CAD/CAM Software: A Woodworker's Primer

Use of CAD/CAM software can improve productivity and profits for woodworking businesses of all sizes.

By Scott Bury
CAD/CAM programs have gained in popularity due to their ability to allow users to visualize the completed project. Photo courtesy of 20-20

In case you haven't noticed, the wood manufacturing shop today looks very different from even a few years ago. CNC machines are almost considered "standard," even in shops with five or fewer employees. Today's woodworking companies depend on computer technology for their competitive edge.

It's not enough, though, to have the latest 5-axis CNC machine, no matter how fast or productive. You also need some pretty powerful computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software to make it work.

Made to Measure

CAD/CAM software originated in metalworking and precision manufacturing, but over the past five or 10 years, it has made a dent in the woodworking industry. Today, woodworkers can choose from an extensive range of products developed especially for them.

CAD is design: it includes tools for drawing products and parts, and it generates an electronic equivalent of a blueprint, in formats such as IGES, DXF, or DWG. AutoCAD is the best-known, and best-selling, of the CAD products, and a number of other vendors develop software that works hand-in-hand with AutoCAD, with special modules added for the wood manufacturer.

CAM is the next step. It takes those blueprint files and turns them into the information that the wood manufacturing shop needs: parts lists, nesting diagrams, even bills of material, cost estimates and invoices. It's a broad category, and typically, vendors break their CAM systems into smaller "modules," specialized for different aspects of the whole job.

CAM software also produces electronic code that the CNC router needs to do its work: toolpaths, nesting diagrams, tool selection, tool speeds, drill depths and so on. The code that actually makes the CNC machine move is called "G-code." At one time, you needed to buy a separate, expensive program made for your particular CNC router that translated the CAM data into G-code; the newest versions of the leading CAM programs have that G-code module built in.

Software Advances

All the CAD/CAM vendors interviewed for this article described their software as user friendly, with lots of drag-and-drop features, easy menu selections, graphical interfaces and extensive libraries of doors, frames and other parts.

Many of the software programs offer extensive libraries of hardware, windows and doors. Photo courtesy of ArtCAM by Delcam

"Once you base a program in Windows, it's obvious how to use it," says Bob Gowen, president of Pattern Systems. He adds that the question is not how easy it is to create a pretty picture of a kitchen for the customer, but how productive does that software make your business?

Typically, CAD/CAM programs use graphical interfaces and previews of parts; they show what the design will look like in color, and a number even add lighting, surface texture features or include tools which allow users to stretch or otherwise modify individual parts or whole products.

Most of the new generation of CAD/CAM programs start with libraries of standard parts, or templates, and allow users to modify them to fit their customers' needs or to create whole new parts and products.

While you can start with the template and stretch or squeeze the basic geometry, a number of the programs give a more precise option for editing the geometry of the basic designs, called parameter-driven or formula-driven editing. This allows you to select a part or a product, then enter the dimensions you want numerically. For example, Mastercam's programs allow users to enter dimensions in familiar fractional format - 1?2, 5?8 and so on - and then calculate the decimal forms.


The CAD/CAM market for wood manufacturers also has reached the stage where companies are finding specialized niches. Many, for example, have software and template libraries specializing in the needs of cabinetmakers or closet manufacturers. As the user designs the product, the software calculates the bill of materials so that it is ready for analysis and printing as soon as the design is finished.

One of the strengths of a program like this is that the software also controls all the CNC output: tool selection, speed, number of passes and toolpaths. There are programs available that also will automatically adjust tool speed and depth for when thinner material is used.

Frank Jiminez, president of Cabinet Pro and one of its principal programmers, says that "most of our ideas come from our customers." One idea which he says was recently implemented is the ability for the program to sort cuts by tool, rather than by depth of pass. In other words, at the user's option, the nesting program will make all the cuts with one particular tool before changing to a different tool. This can make producing a complex nesting path more efficient, Jiminez says.

