Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM): The Complete Introduction for the Beginner’s Mind

In a world full of physical stuff – whether that’s products, parts, or places – Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) makes it all possible. We’re the ones that give the power of flight to airplanes or the rumble of horsepower to automobiles. When you need something made, not just designed, CAM is your answer. What happens behind the scenes? Keep reading, and you’ll find out.

What is CAM?

Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) is the use of software and computer-controlled machinery to automate a manufacturing process.

Based on that definition, you need three components for a CAM system to function:

  • Software that tells a machine how to make a product by generating tool paths.
  • Machinery that can turn raw material into a finished product.
  • Post Processing converts tool paths into a language machines can understand.

These three components are glued together with tons of human labor and skill. As an industry, we’ve spent years building and refining the best manufacturing machinery around. Today, there’s no design too tough for any capable machinist shop to handle.

CAD to CAM Process

Without CAM, there is no CAD. CAD focuses on the design of a product or part. How it looks, how it functions. CAM focuses on how to make it. You can design the most elegant part in your CAD tool, but if you can’t efficiently make it with a CAM system, then you’re better off kicking rocks.

The start of every engineering process begins in the world of CAD. Engineers will make either a 2D or 3D drawing, whether that’s a crankshaft for an automobile, the inner skeleton of a kitchen faucet, or the hidden electronics in a circuit board. In CAD, any design is called a model and contains a set of physical properties that will be used by a CAM system.

When a design is complete in CAD, it can then be loaded into CAM. This is traditionally done by exporting a CAD file and then importing it into CAM software. If you’re using a tool like Fusion 360, both CAD and CAM exist in the same world, so there’s no import/export required.

Once your CAD model is imported into CAM, the software starts preparing the model for machining. Machining is the controlled process of transforming raw material into a defined shape through actions like cutting, drilling, or boring.

Computer Aided Manufacturing software prepares a model for machining by working through several actions, including:

Checking if the model has any geometry errors that will impact the manufacturing process.

Creating a tool path for the model, a set of coordinates the machine will follow during the machining process.

Setting any required machine parameters, including cutting speed, voltage, cut/pierce height, etc.

Configuring nesting where the CAM system will decide the best orientation for a part to maximize machining efficiency.

Once the model is prepared for machining, all information gets sent to a machine to produce the part physically. However, we can’t just give a machine a bunch of instructions in English. We need to speak the machine’s language. To do this, we convert all of our machining information to a language called G-code. This is the set of instructions that controls a machine’s actions, including speed, feed rate, coolants, etc.

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