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Open Systems
In the past, many machine manufacturers had dedicated CAM systems and it was difficult to import CAD data and work with different machine tools.

For Milling and turning machines this changed quite a few years ago with systems able to drive almost any type model or make of milling and turning and EDM machine. In the early days of CAD/CAM there was a significant difference between tha capability of systems but as software and the computers themselves developed it could be assumed that most systems where quite effective. Now the difference between them is in how well they handle complex tasks such as 5 axis cutting, multi spindle machines and special techniques such as trochoidal milling which can all have a significant effect on the speed, accuracy and quality of the finished part.

In the same way, interfaces with CAD systems have also improved with dwg 2D interfaces and STEP, IGES, VDA for 3D and Parasolid for complete model transfer. Some of these can be set up so that as the model changes, the design change runs right through to the manufacturing processes so that they are always aligned. It is not a perfect solution, which is why in the automotive industry, for example, Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers need to have the native CAD system that the OEM is using so that they can have the updated and latest model data and it is down to them to transfer it, as necessary, to their manufacturing processes within their own organisation.

In sheet metal there are still dedicated CAM systems with some machines, which will only program that machine. This has arisen because unlike milling and turning machinery, which essentially all use the same technology, there are many different combination machines and processes which are niche, so have not warrented special attention. There are a few systems such a the Lantek system that do drive all these different applications, but it is quite common to see multiple CAM systems within one sheet metal manufacturer's factories.  For sheet metal, there is also the added complication of unfolding the model parts, nesting parts from many different suppliers in one sheet of material and sorting those parts after cutting ready for further downstream processes such as bending, welding and painting. The short manufacturing cycle times for each part add to the complication as the manufacturer may be working with hundreds or even thousands of parts at any one time, all of which may be unique.

This is a very unusual scenario for milling and turning operations where cycle times are usually much longer and switching between different parts is generally significantly more complex. Here, the solution is automation with techniques such as robot load and unload anf flexible systems for fixture handling or auto lathes with multiple axes. For these, the preparation times are much longer to get the fixturing right and to program or set up the automation.

In both cases, as soon as processes get complex or high volume, effective handling of CAD models is essential as is managing the quotation, customer relationship, invoicing, delivery and MRP aspects of a business.

This is where open systems are now essential, enabling all these tasks and aspects of the business to talk to one another even at multiple or remote locations. Not only does it simplify manufacture, minimise errors and save time but, it also greatly reduces administrative effort, gives much more information about customer relationships and increases transparency about the performance of machinery, processes and profitability.

Taking this to the next level, information could be shared between suppliers, manufacturers and customers, bringing together the complete supply chain. With the emphasis on sustainability and carbon emmissions this move is inevitable and has got to be a good thing, strengthening supply chains and making them loyal and much more resilent.

These changes are what Industry 4.0 is about. There are many more aspects to this, such as machine maintenace, delivery methods, stock control etc which I have not mentioned, but the principle behind all of it is that the systems need to be able to communicate  with one another. and share real time or as close as possible to real time data. Using systems that cannot share data in this way will become a thing of the past in a few short years.

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