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Software: Making a Difference in Machine Performance

When a new piece of equipment is acquired, a company often has the choice of either purchasing it with the software that’s recommended by the seller or buying a third-party package that possibly could be a better choice. But which is the better way to go?

Most OEM sheet-metal equipment manufacturers offer CAD/CAM nesting software for their equipment. Third-party software developers also offer CAD/CAM-based nesting software along with modules to run equipment such as lasers, plasmas, waterjets, turret punches, punch/laser combination machines, routers, press brakes or other types of metal fabrication equipment. All the companies interviewed for this article offer either CAD/CAM-based nesting software for most metal fabricating machines used for cutting and/or bending.

But what software features should a company be looking for to get the best benefits for its equipment? It’s difficult to describe all the capabilities of each company’s software in this article. However, each company’s website can give you an overall close-up of its software’s abilities. But important features mentioned by those interviewed include the overall capabilities of the software, ease-of-use for operators and programmers, customer support and the software’s ability to be used by more than one machine if needed.

“When a company buys a sheet-metal cutting or bending machine, they don’t need to take the nesting software that the OEM offers,” mentions Michael Boggs, vice president of sales and marketing at Striker Systems. “They can purchase third-party software for their equipment.

“When it comes to buying a machine, if that prospect already has the same or similar one on the floor, chances are he’ll already have a software solution in place. If this is the case, then the obvious choice is to go with the software product that he already has. Then he’ll just have to make sure that it supports the new equipment.”

Streamlining equipment and processes

Derek Weston, product marketing manager at MTC Software, a Hypertherm brand, mentions that they sell both to OEM clients and end users. “Often we’ll have an end user that wants to replace several software products on different machines with a single software solution such as ours. This minimizes the time to train operators or programmers on multiple software products and reduces future software maintenance fees.”

Hypertherm supplies both nesting software and machine system components for cutting equipment. Many components such as the CNC, torch height control and plasma system are designed to communicate with each other.

Both the machine system components and MTC Software products allow the company to remotely diagnose the equipment and the software, plus provide remote training. Also, with Hypertherm’s cutting processes expertise integrated to the MTC Software, material cutting applications are optimized.

“Our teams are educated around the applications of the end user. They understand our products, and how customers are trying to work with them for the desired end result. They can really talk to our customers from the application standpoint,” says Weston.

And applications are vital. One of nesting software’s most important features is the ability to cut material quickly with very little scrap as Bob Jencks, sales manager for P.E.P. Technology, mentions.

Jencks says he finds most companies are not aware of how much their CAM software is costing them in material yield and machine productivity. He adds that automation has evolved to the point today that the converting of CAD files and the nesting processes performed by an expert programmer can now be done automatically with the same or better material yield and machine productivity results. According to Jencks, “The P.E.P. Technology fully automated software will common cut, tab, sequence, assign lead-ins and post process most nests in under one minute.”

Speed is not the only benefit he adds. “Heat control within the nested parts and the plate skeleton are just as impressive as the speed. Controlling the heat from the first pierce to the last allows lasers, plasma and gas cut parts to be nested much closer improving the material yield by a minimum of 8 percent.

“It’s common for P.E.P. customers to nest ¾ in. laser cut parts at 0.275 in., and 3 in. gas cut parts at 0.4 in. with zero scrap. The best example was a customer that was scrapping 50 three inch thick parts per plate prior to nesting the parts with P.E.P.’s advanced nesting technology. Each part was worth $65, the total savings on the first days cutting was over $12,000.”

SigmaNEST Software offers its CAD/CAM nesting products primarily to the end user, but will also sell to OEMs. Material utilization is an important benefit of their software mentions Cornel TerreBlanche, marketing manager.

She says, “This is where companies will see the biggest return on an investment in our software. The metal for parts is often the largest expense the company has, and by developing our own custom nesting engine, we’ve been able to get the best material utilization through tighter, more strategic nesting, increasing production output and saving the company money by reducing scrap.”

Another important feature of SigmaNEST software is motion optimization: the cutting sequence and the way the cutting machine moves. Machine runtime and downtime are a big cost she mentions. “If your cutting machine is down and not operating, then the company is losing money.”

SigmaNEST helps eliminate costly and unnecessary downtime by improving the way users set up orders in it.

