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3 Axis CNC Milling Machine...Software Requirements
 
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 The Software is the real secret to this little gem. The software in broken down into three basic portions; CAD, CAM, and Control. Take look at the next section for a brief description of each and jump to more details on this page. Software can cost you tons of time and money so make sure you spend as much time in the process of finding software as you do in hard parts for the machine. I have tried most of the major DIY CNC Software tools out there and I have highlighted what are the best in my opinion for my machine.
 
1) CAD [Computer Aided Design]  Is a precision drawing tool that uses the computers mathematical power to design and document 2D and 3D objects.

2) CAM [Computer Aided Manufacturing] is a subsequent computer-aided process after computer-aided design (CAD). The model generated in CAD is then input into CAM software, which is used to create Machine Code that is read by the Control Software. The most common machine code is G-Code, the basic code for all CNC operations.


3) CONTROL Control Software is the interface between the human and the machine. It reads the output of the CAM package, normally G-Code, to be translated into machine movements to create the part you designed in CAD


CAD Software  
 This is the software that it all starts in. In order to do anything with a computer controlled machine you need to have a drawing of the part you want to create. Historically this has been a 2 Dimensionally drawn part. New tools are allowing us the designers to model them in 3D now as well.

 The software that you choose all depends on what you are looking to do and how complicated the part needs to be. For most all the designs I have been working on of late the 2D drawing capability has been more than adequate.

 I have been using a few different tools and in the end it does not matter what you use but the key is that it can generate a Vector based drawing and NOT a raster based drawing like Paint or Photoshop etc.

 
  The two large tools on the market are AutoCAD and Solid Works. These are the industry leading tools but they also tend to have industry leading price tags as well. I needed a tool that gave me good features and a good value for my limited budget. The two I use most are DeltaCAD and Google SketchUp. They are great tools for the types of designs I am currently creating and they are great values.

 Choosing the tool is a big decision and I suggest every person look at all the options out there. Each tool behaves a bit differently and there will be a learning curve that you will need to factor into your decision. Reading the reviews and threads on www.cnczone.com has proven to be a must in helping me learn about the tools that are out there that simply don't turn up on the front page of a Google search.

 

CAM Software  
 Now I have been working with CAD tools for years, even decades if you count high school and college work. When it comes to CAM tools I am very new to this and have learned that a lof of how well your machine performs depends on the G-Code you "feed" it.

 You will encounter folks who can simply write G-Code off the top of their head and have the machine whip out a simple part. I am NOT one of those people. I need to have a good tool help me through the process and I think the one I am using now is the easiest CAM tool on the market. Frankly speaking it is one of the best windows based tools I have used period.

 Ok so what it the name of it already you are saying at this point. It is Vetric Ltd's Cut 2D this is the only CAM tool I am currently using. It allows me to import the designs from my CAD tools directly and then start working on the visualization of the part. By choosing different cutting tools, depths and you can create a representation of what the part will look like once it has been machined. the other outstanding feature is how easily it allows you to simulate the tool paths ( G-Code ) and lets you determine the order of machining based on tool size, path importance, time etc. I can't sing the praises of this tool loud enough.
 

Control Software  
 Now on to the final part of the 3 piece software puzzle. The control software is where the rubber meets the road. We have designed our part in CAD, generated the G-Code in CAM and now we are ready for this Control Software to take that G-code and create our part.

 I must admit I went through a quite a few different vendors on this one. I started with KCAM by KellyWare and I have been happy with it...in the beginning. I am now using Mach3 by ArtSoft along with a screen set plug-in from CNC Woodworker called MACH3 2010 Screenset.

 The main issue I encountered had to do with the way the stepper motors are driven by the driver board and how that is ultimately controlled by the software. Not to bore you to tears but in short the KCAM software was only able to run my machine at about 20 IPM ( Inches Per Minute ). During the machining process if I tried to go any faster with KCAM I would end up with lost steps and stuttering. I do not experience this at all with MACH3, and I can run my machine at speeds that make me nervous, so in other words I have plenty of head room for more performance once confidence in my machine skills grows.

 One other thing I want to mention is for those folks doing circuit boards, PCBs, or any other type of design that would come to you in a GERBER format*. KCAM does a great job of importing GERBERS and allowing you to machine your boards quickly. My plans are to keep both software suites available and use the one that works for the situation at hand best.

* Go here to learn more about GERBER and PCB http://circuitpeople.com/Blog


 Alright, there you have it, my take on the software you need and the particular ones I chose. I am sure there are others out there and possibly some real gems that I have missed but for now this setup is working very well for me and isn't breaking the bank. I am sure that in the years to come there will be more solutions that will start to push all these processes into one tool. For now I am really like the separation as it helps me with each stage of the design by putting in solid stop and starting points.
 
 
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