Avoid upgrade anxiety

cnc_upgradesThe biggest problem with software is that it’s constantly changing. Of course, that’s also the attraction. The second biggest problem is that software engineers and management gurus arbitrarily invent new terminology — and then expect that the rest of us will intuitively “get” it.

For example, how many woodworkers who haven’t been to business school know about ERP? It means “enterprise resource planning,” and refers to software that lets a shop integrate several applications in its overall management plan. To get an idea of the concept, stop by OmegaCube’s website (omegacube.com) or visit innergy.com or globalshopsolutions.com. If you’re looking at upgrading existing CAD/CAM or project management software, you’ll probably come across the acronym quite often as several of the larger CNC software companies seem to be leaning toward packaging programs in the ERP envelope.

Regarding those constant version upgrades, it can be very frustrating to learn that your software publisher has released a new product just as you finally feel a bit more comfortable using the “latest” one. But most new releases or version upgrades are at least partially responses to user demands, so they’re designed to solve problems that we all share. That makes it difficult to ignore the shiniest new toy on the shelf.

Getting your feet wet

If you’re new to CNC software, the process begins with a design that is created in a CAD drawing program, many of which are very intuitive nowadays and use libraries and dialog boxes that help walk you through the process. You’ll usually save your drawings as DXF files and most programs can do that fairly automatically, too. The files are then nested (the computer figures out the most efficient way to cut all the parts) and then G Code is written for your router. That’s a computer language that tells the tool where to go, how quickly to travel, how deep to cut, how fast to rotate the cutter, when to introduce coolant and so on.

Buying software has become a lot easier, too. Most developers have switched from selling programs to renting them on an annual license. That makes it more affordable and also means that we’re always using the absolutely latest version. Of course, the new one is often just a minor tweak that addresses a bug, but every now and then it’s a complete overhaul that can even require an operating system update, too. When that happens, the best way to deal with the accompanying surge in blood pressure is to keep remembering that a couple of days lost transitioning to the new package usually means many months of enhanced efficiency on the shop floor.

Companies such as KCD Software (kcdsoftware.com) have long understood the need to deliver a comprehensive system, rather than a single program. The company’s cabinet suite includes three design packages and CNC Commander, which takes your designs from drawings all the way through the manufacturing process. As of early April, KCD was still allowing woodshops to either buy the package outright or rent it by the month. The company points out that the renting option includes technical support and customer service, so it’s an economical way to access all the benefits while keeping an eye on your bottom line. Being able to purchase both design and manufacturing software from the same developer means that processes on the shop floor can be more streamlined and integrated.

New and improved

In that spirit of making our lives easier, the latest edition of Alphacam from Vero Software (verosoftware.com) has lots of new features. They include improvements in the user interface, a new 3-D command, updates to machining cycles, sawing enhancements, simulation updates, tweaks in the Automation Manager and even some new CAD files. Reworked dialogs provide a more intuitive layout and include images and tool tips.

In April, Mozaik Software (mozaiksoftware.com) launched Version 5.3 of its core package and also introduced a new Closet Library. The software is available in three versions — Design, Manufacturing, and CNC. The newest CNC Operator lets a woodshop nest on the fly and also remake parts as needed right from the machine. It also includes post processors for most leading flat table CNC routers. Then there’s the exclusive Combination Joinery that allows a woodshop to choose an ideal construction method, or quickly change from one method to another. One can combine dadoes, qualified tenons, KD fasteners, screws, Confirmats or dowels.

In September, CabMaster Software (cabmastersoftware.com) began to include an updated version of PhotoView in which the renderings are much cleaner and more realistic. Users will need to update to Version 9 for this and will also require an nVidia video card to improve performance.

Vectric’s Aspire 8.5 includes two completely new tools: Create Texture Area to produce a repeating pattern or texture, and Moulding Toolpath to cut 3-D shapes such as moldings, arches and frames that have a constant cross-section. Vectric (vectric.com) has also updated the Pro and Desktop versions of Cut2D to v8.5.

Microvellum (microvellum.com) has a new version of Fluid Designer. “We created a tool that is not only a superior front-end design tool, it’s an amazing total solution for businesses that need a quick design-to-quote tool, as well as a complete manufacturing solution,” director of operations David Fairbanks said in a statement.

