A Custom Job
Machine shops aren’t the only ones taking custom orders
No matter how good the software package, people can always come up with ways to make it better. VERICUT from CGTech is no different. Despite the fact that it’s now 30 years old and is on its 8th major release, CGTech, together with support from its customers, continues to increase the toolpath simulation software’s capabilities, adding features and functionality to improve usability while making it even more robust.
Most of these changes are usually small—updating a CAM interface to the latest version, adding a filter to make searching for data easier, enhanced logging capabilities and better ways to measure hole locations. These are just a few of the enhancements in VERICUT’s latest version (8.1), many of which were requested by its users.
Listening to Customers
What separates progressive software companies from their competitors is how they handle such user requests. VERICUT product manager Gene Granata says the company introduces a fairly large number of customizations in every major release, as well as numerous running changes in between. “The number of special requests varies with each version, but it’s usually in the hundreds,” he says. “We are very user-focused in terms of what needs to go into the software, and are always open to suggestions on how we can best meet our customer’s needs.”
One such request came from Ultra Machining Company (UMC), a second–generation, family-owned manufacturing company in Monticello, MN. UMC has served the area’s aerospace and medical industries for nearly 50 years. It specializes in precision machining of complex parts from difficult materials such as Hastelloy, Inconel, Stellite, and similar superalloys. UMC employs more than 200 people and operates a variety of advanced multitasking machine tools. These include 8 axis NTX1000Gen2 (shown in screenshot) and 12 axis NZX1500 triple turret mill/turn lathes from Mori Seiki, Matsuura MX-520 five-axis machining centers, Citizen Swiss-style screw machines, wire EDM, and more. It also offers engineering, prototyping, just-in-time inventory management and various finishing and assembly services.
Decades of Experience
Programmers Don Lahr and Mike Triplett have been VERICUT users for more than a decade. Both say the software has identified countless issues before they could affect the shop floor, enabling them to deliver a better product to their customers—the people standing in front of the machines all day. But the programming team identified a significant opportunity recently, one that would not only make life easier for the machine operator, but also improve throughput and tool life while reducing machine downtime.
The specific part that triggered the customization request to CGTech was a medical component referred to as a cutting guide. It’s made of 17-4PH H900 grade stainless steel, and like most of the parts at UMC, is not much fun to machine. In order to minimize cycle time, Lahr and Triplett use the OptiPath module within VERICUT, which optimizes toolpaths by breaking them into smaller segments, then dynamically adjusting feedrates based on factors such as cut depth and chip load, approach angle, as well as setup rigidity, spindle horsepower, cutting tool type, and other machining conditions.
Where a single feed rate was used previously, OptiPath outputs NC code that speeds up where possible and slows down when necessary. This greatly reduces problems with:
- Deflection in thin-walled, delicate parts, or where clamping forces are less than adequate
- Interruptions caused by intersecting holes, slots, and similar part features
- Chatter in corners, or where large amounts of “leftover” material are encountered
- Extreme tool overhang, common during five-axis machining
- Tired machine tools and worn spindles
- Tool rubbing caused by inadequate feedrates
There’s more to it than problem solving. OptiPath also eliminates air cutting and wasted machine motion, and kicks up feedrates on light cuts, all of which can dramatically improve productivity. Put it all together and the result is dramatically shorter cycle times, more predictable processes, and less unwanted excitement on the shop floor.
Reaching for Opportunities
UMC recognizes this, and uses the optimization module on many of its more difficult jobs. There’s only one problem. Because OptiPath basically “takes the reins” when determining the correct feedrate for a given machining condition, it outputs hundreds or perhaps thousands of feedrate commands throughout a typical program. So when a machinist sees an opportunity to further optimize the code, they have two options: bring the program back to Lahr or Triplett for another pass through OptiPath, or edit it manually.
“When you start the OptiPath process, you input the different variables—including the desired feedrate—and the software takes it from there. You don’t, however, always know exactly what that starting feedrate should be,” says Lahr. “We’re always programming new parts and trying out different cutting tools. Sometimes the fixture isn’t as rigid as expected, or the tool’s sticking out a bit farther than you’d like, and your best estimate isn’t always good enough.”
Before the latest version of VERICUT, Lahr says, the operator would sometimes just live with a less than ideal feedrate. Unless the job quantity was large enough to warrant the additional programming time—or the cutting tool simply didn’t work at the optimized feedrate—it didn’t make sense to let the machine sit idle for up to half an hour while they raised their concerns with the programmers.
The solution was ingenious. By adding a macro variable “multiplier” to each programmed feedrate and setting the value of that variable to 1.0 at the start of the program, the operator could globally adjust all feedrate up or down as needed by changing a single value:
- X40.293 Y-3.84 Z-15.94
- X38.684 Y-4.419 Z-15.874
- X36.907 Y-4.829 Z-15.807 F[1550.*#153]
- X35.057 Y-5.059 Z-15.741
- X33.531 Y-5.119 Z-15.686 F[1650.*#153]
- X33.613 Y-5.118 F[1300.*#153]
- X35.419 Y-5.028 Z-15.707 F[1250.*#153]
- X37.231 Y-4.769 Z-15.727 F[1200.*#153]
- X38.967 Y-4.333 Z-15.748
- X46.032 Z-32.217 F[10000.*#153]
As you can see in this example, increasing variable #153 by 10 percent effectively increases all feedrates by 10 percent. “We let OptiPath do its thing, and if the machinist thinks the machine can run faster or maybe needs to back off for whatever reason, all they have to do is tweak one number,” he says. “It’s pretty cool.”
Of course, UMC needed some help from CGTech to implement the change. Lahr reached out to area sales engineer Scott Reiner, who passed the request on to the development team. To Lahr’s delight, the custom code was rolled into the next release, just two weeks later. “CGTech has made other changes for us over the years, but none of them came through quite this quickly,” Lahr says. “It was exactly what we were looking for.”
CGTech’s Granata says success stories like this aren’t unusual. “We receive a lot of requests and inquiries on the website, in our VERICUT user groups, training sessions, and even our field sales team,” he says. “We review all of them. Sometimes the functionality already exists, and it’s a matter of helping the customer find it. But quite often we get suggestions that will be of general use to our customer base, and add genuine value to the software. That was the case here.”
If you’re curious about what’s changed in the latest release (or want to read more about UMC’s most recent contribution to it) the most significant enhancements and software features are listed in the release letter sent to all CGTech customers, with the complete details of each included in that version’s user manual. Those on software support are encouraged to download the latest release, although Granata is quick to point out that even those customers not on maintenance should feel free to ask anyone at CGTech “What’s new?”
“VERICUT is a deep and very capable system,” he says. “If there’s something that you want to do in the software and you don’t see how to do it, just ask. Chances are good there’s a setting that can be changed or some other way to accomplish your goals. If not, we want to work with you. Doing so is good for all of us. It’s important to remember, we’re partners. Everyone’s in it together.”