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A Primer on Milling and Machining Technology; CAD/CAM Software and Digital Tooling Utilities

[March 23, 2020] Despite the spate of recent economic uncertainty surrounding the health crisis that’s gripping our nation, at Advanced Precision Machining’s Colorado machine shop, we are almost complete with the first quarter of what has started off as a very successful year for us! On a positive note, our milling and machining facility in Longmont, and the industry as a whole, continues to experience growth in all aspects of the business. As the precision manufacturing and metalworking economy has emerged from a somewhat stagnant footing in previous years, we find that our machine tools are now working harder than ever, and demand for machine work has been increasing at a rate that occasionally outpaces our supply and capacity. But given the recent unfortunate set of circumstances that our country and the world is now facing, our hope is that everyone will soon be out of harm’s way and that it will be back to business as usual for all facets of everyday life. 

With all of this in mind, our mission remains unchanged; We're dedicated to manufacturing the highest quality precision parts while providing the best customer service experience in the CNC machine shop business. As everyone works to get through this period of uncertainty, our machinists will make every effort to meet our customer’s continuing need for quality, high speed, precision machined parts, and deliver them by their scheduled dates to the best of our ability and capability. Recent advances in milling and machining technology, including a vast array of digital tooling utilities that are now used to augment and boost CNC machining operations, are certain to play a big role in meeting our client demands. Today’s modern metalworking facilities now have at their fingertips the critical, cutting-edge software necessary to make their business successful, and APM will be relying on it more so now than ever. We are hopeful that business continues as per usual, and to that end, this blog entry aims to piece together, for the uninitiated, some various machine shop software components our industry relies on. 

If one were to take a peek inside any CNC machining facility, you will find a host of technologically advanced software programs being run to improve the productivity of the business itself, and most importantly, the CNC milling, turning, grinding, and measuring machines that are at the very heart of the precision machine work. In addition to the purchase order, scheduling, accounting, inventory, and payroll programs to name just a few, APM’s CNC machinists rely heavily on a natural progression of software suites dedicated to one-off or batch production of precision machine components. From initial blueprint and design to prototyping, to final part production, the following utilities are standard protocol and used by almost every milling and machining operation. Here we present a brief overview:

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) Software

The CNC machining workflow process cannot begin without the implementation of CAD software, the heavily relied upon technology that allows for the rendering of a 2D or 3D model of a part to be precision manufactured. CAD allows CNC machinists and machine shop customers to digitally create, modify, analyze, and optimize the design of any component before milling and machining work takes place. The precision machining process itself can be facilitated as CAD allows for a part's materials, tolerances, and dimensions to be analyzed. Diagrams and drawings, or even solid models and prototypes using 3D printing technology, can be viewed and modified prior to production.

Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) Software

Once a part is mocked-up with a CAD rendering, it now enters the toolpath and CNC machine programming phase. CAM software is utilized to organize the CNC machining process. In simple terms, CAM takes the geometric models produced by CAD software and generates a series of codes (G-Codes) that are fed into the control software on CNC mills and lathes, for example. CNC Machinists rely on CAM utilities to form machining strategies that enable workflow efficiency. Selection of stock, dimensions, tool designation, speed and feed settings, and streamlined tool paths can all be programmed into CNC machining centers. CAM works in conjunction with CAD to make the entire part machining process more reliable and more efficient.

Simulation and Verification Software

When G Code is converted in the CAD to CAM process, errors may present themselves in precision machining operations. This is not a good thing! Modern milling machines are complex, and programming errors can result in damage to expensive equipment, wasted bar stock, and loss of time, money and productivity. Simulation and verification software is used to better write, analyze, and improve functions before milling and machining begins. Code simulators and verification programs provide a good graphic replication of how a CNC machine will perform, and what will be produced.

CNC Machine Control, Monitoring, and Other Utility Software

Modern CNC machines consist in part of the machine tool assembly itself, and its computer numerical control system, with control software acting as the heart of the system. Most CNC machining centers, including APM's Hurco's VMX 50, rely on OEM software built into the machine that converts CAM programming into the motions of precision machining. Machine monitoring software, such as MTConnect, allows for the exchange of data between precision manufacturing tools and software packages tasked with monitoring the performance of the machine shop equipment. PC-based software also exists that allows for a desktop computer to act as a control unit, although this is more common among hobbyists. Utility packages work in conjunction with control software to monitor performance, output, and capabilities such as part feed and speed.

Shop Management Software

Machine shop management software, such as JoBOSS, is a quoting, tracking and price review software specifically tailored to a precision machining operation. Shop owners are constantly up against short lead times, scheduling conflicts, resource constraints, and many more obstacles to running a lean operation. The right shop management software solution goes a long way towards better handling one-off jobs, blanket orders, multi-level assemblies and split jobs, and helps to automate many outdated, manual processes. The end result is more predictability, shorter lead times, and better allocation of resources, milling machines, and personnel. For more thorough information on modern CNC machine shop software, or to put its power to use for your next precision machining project, contact the expert CNC machinists at APM's Colorado machine shop today.

Want to learn more about improving machine shop efficiency and productivity, or have a question about your next milling and machining project? Contact the expert CNC machinists at Advanced Precision Machining today. 

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About the Author

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he and a partner began what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing. 

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