Modeling and integration

Missler Software’s latest version of TopSolid’Wood (topsolid.com) combines design and manufacturing solutions specifically for the wood industry. It employs easy-to-use constrained blocks that permit rapid modeling and assembly of panels. It also manages and automates the cutting of curved parts within standard components and then documents the dimensions in the bill of materials for final assembly. And there’s a new interface called Maestro that establishes a direct link between the program and the new generation of CNC machining centers from the SCM Group.

In March, SigmaNest (sigmanest.com) released its newest way for woodshops to move operations into the cloud, leaving more space on in-house computers and in many cases increasing their operating speed. Cloud-based means that a shop is always using the latest version of the company’s software and recovery of files in the event of a glitch is available without any downtime. The program offers complete shop integration on any and all devices and is accessible remotely so a shop manager can tweak workflow from anywhere, including right next to a machine.

EnRoute Software (enroutesoftware.com) has released Version 6, which incorporates a number of major changes including the ability to automatically create masking contours for relief slices that can be used to apply toolpaths only where they are necessary for milling the 3-D surface of the relief. There’s also a new set of parametric textures that are automatically symmetric at any size.

Mastercam (mastercam.com) has opened its 2018 beta version to comments from its current customers. Shops all over the world are being invited to test drive the product before it is released, and provide feedback to help shape the final product. Some of the tools they’re exploring include a new 2-D/3-D milling feature, some improvements that simplify CAD for CAM, improved model creation tools, streamlined editing of models and assemblies, and expanded Undo support. The new package also incorporates a tool named Expanded Multiaxis that makes it easier to program complex parts and one called Lathe that focuses on efficiency with new toolpath and chip control features, as well as adding tool inspection and part transfer stock model enhancements.

Pytha Lab (pytha.com) will shorty release Version 23 of its design program Pytha 3-D CAD for commercial joinery, contract furniture and highly detailed bespoke joinery.

Timber framers and stairbuilders are sure to like the new component labeling tool from Sema (sema-soft.de/en). This lets the CNC operator create separate labels for components such as purlins, rafters, cleats, planks and so on, and decide which components receive a label for assembly.

Single solutions

Eurosoft (eurosoftinc.com) recently released DataLink, a universal data conversion software tool that overcomes the common problem of incompatible data formats being used between engineering software and cutting equipment. Every machine speaks its own language (DXF, MPR, CIX, NC, XML, PTX and so on) and, since there is no true universal standard in the industry, data format incompatibilities can become a huge headache. The new program converts an input file format into an equivalent output format.

Cabinet Pro (cabinetpro.com) offers a unified approach to CNC machining with a single software program that produces G code, 3-D renderings, shop drawings, bids, cut lists and panel optimization.

ArtCam Standard (artcam.com) is a single solution for designing and making. One can design directly in the software, choose from the clip art library, or import images. A woodworker can also import 3-D files to make more complex 3-D reliefs.

Cim-Tech (cim-tech.com) has developed computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) to bridge the gap between CAD and CAM, adding two new versions this spring. Router-CIM 2017 offers a familiar Windows-style interface, but its enhanced capability supports a variety of third-party software to control other equipment. And CAM Companion 2017 powers Router-CIM with Autodesk technology and has the power of AutoCAD 2017 for users that require CAD functionality.

Small shops using SketchUp Pro should take a look at the Make program from Skooter (skooter.com). This is an engineering extension that works inside SketchUp Pro and lets woodworkers easily attach machining operations to components for CNC program generation. And if you’re building stairs, you may also want to take a look at Staircon (staircon.com), which covers the gamut from shop drawings to sales tools. Plus, Compass Software (compass-software.de) has now integrated virtual reality previews into its stair building and timber-framing CNC software.

A shop that isn’t quite ready to invest in in-house drafting can contact companies such as ZDraft (zdraft.com) and AutoCAD Conversion (autocadconversion.com). These companies turn ideas into shop drawings or CAD files.

For smaller shops that are looking at software before they invest in hardware, it’s a good idea to visit with other shop owners who have purchased machines a while ago and have gone through a few upgrades to their CNC software. They will be able to let you know how the supplier was to work with, whether there was adequate support and if the upgrades delivered what they promised. They might also have some opinions on whether to buy or rent.

For more, visit the Woodshop News online Resource Guide at www.woodshopnew.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue.

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