CAM keeps spindles turning at Hightown Engineering

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CAM makes the difference

Since CAD/CAM software was not their first priority, it had to wait a couple of years. When they were ready, the partners jumped in with two fully loaded suites of Mastercam Mill Level 3, 5-axis Drill/Curve, Solids, and Lathe. They also have an ongoing maintenance agreement to take full advantage of technical support, provided by dealer 4D Engineering, and free software upgrades. They will soon make the transition to Mastercam 2018. The partners were familiar with Mastercam from their previous employment, but they had been away from it for a couple of years, so there were many more capabilities that they had to learn. A day of training at 4D Engineering provided them with a good refresher course. However, Smith spends many hours every week reviewing Help files or surfing the Mastercam website in search of new and better ways to shave minutes and hours from programming time and CNC cycle times.

The first thing the partners attended to was the last thing that happens in the CAD system, posting the code to the CNC machines. Smith said, “The postprocessor is the most important thing. You can have the best CAM system in the world, but if your postprocessor isn't right, you are just going to get junk code out, make bad parts, and potentially crash a machine. The post is so customisable with Mastercam that if you have the knowledge, you can get the code posted just the way you want it, so that nothing has to be adjusted at the machine.”

Smith and Browning negotiated with their dealer to have some post-modifications included with their original license agreement. When they were manually generating CNC code, they used to spend several hours with every first piece, standing over the machine, first air-cutting the part to confirm the code, then running the part half speed to make sure there were no programming mistakes that might result in a tool or head crash. Today, they use computer simulation (Mastercam's Verify and Backplot features) to weed out human error, making sure that toolpaths are safe, and that material removal is within specifications. Then the code is posted to the machine and used as-is with 100% confidence.

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Three axes for the price of two

The partners needed a small machine to replace their old 2-axis manual mill. They briefly considered a small 3-axis CNC, but they felt that the 3-axis Z (quill) drive restricted the flexibility of the machine too much. Smith didn’t regret the decision to buy a 2-axis CNC mill and then set out investigating how to program 3-axis jobs (one-off prototypes and fixturing, for example) semi-automatically for it.

“I developed this capability by editing the post-processor to the best of my ability. Then I gave it to Phil at 4D and asked him if we could actually do this. Within a week, I got an email from him with the post-modifications that would make it work. For this machine, we program a part normally and generate the machine code from Mastercam. We run the code and when the machine reads a Z-axis command (either feed/rapid up or down), the machine pauses, displaying the required Z movement. The operator manually moves the tool accordingly, presses ‘go’ and the machine continues. This shows the flexibility of Mastercam and the first-rate technical support available.”

Hightown Engineering encourages its customers to submit all work in the form of a CAD file. With nearly 20 years of experience using Mastercam at two companies, there has only been one file that the partners found they couldn’t import cleanly.