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CAD to CAM to Field

In 1975 it was predicted to become a full-blown reality before the end of the century: the automatic factory. A factory operating without human intervention. While this reality may not be ‘full-blown’ today, CAD and CAM developments are quickly reshaping the reality of manufacturing.

Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) play an important role in the optimization of manufacturing processes. With a CAD-to-CAM process in place, manufacturers reduce labor costs, optimize material costs and reduce the chance of human error. Not only during the manufacturing process itself, but also in the field. Here’s how.


Computer Aided Manufacturing

With Computer Aided Manufacturing, computer software is used to facilitate, assist or automate parts of the manufacturing process. In an interview with Mestek Machinery, VP Sales Michael Bailey explained how the use of CAM systems saves time when operating the spiraling machinery:

“You can download a job to not only the spiral machine, but the coil lines, and plasma cutter. It keeps the workers from having to be in control and inputting that job, which will yield you better optimization of material as well.”


How CAM works

In Computer Aided Manufacturing, software applications are used to create instructions in a language that machines understand: the G-code. This G-code tells the manufacturing tool where the motors need to move, how fast to move, and which path to follow. This way, lasers or cutting tools can be operated automatically.

Read the article What is CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing)? to get a detailed account on Computer Aided Manufacturing.

So CAM software is used to create the instructions that will automate one part of the manufacturing process. But things get even more interesting when CAM gets connected to CAD.


From CAD to CAM

When connecting CAD to CAM, drawings created in CAD programs are used to generate the instructions for the manufacturing machinery. Models that have been created with design software, can be imported into the CAM software, where the G-code is created to guide the machines. This way, the modelled design can efficiently and accurately bet turned into a physical product, bridging the gap between the designer and manufacturer.


So this is how the process looks:

  1. The design is created in a CAD program

  2. The design is imported into a CAM program

  3. The imported data is used to generate a G-code

  4. The G-code is downloaded into the machine

  5. The machine creates the physical product


To illustrate, an MEP designer models the hangers needed for ductwork in his CAD program, which he exports to the manufacturer. Next, the manufacturer uses this input in his CAM software to create instructions for the toolpaths of the machines. This way, the machine can automatically create custom hangers that are accurate realisations of the modelled design.


When BIM comes in

In a CAD-to-CAM workflow, the transfer of digital information is key. And when we’re talking about managing and sharing information in construction, we are also talking about BIM. With Building Information Modelling, collaboration processes are optimized and failure costs reduced, thanks to models containing accurate information. When connecting the information from BIM models to CAM software, complex and new designs can be manufactured in an efficient way that hasn’t been possible before. Design and construction productivity will reach new levels thanks to these technological advancements.

Find out how CAD is reshaping construction processes in The CAD Revolution in Construction.


From CAM to field

It’s not just manufacturing processes that are optimized with a CAD-to-CAM workflow. Also, processes on the construction site can benefit from greater efficiency:

  1. Mobile CAM applications

Mobile CAM applications are on the rise. These apps allow teams to streamline activities between the jobsite and the shop. Errors on the field can be eliminated by pulling information about fabricated elements straight from the app, instead of hand drawings that may contain incorrect dimensions.

Mobile CAM applications can also be used by manufacturers to track when fittings have left the shop and have arrived at the job site. Teams on site can use their phones to scan barcodes as items are staged, finished, loaded and shipped and send this information back to the shop quickly.


2. Control of labor

An important way in which labor can be controlled better is by preparing and assembling elements in the shop instead of in the field. Thanks to the accurate information in BIM models, it’s possible to assemble larger parts before starting actual construction. Michael Bailey, VP Sales from Mestek Machinery, also talked about the control of labor during this interview:

Contractors are trying to manifold ductwork in the shop, more today than they ever have. You put two or three sections together, you cut in your taps, access doors, whatever you need, install them at the shop, seal them up, and deliver the product. All they have to do is hang it. The manifolding of ductwork is a big trend in an industry right now.”


3. Flexibility and innovation

With CAD-to-CAM, it becomes possible to produce new types of hangers, fittings, and ducts, customized to a specific project in a time- and cost-efficient way. This way, the parts can be easily installed and do not need to be reworked on site. Here, a promising development is 3D printing, although this technology is still in its early stages. CAM software could be used to create 3D printed walls or other parts, based on the data from a BIM model, making the work on the construction site even more efficient.

So even though the automated factory may not be the full-blown reality just yet, we may be heading for an even more exciting reality. A reality in which promising synergies are happening between design, manufacturing, and construction. A reality not only characterized by increased efficiency, but also by more innovative buildings than have ever been built before.