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CAM Heads to the Cloud

By Kenneth Wong

Shaun Mymudes, COO of SolidCAM, compares computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) to a religion.

“It’s something you have to devote yourself to if you want to do it well,” he says. “On our staff, we don’t have any application engineers who are not machinists. Every single one of them knows how to run a [computer numerically controlled, or CNC] machine, knows how to program.”

And that makes Mymudes skeptical of Autodesk’s latest initiative to, as the company says, “[break] down the barriers of traditional CAD/CAM” with a blend of software-driven machining and cloud-hosted collaboration, delivered in subscription-style pricing beginning at $75 a month.

Can Autodesk, with all its commercial outreach and muscle, bring software-driven manufacturing — what some see as a specialized practice — to the masses through its Autodesk CAM 360 offerings? Some analysts believe they can.

Market Pulse

Jeanne Naysmith, analyst firm CIMdata’s manufacturing practice manager, points to Autodesk’s 2012 acquisition of HSMWorks — and its February acquisition of Delcam — as proof of its commitment to CAM. With the cloud brand Autodesk 360, Naysmith adds, “I believe they’re creating a digital prototyping platform, spanning from design to the making of the design using both additive technology [with 3D printers] and subtractive technology [CAM]. They’re attempting to cover the whole gamut.”

According to Stan Przybylinski, CIMdata’s VP of research, the CAM market accounted for about 10% of the $10.8 billion revenues generated by the overall CAD/CAM/CAE market in 2012.

Autodesk CAM 360 offerings, derived from the HSMWorks acquisition, is rooted in the idea that “you may want to collaborate in the cloud with the very people who’ll help you make or manufacture that design,” he adds.

Most CAM software vendors offer plug-ins to popular CAD packages in addition to standalone titles. Mastercam, for instance, offers Mastercam for SolidWorks. BobCAD-CAM offers BobCAM for SolidWorks. As a certified Gold Partner of SolidWorks, SolidCAM offers single-window integration with SolidWorks CAD software.

CAM vendors have to ensure their software interacts with popular CAD file formats, as the automatic machine-code generation relies heavily on CAD geometry. With a major CAD package (Autodesk Inventor) in its portfolio, Autodesk has the advantage to build tight links between its CAD and CAM products.

What’s in the Subscription?

Immediately after the announcement of CAM 360 last December at Autodesk University in Las Vegas, more than 500 people signed up for access to the beta software, according to Anthony Graves, product manager at Autodesk. The beta software is currently deployed by some users as a free technology preview. Autodesk plans to officially offer it as a commercial product sometime this year, but no specific date was available at press time.

Autodesk CAM 360 Express, comprising the functions currently offered for free under HSMXpress for SolidWorks and Inventor HSM Express, will remain a free product. When released, CAM 360 will be offered at $75 (basic) to $150 (pro) per month, based on a 12-month contract. Autodesk also plans to offer quarterly and pay-as-you-go, month-to-month subscriptions.

SolidCAM’s Mymudes compares the software rental model to his own rented car: “I never really cozied up to that car, because I knew at one point I’d have to give it back,” he quips. “I think people are the same way with CAM systems. They’re not easy to learn, no matter what system. Autodesk may succeed in making certain modules simple enough, but when you get into advanced geometry, it cannot be simplified.”

“One of the barriers to entry for CAM is the initial software licensing cost,” counters CIMdata’s Naysmith. “With these prices that undercut traditional purchase costs, Autodesk is making CAM more easily accessible.”

What Would You Share in the Cloud?

Autodesk’s Graves says he expects that CAM 360 users will have the ability to upload, store and share 3D CAD models, quality documentations, testing documentations, photos and videos. The advantage of the cloud-hosted environment, he notes, is the ability to invite others to view the archived files online, to get instant notifications of the edits and changes executed by team members, and to collaborate on milling/machining strategies in virtual meetings online.

Jayson Kramer, owner of the southern California-based NexGenCAM West and Precision Programming Services Inc., recently signed on to become an HSMWorks reseller.

