Software's top minds look at trends.

Position:Software Special Section

For the fifth straight year, Tooling & Production has invited the best and the brightest in software development to share their ideas and opinions at a special roundtable. As in years past, much of the talk focused on increased productivity. Here's what our software gurus told the T&P staff.

What are the major trends in NC software development today?

Alan Christman: The major trend in software development is to re-architect application products to support the evolution from a Wintel PC platform to a Web-enabled or a Web-native environment. Web-enabled applications permit users to access data using a standard Web browser. Web-native applications are designed specifically for exchanging and processing data over the Web. Currently, CAM software vendors support the use of the Web to perform functions such as:

* Accessing on-line help from the software vendor,

* Providing an information source for tool libraries or mold base catalogues,

* Providing new releases, product updates, or code correction to users,

* Transferring NC programs to machine tools on the shopfloor across multiple locations, and

* Generating reports to be viewed throughout an enterprise.

Over time, most application software will reside on a Web server, providing services that many users can concurrently access.

Yery Camacho: In CAD/CAM, the major trends have been identified with the porting of applications to the MS Windows environment. Utilization of knowledge-based engineering capabilities is going to play a major role in the automation of NC generation and will dramatically increase productivity.

Peter Dickin: The main trend is a move from basic instructions, e.g., draw a line or create a fillet, to process automation, e.g., Wizards for processes such as electrode design or tooling assembly creation. However, these systems still need to have the flexibility of the full software as the automated solutions are not always the ideal result.

Bill Gibbs: Specifically regarding CAM software, the trend is toward maturing products with increased feature sets. Since more and more products have the features needed by many potential customers, customers need to turn to other decision-making criteria such as ease-of-use, quality of product, service and support.

Gary Hargreaves: High-speed machining continues to be refined with an emphasis on different types of toolpaths based on material. For example, some high-speed machines are OK with an interrupted cut because of the material, while others are not.

Another trend is toolpaths for specific tool types such as the Felix cutter. Also, the ability to store and reuse the knowledge captured with the part model and associated toolpaths continues to evolve. Another trend is the further development of STEP-NC, as this format continues to build on the knowledge already in the model.

Bill Hasenjaeger: The relationship between software and the actual machining process is evolving. The trend is moving from the situation where softWare is a mechanism to merely drive the machine to a model in which software is more intelligent with a "relationship"' and working knowledge with the NC machine tools. When the software has knowledge not only of the cutting process as it changes the in-process workpiece but also of the machine and control capabilities/limitations, it is able to create toolpath programs that adjust to the changes in cutting conditions, factoring in the capabilities of the specific machine tool cutting the part.

Steve Sivitter: First, automation. Several forms of automation comprise a huge trend in CAM software development. A good example moving beyond automated machining routines, (which were simplistic and slow) to offering the programmer a range of options in the ways that automated machining routines can be applied. This is rapidly moving the automated machining modules in CAM software beyond the lowest common denominator/one size-fits-all approach.

Another example is feature recognition. This allows the CAM software to identify and machine similar shapes and geometric features quickly and with minimal changes in setups. Add to this, knowledge-based machining: Once a machining routine or the parameters of a particular setup or cutter are "learned" by the CAM software, it need never be recreated again.

Second, interoperability with solid modelers. Interoperability means that any change to the model can be automatically updated in the toolpaths. Equally important, no design intelligence in the solid model gets "lost in the translation."

Chuck Mathews: From a typical customer's point of view, the most significant trend in CAM software development today is the advances that have been made over the last year in Automatic Feature Recognition (AFR). Utilizing this technology, today's CAM software is capable of delivering fivefold and ten-fold increases in productivity by minimizing the need to manually analyze and manipulate part geometry in order to prepare it for machining. For example, with traditional CAM software, a complex pocket with multiple height floors, bosses and sub pockets might take an hour or more to prepare for machining. CAM systems now automatically perform this same task in a matter of 1 or 2 seconds thanks to powerful AFR tools.

Has the softened economy affected programming needs? How? Has it placed greater emphasis on a strong programming strategy?

Christman: With the troubled economy, manufacturers are under increased pressure to improve their operations to obtain shorter lead times, increased quality of products and lower costs. The level of factory automation must be increased. In turn, the degree of programming automation must also be enhanced to meet these needs. As manufacturers re-evaluate their operations, software vendors must also reassess their priorities and place an even greater emphasis on a strong programming strategy that focuses on improved user productivity.

Camacho: The current economic situation has had negligible effect on the overall CAD/CAM marketplace. The consolidation of vendors and software development staff has had a bigger effect. Customers, however, are constantly being challenged to reduce production cycles and are faced with more complex tasks. Utilization of new technologies in hardware and software are a must for these customers.

Dickin: The main difference is that tooling buyers have more choice when there is...

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