CAM in the Cloud: Inside Autodesk CAM 360
Autodesk's cloud-enabled CAM 360 to offer integrated 2.5-axis CAM, CAD, file translation and online collaboration at no cost.0
Throughout its history, Autodesk’s software has almost exclusively played on the engineering and design side of the product development fence, leaving the shop floor, the actual manufacturing, to CAM software developers. And it was the only major CAD software developer to do so. PTC, Siemens and Dasault Systemes all have CAM software in-house that tightly integrates with their respective CAD suites.
That changed in 2012 when Autodesk acquired HSMWorks, a company that made integrated CAM software exclusively for SolidWorks. Since then, Autodesk has been working on bringing the same seamless 2.5-, 3- and 5-axis CAM integration to Inventor with Inventor HSM. It has also released a no-charge 2.5-axis plug-in (Inventor HSM Express) that, for the most part, mirrors the free HSMXpress plug-in for SolidWorks.
Autodesk took their CAM strategy a step further at Autodesk University 2013 with the announcement of CAM 360. Utilizing the same HSMWorks CAM kernel, the online NC programming and toolpath creation/simulation service is the latest addition to Autodesk’s growing stable of cloud-enabled engineering software. It joins the “push-pull” direct modeler, Fusion 360, released last year, as well as AutoCAD 360, PLM 360, Sim 360 and Mockup 360, all of which are linked to the Autodesk 360 cloud file storage and collaboration service.
The first of its kind, CAM 360 is designed to split its CAM functions between the user’s local computer and Autodesk’s cloud computing service, using a server/client model. A relatively small executable is installed locally, which ties, via the Internet (and an account login), to Autodesk’s cloud service. According to Anthony Graves, Autodesk Product Manager for CAM, CAM 360 will dynamically shift processing duties from the local thin client to the cloud or vice versa depending on which is faster.
“Let’s say, for example, you’re at home with a computer without a lot of horsepower, you will be able to login to CAM 360, grab your CAM project and choose to have it solved in the cloud instead of locally,” he says. “Computing in CAM 360 will be done on the desktop or on the cloud, depending on which is more appropriate. What this does is give people the flexibility to use whatever hardware they have available.”
From the user’s point of view, Graves says the experience is the same as with purely locally installed software, but the online model opens up a number of unique opportunities typically not offered by traditional CAM software.
The first is CAM 360’s all-inclusive offering. Initially, the CAM 360 version open to beta testing will provide capabilities similar to that of Inventor HSM or HSMWorks for Solidworks: 3-axis CAM with a range of toolpath strategies — for generating milling, drilling, counterboring and tapping operations — as well as adaptive roughing or clearing strategies and toolpath simulation.
What’s unique is that CAM 360 does not require a license of a pricey CAD package. Instead, it borrows the direct modeling tools from Fusion 360 that CAM users need to feature, de-feature, modify or patch a model to prep it for machining. In addition, it also includes cloud-based translators that import CAD data formats from major CAD packages (Pro-E, Catia, SolidWorks, SolidEdge, NX, etc) plus most neutral formats (STEP, IGUS, STL, etc).
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Autodesk says it will continue to offer 2.5-axis CAM at no charge after the full commercial release of CAM 360 in early 2014. For those who need more, the 3-axis CAM 360 version will cost $75 per user per month on a 12-month contract while 5-axis (3+2) will run $150 a month.
According to Graves, it’s this combination of no-cost or pay-as-you-go 2.5 to 5-axis CAM plus free CAD file translation and intuitive modeling tools that makes CAM 360 a disruptive and compelling entry in the CAM software industry.
“What’s important about CAM 360 is that it includes the kind of modeling and patching tools that CNC programmers dream of to quickly prep models for machining,” he says. “But, at the same time, they get all the CAM functionality and performance of HSM technology. With CAM 360, you will get 2.5-axis CAM for free and by the end of next year, I can’t imagine anyone spending money on 2.5-axis CAM ever again.”
In addition, he says that, since all design data including revision history, is stored in the cloud, all of Autodesk 360 tools (including CAM 360) allow users to share and collaborate on projects. For example, an engineer could model a part in one location using Fusion 360 and invite job shop in another location into the project. The machinist, through his Autodesk 360 account, could then access the most current design revision and produce the toolpaths to manufacture the part using CAM 360.
