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Swiss machining embraces CAM with good reason: an expert's view on the paradigms that have given rise to the importance of this software in the market.

Used to be you said "CAM" to a CNC Swiss-type lathe user and the first thought that came to mind was the actual cams on a screw machine.

Not any more.

Today, computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software has become as critical a tool to those involved in CNC Swiss turning as it is to those involved in milling, the traditional bastion of CAM software. Just a decade ago, CNC Swiss machines were essentially all programmed manually. Today, more and more Swiss shops are turning to CAM software to automate their CNC programming.

What changed to make CAM software such an important facet of Swiss machining?

The answer--a lot.

Let's explore some of the major paradigms in CNC Swiss-turning, ones that have caused the rise in popularity of CAM software.

Setup reduction

A decade ago, virtually all CNC Swiss machines were dedicated to high-volume production. Once a job was set up, it would run for weeks, if not months. By 2000, that situation had definitely started to change with the proliferation of just-in-time and lean-manufacturing initiatives as well as with the increasing influence of low-cost foreign competition. Lot sizes have dwindled ever since.

As a result, a number of jobs left for CNC Swiss machines were smaller in volume and more complex to manufacture. The increasing complexity came in the form of more milled features and more stringent tolerances.

I can remember speaking to one of my customers in 2003, a major contract manufacturer with a number of Swiss machines in the Cleveland area. The owner lamented: "My customers are demanding the same price for a part we were providing four years ago, except that part now has a greater number of features and they are ordering them in quantities of 50, not 5,000."

These two trends meant that setting up a job quickly became more critical than ever. If a part runs for six months and its setup takes an extra few hours, the profitability of that job will not be that severely affected. But if a job runs for six hours and its setup takes an extra few hours, you are running those parts for free.

With the right CAM system, Swiss shops found that instead of programming right at the machine or programming manually offline and painstakingly proving out the program at the machine, they could generate the program offline, visually simulate the machining process on a PC, and send a program that required little if any operator intervention to the machine.

In a number of cases, users who have switched to PartMaker SwissCAM from manual programming report reducing their machine setup time by more than 50 percent in the first 30 days of implementing the software. Though the idea behind CAM software is to speed up programming, for CNC Swiss often the biggest benefit is that of setup-time reduction.

More axes, problems

CNC Swiss machine builders didn't just sit idly by while their customers toiled with smaller lots sizes and more complex parts. In the case of the machine builders, they reacted to these trends by building machines better suited to drop more complex parts complete in one setup. That meant Swiss machines increased in complexity. More tooling slides were added, and milling capabilities were beefed up. Today, some Swiss machines have in excess of 13 programmable axes up from the high end of about 5 a decade ago.

Of course, all these axes needed to be programmed and controlled. Needless to say, programming a 13-axis machine is a lot more difficult than programming a four-axis machine. These new breeds of machines, these "virtual machine shops in a box"--as William Hulbig, founder of Micro Group, a contract manufacturer in Massachusetts, calls his Citizen M-20 machines--increased the emphasis on decreasing setup time. With increased complexity came increased cost, and the cost of machine downtime has increased accordingly.

New machine tools such as the Star ECAS-32T, which features two turrets and a back working slide, and the Tsugami TMU-1 with an upper B-axis head and lower turret mark the conversion of the Swiss-type lathe from a CNC screw machine to a fully enclosed small parts processing cell.

As a result, more operations felt the need to move to CAM software to help them harness the power of their equipment and automate their programming.

Technological innovation

While the ever increasing focus on setup reduction was forcing Swiss users to find a way to automate their programming, what they often found when they went looking for a CAM solution was disappointment and broken promises.

The problem was that the world of CAM was--and, by and large, still is--milling-centric. CAM software has traditionally existed for milling applications, while turning has long been the red-headed setup child of the CAM world. The programming requirements of CNC Swiss-type lathes vary greatly from a mill or two-axis lathe. Many CAM vendors approached the problem of programming a multi-axis Swiss lathe as simply adding milling and turning together. Unfortunately, mill plus turn does not equal Swiss.

Consider Starro Precision Products, Elgin, IL, which has more than 35 CNCs, including various models of Star and Citizen Swiss-type lathes in addition to CNC mills and fixed headstock lathes with live tooling. "We have found PartMaker SwissCAM to be savior and have increased our output by 300 percent regarding programming and part qualification. We are pleased to say that four years after acquiring the software, the decision to partner with PartMaker SwissCAM has been reinforced by the constant successes we have achieved," says Lee Dwyer, Starro vice president.

PartMaker SwissCAM appeared on the market in 1999 as the first CAM package specifically dedicated to the programming of all models of Swiss machines. Though SwissCAM's core technology is based on IMCS's patented technology for programming fixed head stock turn-mill centers, SwissCAM went far beyond just programming turning with live tooling. It included support of Swiss specific programming issue such a sliding headstock, tool shifts, and process synchronization of multiple tools working on a main and subspindle. Many leading Swiss users, including such industry leaders as Medtronic and Corning (as well as number of smaller ones), have caught on and standardized their programming on PartMaker SwissCAM.

Help available

While part and machine complexity continues to rise, the availability of experienced personnel with a command of Swiss machining has not kept pace and, in fact, is in short supply.

Generally speaking, software has always been a tool not just to automate tasks, but also to lend expertise in carrying them out. For example: Not a CPA but need help doing your accounting? Get Quicken! Not a graphics artist but need help designing marketing materials? Get Photoshop. This general calculus applies to Swiss machining just as it does to those other, totally unrelated arenas. Furthermore, the explosion in the popularity of Swiss machining, an expansion driven by growth industries such as medical devices and telecommunications, has increased the number of companies requiring help in automating programming. Many shops that are new to Swiss but long on experience in traditional CNC applications have turned to CAM to speed their transition into CNC Swiss manufacturing.

Another paradigm that has increased the need for CAM software among users of CNC Swiss-type lathes is the proliferation of solids design. It is becoming increasingly more common that part data are provided in the form of a solid model versus a traditional paper drawing. Solid models help the part designer by better envisioning the part as well as making that part available to fit into an assembly or for use in finite element analysis. As more of the parts being machined on Swiss machines have gone the way of solid modeling, the need has increased for manufacturers to adopt programming methods to accept data in solid format. A CAM system allows a manufacturer to accept a solid model design and apply machining strategies to it to generate an NC program. PartMaker Software/IMCS Inc., www.rsleads.com/601tp-170

Hanan Fishman

Vice President

Partmaker Software/IMCS Inc.
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Title Annotation:software solutions
Author:Fishman, Hanan
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1328
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