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Sheet metal CADCAM can bring big benefits if you choose wisely


Lantek marketing consultant Richard Mortimer talks to Robert Powell, Managing Director, Lantek UK

Richard Mortimer: "Purchasing a new CNC laser, plasma, punching or combination machine is a large investment for any company so how can managers get the maximum return on their investment•"

Robert Powell: "A key contributor to the productivity of the machine will be the sheet metal CADCAM system chosen to drive it. Going for the cheapest solution can be a big mistake, as the difference in performance between a low cost solution and a good quality, well developed CADCAM system is likely to be considerable, with the better solution paying for its higher cost, through improved productivity, in a matter of months."

RM: "What sort of features will you find in an advanced sheet metal CADCAM system•"

RP: "Automatic addition of lead in and lead out movements will save hours of programming time and avoid costly errors in scrapped components or damage to the machine, while technology to keep the head down as laser cutting continues speeds up processing time and also makes sure that the machine does not run over previously cut paths, which could lead to a collision with a tipped up component."

RM: "Can a good CAM system actually shorten production times•"

RP: "Most definitely, for example, common line cutting, where components can share a boundary, will shorten the overall cycle by reducing both piercing times and the cut length, while micro jointing will make it possible to retain parts in the sheet until cutting is finished. Even simple steps like marking the part number on each component as it is cut can lead to big productivity gains by making the identification of parts for subsequent fabrication operations much simpler."

RM: "Most designs come as CAD data nowadays, so how can companies make full use of the opportunities this technology provides•"

RP: "In some applications the company already has a CAD system in place, so integration with the system can provide benefits such as unfolding and management of the components which go to make up an assembly. Where high volumes of parts are being processed, and designs are continually evolving, this integration becomes very important. Not only can managers be sure that the right and most up to date parts are being cut, but quantities of each component can be passed to the CAM system ready for nesting. Some users will be cutting hundreds of parts each day in a bewildering array of combinations to meet production schedules, so trying to manage this type of complexity manually will be extremely difficult and prone to human error. Linking the CAM system to the schedule and integrating with a MRP package, while ensuring that only the latest CAD data is being used, is essential for the smooth running of production."

RM: "Surely the actual cutting path will be the same for any CAM system•"

RP: "That is very far from the truth. Automatic recognition of features ensures that programming is fully automatic and utilizes all the capabilities of the machine. Coupled with the technology benefits I have already mentioned, cutting operations which may take 25 minutes using one CAM system can be completed in as little as 5 minutes with the best software."

RM: "Maximizing material utilization has got to be a priority for manufacturers, especially with the rapidly increasing cost of steel•"

RP: "Again, the quality of the nesting package in your CAM system will be crucial to this exercise. Some companies stick to a range of standard nests which they have optimized. The problem with this is that it does not work for most applications where the mix of components is continually changing. A dynamic nest, where each daily or weekly requirement is automatically nested into the available material, will achieve much better utilization. Companies will be able to reduce inventory as only parts actually required will be made, and components can be cut just before they are required using JIT principles. Additionally, the range of material purchased can be rationalized helping companies to negotiate better prices on the material they buy and also reduce storage space requirements, and finally, offcuts can be utilized, if the software can manage these, further reducing wastage. Companies frequently achieve over 90% utilization using these methods."

RM: "How do companies build up a long term partnership with their sheet metal CADCAM supplier•"

RP: "For a reputable CADCAM supplier, high quality support and continual development of the software is a priority. For a low cost CADCAM system, the support is necessarily going to be less as the cost of employing good engineers is not small. With high quality support, engineers will understand about machine technology, helping users with the best configuration of the machine itself as well as the software, resulting in a high standard of edge finish, fast processing and full integration with existing CAD and MRP systems."

RM: "You mention integration into MRP. Are there other areas where sheet metal CADCAM software can improve productivity•"

RP: "Software for sheet metal applications goes further than just generating CNC code for the machine. It also produces accurate cycle times for costings and quotations, feedback from the shop floor of the status of manufacture, and can be extended into purchasing, stock control and a host of other management functions, making it a highly important part of any sheet metal manufacturing business. With these benefits and possibilities, it is clear that choosing the right sheet metal CADCAM package can have a big impact on productivity, profitability and return on investment."

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