“In the old days, some of my customers, whom I’ve never met in person, would send me their CAD files,” he says, noting how he’d just program the machining routine and send back the code, along with some pictures to show the tooling and cutting operations. But with cloud collaboration, he adds, he’s “able to do online meetings to discuss things like different fixture options, or talk to my customer about issues with his model.”

Autodesk CAM 360
Autodesk CAM 360, based on HSMWorks technology, is now in beta phase. The company plans to offer it on subscription in the near future.

SolidCAM’s Mymudes, however, cautions that some complex, larger files could present problems for uploading and working in online: “Sometimes they present a challenge even working on them locally [on your own workstation], let alone over the web.”

Kramer routinely uses secure FTP to exchange large files with his customers. Such exchanges for his CAM-related consulting business may now occur in Autodesk CAM 360’s integrated cloud storage and collaboration interface.

As CIMdata’s Naysmith observes, “there are very few designs that escape the need to be modified once a particular manufacturing method is chosen. Anything that eases the obstacles to collaboration between the designer and the manufacturer increases the overall efficiency of the process of moving a design from concept to reality.”

Resellers’ Role

As this article goes to press, the distribution strategy for CAM 360 was under development. “We’re still determining how that’s going to happen,” Graves admits. “We’re still working out a lot of things, but we want to keep everyone relevant.”

As part of the Autodesk 360 family of products, CAM 360 may be promoted and sold primarily online, but that doesn’t mean resellers won’t have a role in its commerce. One strategy under consideration, Graves revealed, “is to streamline the purchasing process by leveraging Autodesk’s e-commerce tools. This enables users to have immediate access to the A360 services while maintaining the relationship between the reseller and the end-user.”

NexGenCAM’s Kramer points out that “for resellers like me, the [subscription] gives a steady recurring income, as opposed to the lump sum amount I’d make in sales.”

Traditionally, CAM software resellers have served as the front line of support for the software. Similarly, with CAM 360, resellers may be involved in what Graves describes as “premium support and services — project- or application-specific support.”

Some may wonder how Autodesk can offer quality technical support at the price point CAM 360 is listed. SolidCAM’s Mymudes cites the makeup of his own staff as proof of the critical nature of technical support. “We have 30 people,” he says. “Out of those 30, we only have seven salespeople and three administrative. The rest — 20 of them — are involved in some kind of support.”

Autodesk’s Graves counters that his resellers had consistently been providing robust support for free versions of the software HSMXpress for SolidWorks and Inventor HSM Express, which include 2D and 2.5D CNC operations. Autodesk plans to uphold the same practice, he says.

“We look at everybody as a user, whether they’re on the free version or the paid version,” he continues. “The support they get for the free product should set their expectation for the paid version. Why should they expect less when they start giving us money?”

A Benefit Even to Competitors

Mymudes recalls how, just a few years ago, SolidCAM was a four-person operation. Since he’s taken over as COO, he says the business has consistently grown 50%, with the exception of one recession-plagued year.

“Most of our growth comes from replacing other CAM systems,” he reports. “That’s not easy in this market, especially because people are extremely loyal to their CAM systems.”

CIMdata’s Naysmith contends that what Autodesk is doing is bound to benefit the overall CAM sector, including its rivals. “It expands the market more than it hurts those already in it,” he concludes. “It will attract people who would otherwise never use any CAM products.”

Kenneth Wong is Desktop Engineering’s resident blogger and senior editor. Email him at kennethwong@deskeng.com or share your thoughts on this article at deskeng.com/facebook.

More Info

Autodesk CAM 360

BobCAD-CAM

Dassault Systemes

Delcam

CIMdata

Mastercam

NexGenCAM West

Precision Programming Services Inc.

SolidCAM

About Kenneth Wong

Kenneth Wong is Desktop Engineering's resident blogger and senior editor. Email him at kennethwong@deskeng.com or share your thoughts on this article at deskeng.com/facebook.