Over 90 percent of AlphaCAM's U.S. customers are in the woodworking industry, says Stephen Hard, vice president of marketing for Planit Solutions. The company sells two subsets or modules that integrate into the main AlphaCAM product. AlphaDoor comes with an extensive library of doors for cabinets and external (house) doors, while AlphaWindow is a library of more complex window parts, mouldings and frames, and also includes stair railings.

CNC 5-axis routers depend on CAD/CAM software for designing and creating the toolpaths needed for manufacture.

Photo courtesy of

Mastercam/CNC Software

Some CAD/CAM systems focus on offering complete systems. Product Planner from Pattern Systems is one example, offering design, libraries of templates, bills of material, rules of construction and a direct link to the CNC router, with G-code so there is no need for a separate program to translate CAM output into CNC machine-readable language, Gowen says. Product Planner also calculates nesting optimization and assembly of all parts, and produces labels for the parts.

"Other CAD/CAM programs allow you to draw parts and generate the G-code, and they make sense for making standard parts: generate the G-code once and use it many times," says Gowen. "However, our job is integrating all the parts into products. Cabinetmakers don't ship parts, they ship products."

It is a subtle, but important point that business owners need to remember when making that decision about acquiring a CNC machine and software, he adds.

But where CAD/CAM software really makes a business more productive is in automating all the processes that go along with designing and cutting parts and products. When the software can help you design a product and its parts, then generate labels, reports, parts lists, bills of materials, estimates and even invoices, it saves the user a lot of time and money - not just by relieving the the chore of working all these out by hand, but also by avoiding calculation errors.

A Smarter Market

While improvements have been made to the software itself, the users of CAD/CAM products also are becoming much more computer savvy.

"In the early 90s, very few people in this industry knew computers, but that's changed very fast," says David Peel, president of Microvellum. "All the schools are teaching CAD/CAM, usually AutoCAD."

Mary Shaw, marketing manager at ArtCAM developed by Delcam, agrees. "There is a lot more knowledge of CAD/CAM now in the wood market than ever before," she says. She attributes the growth in computer knowledge to a generational phenomenon, as computers have been a regular part of schools for the last 10 years or so, with trade schools and even high schools offering instruction in CAD/CAM.

"Even three years ago, there was almost no knowledge of CAM in this market," says Doug Nemeth, corporate sales manager at Mastercam/CNC Software. "Today, the wood manufacturers are much more knowledgeable. A year after buying their CNC router and CAD/CAM program, they're running smoothly and earning profits."

"There is absolutely more computer knowledge in this industry than even five years ago," concurs Michael Grohs, director of sales for Virtual Systems, a CAM software developer recently acquired by 20-20 Technologies.

Smaller businesses with CNC routers also are able to take advantage of nesting, with even quite small shops using sophisticated CAM software for their CNC machines - a concept that only a few years ago was restricted to the largest shops, Grohs adds. "It's opening up a new market sector."

"The profile of the typical CAM user has changed in the past 18 months," adds Hard. "Two markets are emerging: the entry-level market that CNC manufacturers have built, and the high end users of the [more sophisticated] CNC machines," he says. AlphaCAM users tend to be either quite small shops with four to nine employees, or large businesses with 40 to 50 employees, Hard says of his customers.

Other software manufacturers also noted the trend of software use by smaller companies with simpler uses. Small businesses, even wood shops with fewer than five employees, can profitably use CNC machines because they have a large "work envelope," says Nemeth. However, he cautions, this phenomenon is one that has risks: a CNC machine is an expensive piece of capital equipment, and acquiring the first one turns a craftsman's woodworking shop into a serious business, where the first concern is not necessarily "How good is the tool?" but "What is the rate of return?"

Also figured into the equation is how the software can help businesses "close the sale," says Leslie Murphy, sales and marketing manager for KCDw Software. "Adding lighting, surface textures and other photo-realistic elements to kitchen designs is really a selling tool for the custom manufacturers. It sells the work."

Woodworkers making their first investment in CNC machinery and CAD/CAM software also should consider their upgrade path, say the software manufacturers. In addition to features such as 3-D modeling and G-code generation, woodworking companies should look for programs which will allow them to add more modules as their business needs grow.


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