The time has come for you to buy a CAM system and you’re faced with the difficult task of determining which to buy. Given the number of choices available, even experts can find selecting a CAM system daunting.
So, what do you do when you’re not an expert? How do you sort through all the systems and options? How can you select a CAM system that is best for your parts, your machines, and your people?
John Callen, Gibbs and Associates
The secret is to keep your focus on a system that will work well for your parts, your machines, and your people, instead of picking "the best" system that money will buy.
Here are five suggestions to help you select the right CAM system for you.
1) Define Your Needs in Your Own Terms
No one knows what you do and how you do it or your employees or your equipment better than you do. Too often CAM buyers lose sight of this simple fact—you’re your own expert in your business.
Show the CAM salesman your parts and your machine tools. Explain how you cut them. Then have them show you how to use their product to program your parts.
Creating the program to machine your parts should be relatively straightforward. If it isn’t, you should ask yourself, "Do I really want to fit myself to how this software thinks I should machine my parts?" If you’ve been machining parts for any period of time, the answer usually is "no."
And what about prepared demo parts used to demonstrate the capabilities and features of CAM software? There is nothing wrong with "canned" demos as long as you realize what you’re seeing. After all, canned demos show the software in its best light, not its limitations.
Also, CAM sales engineers generally are the most expert users of the software. They may use customized macros that may not be available to you, so be aware of what’s off-the-shelf capability and what’s not. Similarly, when doing a competitive benchmark, be sure that the system is being rated and not the sales engineer’s skills.
2) Avoid the Feature List Trap
Many years ago, a leading industry analyst developed a survey with an exhaustive list of CAM features. The CAM companies’ responses were compiled to compare the CAM systems’ capabilities. But what companies meant by such terms as "full," "automatic," "easy," and "graphical" wasn’t universal. Nor did checking a feature on the list ensure its usability or quality.
In spite of this, feature lists are still used to compare CAM systems. Further, most buyers don’t fully understand these terms and how they relate to their CAM needs, so feature lists just become misleading. Don’t fixate on them. Instead, evaluate whether the CAM system provides the functionality you need to get your job done.
3) Talk to Others Who Use the Software
Reference customers provided by CAM salesmen are usually the happiest customers. You’ll probably get a completely different view from users you find on your own. You should ask:
- How many use the system? What is their background?
- How much training was required?
- What other CAM systems were used previously?
- How often do mistakes make it to the machine tool? What kind of mistakes?
- Does the G-code need to be edited before running?
- How helpful is the vendor’s phone support and how thorough the training?
4) Don’t Let Price be Your Only Guide
The price of the software makes up a very small part of the cost to implement a CAM system. Installation and training are significant factors, especially when these directly impact how quickly and how effectively the CAM software operates in your facility with your people.
Be sure you understand what is provided and what you have to do yourself. Is saving a couple thousand dollars worth it in the end, if your shop is down while struggling to get your people up to speed or getting postprocessors that will work with your machine tools?
5) Get to Know the Company Behind the System
CAM vendors cover the full range from large MCAE conglomerates to stand-alone CAM developers, to niche solution providers, to garage start-ups. Go beyond the industry analysts’ CAM market study reports and their examination of companies’ sales; these claims are often trumped up, the analysis meaningless out of context. Look for a company with a strong commitment to customer support, with a record for ongoing product improvement. Find out about their local representative or support office.
Last but not least, find out if the CAM vendor stands behind its product with a reasonable return policy. At the end of it all, you should never be boxed in to a purchase that doesn’t work for you.
John Callen, the vice president of Marketing for Gibbs and Associates, has been on both sides of the CAD/CAM fence and is active in numerous industry working groups on CAD/CAM/CNC interoperability. Send your comments about this article through e-mail by clicking here. Please reference "CAM Commentary, September 2006" in your message.