Engineers are comfortable with CAD. Many have grown up with it, using it in one form or another for years. Yet, when it comes to CAM, for many designers at least, it invokes a standoffish, 'what about it?'
Perhaps it is that designers have less interest when it comes to the nuts and bolts of assembly, or perhaps it's that many have less hands-on experience. Most probably feel that manufacture on the factory floor is something they would like to know more about.
Indeed, one of the worrying trends of today is that many designers – experienced CAD professionals – are so removed from manufacture that they never see the production of their designs. They may see a finished product, but not the work to get it there.
Many firms claim the days of designs being thrown back and forth between feuding engineers and manufacturers are gone, but this feels like only half the story. There can be a tendency, the author having been guilty of this, to have certain assumptions about certain manufacturing processes, and have them as a go-to option when coming up with concepts – knowing that at some point someone will ask 'how are we going to make it?'
Yes, it is always possible to do it a certain assumed way, but these assumptions are not being challenged as much as they should be. There are numerous flexible and hybrid manufacturing facilities being created, and while a well-trodden path is valid, it may not be very efficient.
"People have the assumption that they can design almost anything, and then they'll figure out what machines will be able to make it later," said Bart Simpson, commercial director at Delcam. "Take 3D printers for example, they are not Star Trek replicators. Most additive machines are terrible at making holes, for example. Yes, you can produce holes with them but isn't it far quicker, cheaper and easier to make the holes by drilling them out, and combining the processes?"
Globalisation means that designers, engineers and manufacturers can be thousands of miles apart, speak different languages and have different skill sets. In many (most), going across the road to chat to a production engineer face to face during the design process is not possible. It has led to fragmented product development, which would simply not be possible without the software support of CAD, CAM and PLM.
PLM has undergone many acronym changes over the years as it has come to incorporate more management functions and datasets from the engineering and production processes. But, essentially, engineers see it as the same thing as always: an admin tool.
CAM, however, is viewed much differently. For some reason, it seemed to have lost favour in the mid-90s onwards. While many CAD companies sprawled beyond engineering industries and went on to become giants, CAM companies experienced no such boom. There was steady growth, certainly, but by no means on the same level.
Birmingham based Delcam to a large extent bucked the trend and has been one of the most successful CAM companies of recent years. It has built a reputation around technical consultancy and manufacturing knowledge, and has a produced multiple specialist software packages to aid and support manufacturers.
The genesis of Delcam can be traced back to work done at Cambridge University in the 1970s. Now, the company boasts some 50,000 customers across the globe and has some impressive applications to its name. Its products are used to make 65% of all the worlds' coins, as well as the Olympic medals.
In February 2014 Delcam was acquired by Autodesk, which at the time was claimed to be, 'the biggest news in the history of the CAM industry'. So, why the renewed interest in CAM from the design community?
"What has changed is that there are many different manufacturing processes to be aware of and people have different assumptions about the capabilities," said Simpson. "All these technologies are having an impact on design."
Design for Manufacture 2.0
Design for manufacture was a term commonly used five or more years ago, but it has almost dropped out of the day to day vocabulary of engineers, or at least the ones I speak to. It is an advantageous habit to get in to if you are a designer, and stops the virtual throwing of ideas back and forth between design and manufacture.
Experienced design engineers are no doubt aware of the processes to make components and will design accordingly. However, manufacturing processes are changing with the introduction of additive processes, an increase in the number of different materials used and the necessary joining techniques. Suddenly CAM becomes something of very real interest and importance to the designer, and not just something for machinists and manufacturers.
"There is a massive opportunity for design engineers, but there is a steep learning curve," said Simpson.
And here lies the potential pitfall. While modern CAD packages no doubt stimulate the creativity of designers, practical engineering (i.e. how something is going to be made efficiently), has become less of a priority. Rightly or wrongly, product innovation rather than productivity has in many places become the priority.
However, let's not forget where we have come from. The last decade saw a marked shift of production to the East, in particular China. Low labour costs meant that optimising an assembly was less important, as it didn't save much money. However, the tides do seem to be turning and manufacturing operations from consumer products to more industrial ones are coming back to the UK. And, here is where Design for Manufacture 2.0 is really going to have a part to play.
Manufacturing technology is allowing a much greater amount of flexibility. Automation is possible in areas that use to be reliant on people in the loop. However, an over reliance on what certain process can do, means inefficiency can be rife.
And this is where Delcam is enlightening users. The fact is, there are now so many ways to make the same thing, and this needs considering at the design stage if it is to be leveraged later during production. Do you want it make in volume, with a high quality finish, with five variations or five hundred?
"If you are doing any kind of sophisticated design, it's best to take a holistic view early on," said Simpson. "You may even need to re-engineer the design process. Are you making the most of the hybrid manufacturing environment that now exists by using all the technologies effectively or are you being over reliant on one?"
This optimisation is giving rise to a new generation of factories, many of which have been previewed by the likes of Airbus and Rolls Royce. Here increased automation, product variability, additive and subtractive machinery, and multiple materials are being set up to work with the design process. Designers, with the help of CAD and CAM software, will be able to carry out trade-offs early on, that will act as a guide about how products could be made, assembled and eventually put in to service. And this feeds back to design so a product can be optimised for a particular machine or set of processes.
"Doing very complex trade-offs during design, about the manufacturing process, is an important part of what we offer," said Simpson. "There is a huge opportunity, but you need to understand the processes involved if you really want to reduce time to market, allow more design iterations, and get the most out of modern manufacturing capabilities that work in synergy with design."