it to a third-party machine shop, but that same part might be produced using a typical CAM tool on a CNC machine in a fraction of the time. For parts that can't be quickly or economically produced on a CNC, however, 3D printers are the better choice.

“It really shouldn't be an either-or proposition because the two technologies complement each other,” says Graves. “For prototyping, you shouldn't have to choose between a 3D printer and a CNC machine; you should have both.”

With the prices of both 3D printers and CNC machines now within reach, more companies are going to recognize the benefits that both technologies bring to the table. Physical prototyping has traditionally been a costly bottleneck in the product development process. Today, however, designers and engineers—armed with integrated CAM tools, CNC machines and 3D printers—can easily create parts of nearly any shape and size quickly and at less expense.

For more information on Autodesk’s line of CAM solutions go here.

You can also register and download your Free 2-1/2 CAM solution for SolidWorks software or Autodesk Inventor.

For a Free, 30-day trial of Autodesk Inventor click here.

Autodesk has sponsored promotion of their design solutions on They have no editorial input to this post - all opinions are mine.  Barb Schmitz

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