Dec 9, 2011

Tomorrow's CAM Specialists Are Taught Alphacam Today at Wolverhampton College

Teaching Alphacam as part of BTEC and City & Guilds courses can give Wolverhampton College students a boost up the career ladder, according to their engineering lecturer.

Neil Davies says within The City Of Wolverhampton College’s BTEC Level 3 course an assessment is based on the students producing a machined part with Alphacam; and a whole unit is based on CAD/CAM as part of their HNC course.

“The students work on a number of different milling parts which include features like pockets, islands, holes and outside profiles. Firstly, the parts are drawn up through CAD. Then we go through importing the DXF, STL or IGES files into Alphacam, creating geometries and toolpaths, looking at speeds and feeds, and optimising programs in terms of tool changes, along with parameters for lead in and lead out moves, and outputting the program to our CNC machine to cut the parts.

“Also, we show them how to modify their programs using Alphacam’s CAD module, rather than exporting it back to our Autocad or Solidworks packages.”

With around 80 to 100 students learning about Alphacam at the college during an academic year, he says many already have a level 2 machining qualification. “So picking up the extra CAM skill gives them the option of taking their career in a different direction as a CAD/CAM operator rather than CNC machine operator, especially as level 3 students also learn G-code and the Heidenhain language.

“These students don’t need a full understanding of CNC because Alphacam produces the code for them, but knowing G-code shows them how a program is built up, meaning they have a greater appreciation of the underlying principles of CNC programming. If students have a good grasp of what goes into building a program it helps them to better understand why they’re doing something in Alphacam.”

A point echoed by student Peter Butler who is in his second year of an HNC Mechanical Engineering course: “It was tedious having to write the program longhand – 50 lines or so of G-code, but it was valuable in showing us what the lines mean. It helps us to know where to amend lines in Alphacam when we need to make changes to our programs.”

However, students doing the specific CNC course would learn about G-code first, and use it to program machines online. Then they would be taught about CAM, which shows them the definite benefits of using CAM over the traditional system of writing CNC codes longhand.

While Peter Butler finds the 3D simulation, including collision avoidance, to be a particularly important feature of Alphacam, he says the whole package gives him a good appreciation of what goes into manufacturing a part. Having completed his apprenticeship with local HVAC company Hotchkiss Air Supply he has seen many different types of complex parts being manufactured, and says that thanks to Alphacam he now knows exactly what has gone into creating them. “It means that when I’ve got this CAM qualification I could become a CAM programmer.”

Fellow student Faith Kelly, who works for Mann + Hummel manufacturing automotive air filtration boxes, says Alphacam makes the machining process much easier than she originally thought it was going to be. “That’s largely down to being able to create the programs so simply. The software does everything I need to produce parts from the original CAD design, through to creating the toolpaths. It’s all very straightforward.”

Neil Davies is looking to upgrade to the recently released 2012 R1 version of Alphacam, as he believes it is invaluable for students to be trained on the very latest industry-standard software which is widely used by engineering companies. Their current Alphacam package is also instrumental in helping the College get the very best from their 25-year-old Beaver Partsmaster 3-axis mill with 16-tool automatic tool changer and Heidenhain controller. “Driving the Partsmaster with Alphacam means it can do things it wasn’t originally designed to do.”

All students are given advice during the theory stage of their courses about which face to datum. “We might suggest they rotate a part to get a better face for datuming,” he says. “And we make sure they understand about the datums within the CNC machine and where the clamps are, so what they’re doing doesn’t interfere with those.

“We also look at jigs and fixtures as well, to see if they need to use them for the part they’re making.” And imparting traditional engineering skills is an important aspect of the courses, such as teaching them to look at all programming requirements of a part before producing the code. “We have to make sure they’re not going to jump in and program it straight away without thinking it through, otherwise they might machine something away that they may need to rely on later.”

It all adds up to ensuring that graduating students have both the theoretical and practical skills they will need in industry, and a knowledge of CAM to help them find jobs involving offline programming.