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What is computer-aided manufacturing (CAM)?

Duncan Geddes

by Duncan Geddes

In the 21st Century, CAM is an indispensable part of your daily life, whether you know it or not. From dentures to nuclear submarines, more than ever, our modern world is built by the graceful interactions of software, hardware and, thankfully, talented engineers.

But what exactly is computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and how does it work? In this guide, we’ll explore the processes, technology and real-world examples to help you understand one of the most important hidden advancements of our age.

 

What is CAM?

 

Computer-aided manufacturing is the use of software and computer-controlled machinery (CNC) to automate the manufacturing process. CAM itself stands for computer-aided manufacturing and usually works in tandem with CAD (computer-aided design) to allow machines to create objects directly from computer designs and software rather than engineers having to set up machines and processes manually.

Manual machine setup

 

In the past, machines had to be set up and often operated manually, but CAM means these processes can happen automatically, as directed by the computers at the heart of the machines.

 

How does CAM work?

 

Traditional manufacturing methods rely on engineers to set up the various machines used in the manufacturing process – often creating ‘jigs’ or patterns for machines to follow. The CAM system works by substituting hand-made jigs with software that defines the actions and processes of a machine directly.

Computer-aided manufacturing software translates drawings and data into detailed instructions that drive automated tools/machines. This allows designers to submit designs and specifications directly to machines without the need to develop jigs or program machines manually.

Typically, a designer will use CAD software on their computer to create a 3D design of a model or part. The software talks to CAM tools/machines to set up the processes to produce/tool the physical item automatically. CAM machines can then produce thousands of identical models automatically – reducing the time it takes to produce.

 

What’s the difference between CAM and CAD?

 

There is often confusion about the difference between computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). The key is that one relates to design and one to manufacturing.

While the terms refer to different processes, they are closely related, making up different steps in the modern manufacturing process. Product designers use CAD software to create ‘blueprints’ for models. Importantly, these blueprints can be used to directly program CAM machines to produce the models – avoiding manual set up of machines.

CAD drawing

 

What is CAM used for?

 

In today’s world, you’d be better off to ask what CAM can’t be used for. CAM is used – and can be used – to produce almost any item created by a machine or tool. It can be used to create models from metal, plastic and even wood.

Its main roles are:

  • – Tool path designs create computer models of new designs
  • – Machining equipment in manufacturing that rely on numerical controls for precision cutting, shaping and packaging
  • – Management of overall production process to drive efficiency
  • – Fabrication and engineering design which relies on the integration and synchronisation of various pieces of machinery with CAM software
  • – Equipment safety. CAM is highly reliable – able to reproduce identical processes without deviation. This can also result in cost savings as manufacturing facilities can then maintain OSHA compliance.

 

Industries

 

As well as many of the consumer products we have in our homes, CAM is used in aerospace and defence, shipbuilding, the automobile and train industries and the machine tool industry.

 

Aerospace

 

CAM’s strength, safety, flexibility, versatility and precision means that it is invaluable to the aerospace industry as it can create complex workpieces including free-form surfaces and deep cavities in materials such as titanium and super-alloys.

 

Automotive

 

The automotive industry makes great use of CAM, its precision being essential for an industry where aesthetics can play as important a role as structure and strength. CAM can deliver circles, regular cubes and subtle curves on the surfaces as part of large assemblies with robust manufacturing capabilities and product data management (PDM) capabilities.

Many of our own automotive foam solutions enter a complex manufacturing process that involves a combination of traditional and computer-aided manufacturing steps.

 

Chemicals

 

In chemical and OTC pharmaceutical manufacturing companies, CAM is used in turnkey manufacturing to speed up the whole production process. For example, CAM will specify the volume of raw and secondary materials used in the chemical process.

 

Medical technology

 

This industry has made great use of CAD and CAM to deliver absolute precision where it’s needed in biomedical engineering: clinical medicine, customized medical implants, tissue engineering, dentistry, artificial joints and robotic surgery.

For example, 3D printing is used to create models of injuries and other health issues, CAM creates flexible endoscopic systems and dentists can now provide precision in chairside milling, orthodontics and implant workflows.

 

Examples of CAM

 

Textiles

 

Designers and manufacturers already use virtual 3D prototype systems to visualise 2D patterns into 3D virtual prototyping as in the case of software such as Modaris 3D fit or Marvellous Designer. Other software such as Accumark V-stitcher and Optitex 3D runway, present the viewer with a 3D simulation, which seeks to demonstrate to the viewer, the fit of the garment and the drape of the fabric.

 

Aerospace and astronomy

 

Telescope lenses need the highest degree of precision and CAM is delivering it for the 18 hexagonal beryllium segments in the James Webb Space Telescope. The primary mirror measures 1.3 metres from edge to edge and machining and etching will reduce the mirror mass by 92% from 250 kilograms to 21 kilograms.

 

Military

 

CAM has proven invaluable to The Royal Navy in the production of their dreadnought-class submarines. The task is unsurprisingly complex and requires the integration of more than 200 ship systems and CAM and CAD is detailed enough to pick up design issues, such as overlapping parts as well as allowing disparate teams to stay closely involved in the design process.

Dreadnought submarine

 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of CAM?

 

Despite all the clear advantages of CAM, it will not suit all manufacturing goals. For a start, the expertise and craft of human engineers still plays a critical role in high-quality manufacturing, as discussed in our full review of CAM’s benefits – Manufacturing: it’s not a battle of men or machine.

Here’s a summary of our conclusions:

 

Advantages of CAM

 

  • – Predictable and consistent

  • – Flexible and versatile, CAM systems can maximize utilization of a full range of production equipment (high-speed, 5-axis, multi-function and turning machines, electrical discharge machining (EDM) and CMM inspection equipment)

  • – Ability to create prototypes quickly and without waste

  • – Can aid in optimizing NC programs for optimum machining productivity

  • – Can automate the creation of performance reports

  • – Provides integration of various systems and processes as part of the manufacturing process

  • – Higher productivity

  • – Designs can be altered without the need to manually re-program machines especially with parametric CAD software

  • – Ease of implementation as CAD and CAM systems become standardised

  • – CAD and CAM software continues to evolve offering visual representation and integration of modelling and testing applications

  • – Accuracy.

 

Disadvantages of CAM

 

  • – Computer errors are possible

  • – CAD and CAM software can be expensive

  • – Training is expensive

  • – Computers and controllers to run the software and CNC machinery for manufacturing is expensive.

 

Popular CAD/CAM tools

 

There are many computer-aided design software brands and products. Below is a list of popular computer-aided manufacturing tools including CNC (Computer numerical control) machines:

  • – Autodesk AutoCAD

  • – Lathes

  • – CNC routers

  • – Water cutters

  • – Plasma cutters

  • – Laser cutters

  • – Milling machines

  • – Electrical Discharge Machines (EDM)

 

How we use CAM

 

When it comes to foam, traditional engineering expertise is more important than ever as foam is an especially unpredictable raw material that can easily trip up computer-aided tools.

We use a combination of traditional techniques and CAM to offer our customers the best of both worlds – expertise, speed, efficiency and precision.

traditional foam machining

 

In the first instance, our engineer – of 40 years’ experience – will create a quality working prototype. He will then work with our CAD designers and material-cutting programs to translate the prototype into CAD for CAM for production volumes using our CNC machines, milling machines and knife-cutting table.

preparing CAM machine

 

Follow these links to find out more about our foam product design and development process and foam materials expertise.

 

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