Most machinist I talk to go through the same experience the first time they try CAM–total bewilderment and frustration. Everyone has this idea that you create a 3D solid model, load it into CAM, push a button, and out pops a finished g-code program. If only it were true!
Instead, you generally have to wrestle with the solid model until it imports properly, and then you have to tell the CAM program where the parts of interest on the model are and what sorts of toolpaths to apply to them.
Imagine my surprise when I loaded up MeshCAM CNC Software, stuck a solid model in it, and discovered that with very little trouble I could (drumroll please): push a button and get a g-code program. Cool beans!
Here’s how it went:
First, I went and found a suitable 3D model I had done in Rhino3D. MeshCAM imports STL files for its 3D models, so I exported one from Rhino. Here was my Rhino model:
Coolant overflow tank…
It’s a coolant overflow tank inspired by parts I saw at my friend Joe’s CNC business Crime Scene Choppers. I’m not so into bikes as hot rods, but I dig his retro-WWII-aircraft look. I do most of my machining in 2 1/2D, but this kind of part will certainly need 3D profiling to come out right.
Import was a breeze–File, Open, click, done!
Next thing it wanted to know was job type:
Now that’s getting my juices flowing! Love to try some 4 axis when I get my fourth built, and the 2-sided looks handy as heck too. For now, we’ll go with 3 Axis just to check it out.
Okay, here’s our tank loaded in MeshCAM and ready for some toolpaths:
Note the nice clean and very graphical UI…
There are a variety of options available from the little icons that match the tank’s color:
– Define Stock: Let’s you define the workpiece you’ll be whittlin’ on.
– Define Supports: Tabs. Love the tabs for fixturing. My alma mater CAM, OneCNC, doesn’t do them automatically, so I have to edit them in with CAD.
– Retract Height / Program Zero / Max Depth: More fine tuning options for the environment on the machine the part rests in.
– Set Machining Region: So you can use different strategies in different areas of the part.
– Generate Toolpath: That’s the one we want!
I point out these options, because they make it possible to do a lot of the complex things other CAM programs allow. The difference is you’re not required to bother with those things if you just want to make a quick part.
One of the guys I grew up learning software UI design from is Alan Kay. Very talented man. One of his sayings that always stuck with me is, “Simple things should be simple and complex things should be possible.” Too many products set out to make complex things simpler and wind up largely making the simple things we do most often harder!
Okay, let’s click that “Generate Toolpath” choice:
Other than selecting an appropriate milling cutter, all the right options come up pre-selected. You can fiddle around with them to optimize for your situation, or just let ‘er rip. Note that these are basically the same toolpath choices for 3D as my OneCNC uses, with some differences. I don’t have the highest cost version of OneCNC, so I don’t get a “Pencil Cleanup” path like we have here. They’re nice for running your ball endmill around the edges where things come together. It really helps smooth that “raster look”. Waterline is often called “Z-Level” in case you’re wondering. And, I have to do a fair amount more work to just bang out a quick program like I did here.
This is the backplot from just the roughing pass–too many lines if I add finishing to make sense of it:
I’ve saved the best parts for last. First, MeshCAM is very inexpensive–$250 for what you’ve seen here. Hey, I’m not sayin’ it has all the options of a $6,000 to $15,000 CAM program, it doesn’t. But how are you going to go wrong for $250?!??
The thing is, you’ll need several software packages to get started with CNC. We’ve studied them all and compiled a special guide to the Best CAD CAM Software for Beginners.
It’s got buying guides, tips on evaluating the best packages for you, and best of all, it has guides to some of the most smoking secret deals on CNC Software out there. These are deals almost nobody knows about. There’s even an amazing deal on MeshCAM from us (way less than $250), so check it out!
Meanwhile, give MeshCAM a try. You won’t be disappointed.
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Bob is responsible for the development and implementation of the popular G-Wizard CNC Software. Bob is also the founder of CNCCookbook, the largest CNC-related blog on the Internet.