Delcam's Transition Reflects Trends in Tool Making

Mold and die makers familiar with Delcam, the UK-based software company probably associate that company with Duct, the CAD/CAM system for complex 3D forms. Users of Duct form an elite but loyal group. The system is difficult to master, but most who have mastered it consider it a powerful tool for die and mold production.

Mold and die makers familiar with Delcam, the UK-based software company (North American headquarters in Windsor, Ontario), probably associate that company with "Duct," the CAD/CAM system for complex 3D forms. Users of Duct form an elite but loyal group. The system is difficult to master, but most who have mastered it consider it a powerful tool for die and mold production.

That is why 1999 marks a landmark of sorts for Delcam. This is the first year in which Duct is not included on the company's price list. Instead, Delcam has completed the transition to its "Power Solution" line, a family of independent, interlocking software modules covering design, machining, inspection, and other aspects of the process for producing complex parts.

How Power Solution is different from Duct, and why Delcam made the switch, reflect some trends in mold and die manufacturing today.

Delcam occupies an unusual place among CAD/CAM software providers. Many offer broadly ranging functionality addressing a variety of machining applications, while others provide "point solutions" filling in the needs of a small niche. Delcam fits with neither group. The company serves a relatively narrow user base—companies producing complex 3D forms—but aims to offer a comprehensive package to that group. Not incidentally, this is a group that includes Delcam itself. The software company does a side business in die and mold machining, out of a shop within its Birmingham, England, facility.

In 1995, the company introduced its first Power Solution product—PowerMill, a CAM module designed in part to simplify the translation of complex geometries into tool paths, so programming work could more easily be performed near the machine tool instead of in the office. Introduced more recently was the CAD complement to this software, PowerShape. Other modules in the family address inspection, reverse engineering, and engraving.

The CAD/CAM package of PowerShape plus PowerMill is based on the same Delcam-developed kernel that Duct used. However, Power Solution is not a Duct upgrade. Instead, the new system offers more functionality, and—what is perhaps more important—greater ease of use.

Delcam replaced Duct instead of improving it for multiple reasons. Among these are to add solid modeling and Windows NT compatibility. Reworking Duct to include either of these features would be difficult. PowerShape, by contrast, is a hybrid modeler combining surface and solids capability, and it does run on NT.

However, customer demand for both of these features is part of a larger trend in mold and die shops—one which may be expressed as a "democratization" of CAD/CAM. Falling hardware prices have made it possible for more users in a given shop to have access to CAD/CAM technology. At the same time, the increased volume of CAD/CAM work these shops are seeing has made providing this expanded access almost a necessity.

The need to spread around the CAM workload explains why shopfloor programming has become attractive to so many mold and die makers. However, the combination of Duct and a shop-floor CAM system like PowerMill still failed to meet many users' needs, because the volume of CAD work is also increasing. Mold and die shops' customers are increasingly pushing pure design work down the supply chain. As a result, these shops need both CAD and CAM technology accessible enough that a continuous succession of new users can become productive quickly. Duct did not offer such ease-of-use. But Delcam developed Power Solution specifically with this requirement in mind.

One rationale for the development of the new system speaks to why Delcam has reaffirmed its commitment to complex 3D design and machining. For a CAD/CAM company serving this market, one obstacle to growth is the prevalence of large companies—customers for molds and dies—specifying that all of their vendors use a common system, typically a more broadly applicable system from one of the larger CAD companies. If this restriction is not yet on the wane, Delcam believes it ultimately will be.

Simple economics suggest why. The effectiveness of many CAD/CAM systems at working with data across a variety of formats makes the argument for commonality less compelling today. And when commonality restrictions force shops to maintain multiple systems for multiple customers, this creates an addition to overhead that can only be reflected in the price of the work.

There is also the question of the right tool for the job. It falls to each shop to determine which CAD/CAM packages best serve its needs. But if Delcam or another company can offer a clear advantage to die and mold shops by focusing exclusively on these applications, then the freedom to use the most efficient design and programming tool can only improve the economics of the tool making process.


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