General CNC is a machinery manufacturer with a mission to expand the use of computer numerical control (CNC) technology. Typically CNC machines are programmed by engineers. General CNC wants to make this functionality available to students, hobbyists, and others with no engineering training. To accomplish this, the company has paired an affordable router, called the iCarver, with very easy-to-use CNC programming software, ArtCAM Express from Delcam. The response has been tremendous.
Since General CNC began offering this package, its dealer network has grown from 17 distributors to 92, and the company can’t keep iCarvers in stock. “We sell them as fast as we build them,” says Steve Stevenson, marketing director at General CNC. Stevenson credits ArtCAM Express for much of this success. “When we first released the iCarver, we didn’t include ArtCAM and sales were nowhere near where they are now,” he says. “Marrying ArtCAM with iCarver machines is one of the smartest decisions we ever made.”
CNC for all
Through a dealer network located across North America, General CNC sells turnkey CNC solutions designed for high school woodshop classes and hobbyist woodworkers. Affordably priced, the company’s solutions include a CNC router, tooling, design software, set-up, and training. The entry-level school package, “CNC 101,” costs just $4,099.99. Intermediate and advanced packages sell for $7,199.99 and $15,995 respectively. All models come with ArtCAM Express, which is an entry-level 2D, 2.5D and basic 3D routing solution, although any package can be upgraded to Delcam’s more comprehensive and advanced 3D solutions, ArtCAM Insignia or ArtCAM Pro for an additional fee.
All General CNC solutions come with unlimited technical support for both the machine and the software, which is something Stevenson feels passionately about.
“One of the things we noticed about the way other companies market CNC is that they treat the programming software as a separate entity and don’t support it,” he explains. “We saw that happening especially in schools. Teachers get a million questions a day from students, and they require a lot of support. We decided General CNC would offer the best after-sale technical support package in the industry, and that’s another key to our success.”
The company’s support comes in a variety of formats. In addition to a toll-free number, there is an online support where customers can submit their files for help with programming, free online training sessions and a user forum..
“General CNC is doing a tremendous job with their CNC bundle,” said Sean Plunkett, Delcam’s ArtCAM Product Manager for North America. “Not only do they offer great support to their customers but each package comes with a full ArtCAM Express training DVD, a valuable tool for anyone learning the software. ArtCAM Express comes standard with a tutorial tab but the ArtCAM Express Training DVD provides additional educational information that can be applied over and over again. In addition it has 10 bonus 3D relief models that expand its already extensive clipart library.”
Programming made easy
Another issue that Stevenson feels passionately about is that CNC programming should be easy enough that anyone can do it. “Most CNC software is so complex that non-engineers can’t use it,” Stevenson explains. “ArtCAM Express, on the other hand, is very easy to learn and use. We have never had a customer send a machine back because they could not learn how to program it.”
ArtCAM Express includes 2D computer-aided design (CAD) functionality, which is one way users create the designs they carve out using the router. ArtCAM Express comes with a complete and very functional 2D design set of features and functions for creating and cutting intricate parts. The geometry tools are very easy to use.
One of the unique features of ArtCAM Express is the ability to import bitmap images and easily convert them to machinable vectors, which offers yet another option for creating designs. This can include line drawings, logos, sketches, etc. A third option is to use a pre created 3D part from the +500-piece clipart library that is included with the software. The beauty of ArtCAM Express, in Stevenson’s opinion, is that “it lets people machine in 3D without having to learn 3D design. The education customers love it.”
Once the 2D, 2.5D or 3D model is ready, the user can simulate the machining operation on the screen. This shows the exact geometry of the finished part. It also lets the user see potential issues and fix them in software before they can cause problems on the actual machine or in the material. After correcting any problems, the last step is to generate the G-code for the router.
Work to be proud of
When Stevenson attends woodworking trade shows, he is willing to go to some unusual lengths to convince people that they can learn CNC programming.
“Even if someone can’t send an email, I can teach them to program,” he says. On one occasion, Stevenson met Bob Aucoin of Rideau High School in Ottawa, Ontario at a woodworking show in Las Vegas. Aucoin bet Stevenson a beer that he couldn’t teach him to program. Stevenson took him up on the offer and flew to Ottawa where Aucoin had gathered a group of teachers for the presentation. Stevenson walked them through the use of ArtCAM Express. Aucoin learned it easily and became passionate about teaching CNC.
For Aucoin, one of the benefits of including CNC in his woodworking courses is that it improves the quality of the students’ work as well as their enthusiasm about what they are learning.
“Bob has been shop teacher for 30 years, and for all that time his classes have done the same project, a deacon’s bench,” Stevenson says. “That’s a good project because it requires the students to use every tool in the shop, but the students weren’t excited about it because the benches all looked alike. They would usually end up in a basement or the garage.”
Then Aucoin added the CNC router to the course and told the students that they could use it to personalize the back panel of the bench. “This was all the motivation they needed to get creative,” Stevenson says. “Bob called me and told me there was a Led Zeppelin bench, and a Harley Davidson bench, an Ottawa Senators bench, and a John Deere bench. But most exciting part was that that he had never seen such quality work. Because they could personalize their benches, the students took ownership and felt a level of pride in their work that their teacher had never seen before. Now the proudly display their benches in the den.”
Aucoin has had several kids enjoy the experience so much that went into woodworking occupations after graduating. And all of them are more employable for having learned CNC. Aucoin is currently planning to upgrade to ArtCAM Insignia so he can teach 3D programming.
Relationship is important
The iCarver machine was introduced in 2011 and has been packaged with ArtCAM Express since March 2012. General CNC sells 30 to 40 iCarver systems each month and the number continues to grow each month, which makes them one of the largest manufacturers of CNC equipment by volume. To date, hundreds of iCarvers have been sold, with about 60 percent in schools and 40 percent in small shops and garages.
Although ArtCAM Express’s ease of use was one of the main reasons General CNC chose this software, another important factor was the local support provided by Delcam. General CNC had recommended another programming system prior to bundling ArtCAM Express with its router, and the previous supplier’s responsiveness was hampered by the fact that it was located in the UK. “Delcam’s North American presence was important to us,” says Stevenson.
More important was Delcam’s experience selling into schools, which fit nicely with General CNC’s mission to extend the use of CNC to school woodworking programs. For example, part of General CNC’s package for schools is a 10-seat site license. “Delcam has a lot of experience in doing networking for schools, and we needed support with network integration, so that was another reason to go with Delcam,” Stevenson adds.
The ArtCAM Express pricing structure was another strong point in Delcam’s favor. Because General CNC sells its systems at such low prices, high-priced CNC software would either threaten profitability or force General CNC to raise its prices beyond what its target markets could afford. ArtCAM Express has most of the features its customers need at entry-level pricing and customers can upgrade to a higher version or possibly just add a module to ArtCAM Express when they need more functionality.
“ArtCAM Express is a perfect fit for the iCarver,” Stevenson concludes. “Anyone can use it, the price point is right, and the support Delcam has given us has been outstanding.”