The Post Problem
Of course, toolpaths are all well and good but without a reliable post processor, CAM is just a pretty, but purely virtual, animation. Similar to a printer driver’s function between a word processor and a laser printer, a post processor translates the binary toolpaths generated by CAM software into the multiple lines of human-readable G-code that systematically instructs the CNC machine how to cut a part.
The problem is that G-code, while technically an international standard, is unique to each brand and specific model of CNC machine. The syntax of the language (G0, G1, etc) is largely the same, but CNC makers like Fanuc, Heidenhain, Haas, Hurco, Mazak and many others tweak the standard language to suit their products unique capabilities. On the other side of the equation, post processors also have to be matched to each CAM package since each generates and encodes toolpaths in a unique way.
As a result, there is no single post processor to rule them all, much like there isn’t a single universally accepted CAD data file format. But unlike faulty BREP geometry, bad G-code isn’t simply a matter of a non-manifold solid or a reversed normal. A malformed G-code block can gouge a workholding setup or thrash a $200,000 machine, which is why many machinists still prefer to manually write 2.5-axes code from scratch or at least edit code produced by software.
Autodesk’s approach eliminates the “black box” aspect of some post processors that force customers to go back to the CNC manufacturer, reseller or a 3rd party for customization. More importantly, it makes the code available to a community of post developers who can refine the code to suit any CNC machine or machinist’s preference. Autodesk is taking advantage of the unique setup through its CAM website (cam.autodesk.com) with a post development forum where members can share their post customizations.
“One of the frustrating things about a lot different industries, and particularly in the metalworking community, is that people feel like they are getting nickel-and-dimed at every turn,” Graves says. “We just want to create an open solution that’s going to produce good parts. And since we are not trying to generate revenue from post, our architecture gives us complete flexibility to be as open as possible.”
CAM in the Cloud
Autodesk bills its 360 spectrum of cloud products as a complete design to manufacture solution, and in many ways it succeeds. Parts and assemblies can either be modeled or imported to Fusion 360, run through FEA and/or CFD analysis in Sim 360, photo rendered in Autodesk 360 and now, potentially, physically manufactured via CAM 360.
But for all its capabilities, Autodesk’s cloud toolbox lacks one crucial manufacturing component: Drawing creation and/or PMI data. For any machinist or job shop, simply getting a CAD file isn’t enough to produce an accurate or even acceptable part. While it may sometimes be possible to drill down on specific properties within a design file, this only holds true when the file is open in its native CAD environment.
However, Fusion 360 (and therefore CAM 360) doesn’t retain this information for imported models. Being history free, it strips parametric and build order data from the model. While dimension remain intact, precise GD&T or PMI data (e.g. surface finish and material specifications) isn’t included.
It should be noted that at Autodesk recently opened Fusion 360 Documentation to beta testing. While still in heavy development, the online application allows users to create manufacturing drawings from Fusion 360 (and therefore CAM 360) models.
Another potential challenge for Autodesk’s cloud strategy in general is that companies doing work for government agencies, at least in the U.S., are contractually restricted from storing digital design data on third party computers, including the cloud storage on which the 360 service depends. Although Autodesk emphasizes that 360 customers will always be able to access their files, even in the case of a billing dispute, purely private entities may still baulk at having their design data stored with a third party.
Finally, CAM 360 represents a radical shift. Concepts like storing files off site and using software that one rents rather than “owns” may be hard to accept for machinists who’ve spent years producing good parts with a brand name, stand-alone CAM package.
Still, given CAM 360’s aggressive freemium and/or low-cost model, Autodesk is hoping potential customers will at least “kick the tires” on the new service and come to prefer the ability to scale their software expenditures up or down at will. And even if entrenched machinists give CAM 360 a pass, the company is betting that the next generation on the shop floor will embrace the mobility, platform independence and social media-like advantages the 360 approach affords.
Computer hardware specs for CAM 360 is still unclear but Autodesk says the thin-client application will be available for Windows only initially with an OSX version available later. To sign up for the beta test for CAM 360 or download the HSMWorks plug-in for Inventor or SolidWorks, check out Autodesk’s CAM website.