Ramblin' Dan's Workshop

The Sanctum of Fine Art and Invention

Drawing Conclusions

Since exploring SketchUp I have taken a new interest in CAD portion of the CAM process. This long Memorial Day weekend I have been playing with Vectric Aspire and Rhinoceros. I can’t do CNC work without owning/using both of them. For my needs they put SketchUp clearly in third place as an interesting diversion. I am not de-rating SketchUp. It is free and it works well for a drafting program.

Vectric is offering a wonderful product with Aspire and several other packages designed expressly for the CAD/CAM artist/designer. It is my top choice for value/cost as it combines the drawing with CNC code generation. Aspire is completely adequate for the majority of design and CNC generation needs. It is a very good tool for use with overhead router systems. I will say it is probably the only program most OH router folks will need.

My highest cost drawing tool kit is Rhinoceros (Rhino) combined with RhinoCAM. However, together they permit the highest degree of control and detail. So much so it may be overwhelming for the casual hobbyist.

First is the drawing program Rhinoceros. Adding a CAM program makes it a low cost competitor to other packaged programs like SolidWorks and ArtCAM. You “pays your money” and you “makes your choices”. Rhino has a great starting price of under $1K. The power of Rhino is all the plug-ins available. It is a great 3D drawing CAD program all by itself. Its 3D drawings can be imported into just about every CAM program invented including the ones just mentioned. The add-ins (see website) can make it become whatever package you need. My choice for CAM was to add RhinoCAM plug-in by MecSoft.

MecSoft is the creator of a standalone CAM program known as VisualMILL (VM) that has gained a reputation as a reasonably priced alternative to the five figures cost of commercial CAM programs. MecSoft modified VisualMILL to run as a fully integrated plug-in to Rhino. That means RhinoCAM requires Rhinoceros to function. OK with me!

Total cost is a bit pricy for the casual hobbyist designer. From the world of photography I’ll borrow the term “Prosumer” as a step between amateur “consumer” needs and the professional shop. It’s a term created to indicate a well equipped amateur. Prosumer doesn't indicate a level of talent but indicates a level of knowledge and investment for better than consumer made tools.

I just this weekend upgraded my 1.xx.xx version of RhinoCAM to version 2.xx.xx and I immediately see a great improvement in the interface. I have the standard package with the 4th axis. The newest version is called RhinoCAM 2012. The retail price is $2500 including the 4th axis support. So in my estimation, this is definitely prosumer class.

MecSoft offers a program called FreeMILL this is worth investigating. Free is good!

I have BobCAD-CAM V24 on my computer. I found it completely usable and filed a user report on my machine shop blog, The Hobbyist Machine Shop Blog. First report is HERE and a follow up HERE. I put BobCAD-CAM in the prosumer class. I also posted a follow up of my general thoughts about all CAD/CAM/CNC in the Blog.

CAD-CAM is a business infested by what I have to term as companies with aggressive marketing plans. That’s not a fault but an observation. There are a lot of full version (pay me) upgrades promoted by some vendors like once a year or faster. This is fairly common in the world of professional CAD programs and CAM offerings. I receive monthly emails from several CAD only programs I have tested. My favorite application developers are smaller businesses with less need to bleed their customers on upgrades. Rhino upgrades are low numbered and long lived. Version 4 intermediate updates have been gratis. Version 5 has been in development for several years with free betas but will certainly be a purchase upgrade when finished. Free isn't forever if you want to stay in business.

I have a suggestion you consider the number of whole number revisions when figuring long term cost of owning a program. Most cases the multiple revisions are more profit driven than providing must have new features.  Upgrades to a 64 bit OS and multiple processors are an example I consider worth paying for in a revision level, but only if I had that type computer. Just a personal thought.

I have made many changes and tried a lot of CAD/CAM programs. One big lesson I learned is I can’t be an expert in them all. Best plan is to develop skill in something I find comfortable and stay with it, especially if there is a very low ongoing cost in ownership. I am in my comfort zone.

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