“Our software makes an effort to offer the industry not only standard features, but ones offering a much higher quality. SigmaNEST offers a comprehensive suite of production management and database integration tools,” says TerreBlanche.

Software ease of use

If nesting software is difficult to program either at the machine or off-line, it could create bottlenecks in manufacturing. Therefore, how easy it is to use is a very important feature.

Anupam Chakraborty, VP of Metamation Software says, “Trying to find qualified, experienced machine operators and programmers becomes more and more of a challenge, so ease-of-use for software is a key issue.

“Software programming efficiency is also important. Once operators learn to program a part, how quickly they can perform the tasks they’ve learned or have been shown is paramount. Remembering how to use the software and reestablishing a level of proficiency when an operator returns to a design after a period of not using it is also crucial.”

“We also aim to reduce the amount of errors that could happen after an operator returns to our software after a long period of time. Also, how easy is it for a user to recover from an error that they’ve made without having to reprogram the entire job is important. We put a lot of effort into making our nesting software as user-friendly as possible along with the actual technical functions of the software development and design,” he remarks.

Software flexibility

Another important feature of nesting software is its ability to work with other software to support the entire manufacturing process from information and material flow to feedback. This type of information technology is encompassed with Materials Requirement Planning (MRP), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Product Lifecycle Manufacturing (PLM) and Product Development Management (PDM) software systems.

“What we’re doing is digitizing the entire manufacturing process,” says Chakraborty. We recently launched a new product called MetaCAM Enterprise that is basically an integrated production environment for sheet-metal fabrication. It works with a company from basic design document upload to automatic tooling to job creation to the final manufacturing process. This can all happen just by clicking a few buttons, and it can happen in multiple locations. Say, for example, that I’m designing in Illinois. My programmers and manufacturing are based in Texas. I have a server in Illinois where I upload my CAD design files.

“Then the person in Texas logs into the server and, just by clicking a button, uploads the design files into his computer and into our interface converting the CAD files automatically to CAM part files that he will tool and process later as a job. Then someone in the Carolinas could be monitoring all this, approving the files based on whatever criteria they need for the manufacturing process. This creates not only a multi-location capability, but creating a feedback capability with our software. If there are any issues with designs or tooling or any of the processes, our software allows someone who is overseeing this to make changes to it all in real time. Material flow information and communication are the next steps that companies would like to see with their equipment software.”

Other considerations

New software can also be the key to adding greater productivity to existing older equipment. If updates aren’t available for older software products, or if they are too expensive compared to a new software package, then it could be time to replace the old nesting software.

Before purchasing a software package, there are other considerations that should be reviewed. Will the software company be around five to 15 years from now to support it?

Also as computer technology evolves, CAD/CAM software might not keep pace. For instance, Boggs mentions that as a CAD/CAM computer is upgraded it’s usually to the latest PC technology, including a 64-bit architecture running Windows 7. The older nesting software is not likely to operate on the newer platform. And when the customer looks for a compatible software upgrade, their CAD/CAM vendor might not have up-to-date software, be out of business or acquired by an OEM machine manufacturer.

Another issue is support. Some OEMs purchase software from a third–party and re-label it as their own. They will either support it themselves or have the original software company support it.

“If it’s a new machine, or the customer’s first one, than from a competitive standpoint a customer is going to be looking strongly at whatever software is being offered by the OEM,” says Boggs.

“In these situations, the customer could be stepping into uncharted territory. Alliances between OEMs and third-party software developers have come and gone in our industry, and sometimes at the expense of the customer. They should understand who the author of the software is — if not the OEM — and who will ultimately support it. Another consideration with OEM supplied software is whether it will meet the long-term growth strategy of the customer or simply accommodates the programming of a specific brand of equipment,” remarks Boggs.

The bottom line is this: when you purchase software either from the OEM or a third-party company, make sure you can grow with the company.

For instance, will the software support machine automation or an ERP software system? Will it offer modules for the machines you already have if needed?

Most of the software companies interviewed mention that their software will work with ERP and MRP systems along with machine automation and material handling systems. If this is a concern, make sure the software package you’re interested in can interface with these systems before you buy.

Compare software packages very closely and confirm the software company understands your manufacturing needs now and for the future. Each company should be able to demonstrate their software capabilities right through your computer using the Internet, which is an excellent way to make a choice.

MTC Software
Metamation Inc.
P.E.P. Technology
SigmaNEST Software
Striker Systems