CNC (Computer Numerical Control) software is vital for programming automated machine tools that are used in manufacturing. CNC software provides the instructions for machine tools to carry out machining operations. These instructions guide a CNC machine on how to cut a finished part out of a piece of raw material. In addition, CNC software allows the virtual creation of parts, the simulation and optimization of cutting operations, and the automatic generation of efficient G-code toolpaths. This eliminates the tedious and error-prone disadvantages of manually programming CNC machines.
With the right CNC software, manufacturers can achieve higher levels of precision, efficiency, and automation in machining parts. Today, many excellent CNC software options are available for CNC machining. However, your choice depends on cost, features, manufacturing applications, CNC technique support, the ability to collaborate with other software, etc. This article will discuss the top 11 CNC software in the market, highlighting their features, benefits, and some factors that should be considered when choosing them. Let’s get to it.
What is CNC Software?
CNC software is a computer-based software tool that converts drawings or models into machine instructions, controlling and guiding the movement and operation of CNC machines. CNC software is essential for modern manufacturing due to its ability to streamline processes, reduce errors, and increase productivity. It enables manufacturers to create intricate designs, generate toolpaths, simulate machining operations, and optimize production workflows.
In a CNC machining process, four types of software are utilized. These include:
CAD (Computer-Aided Design) Software: CAD software creates 2D, 2.5D, or 3D designs. It simply substitutes the manual drafting done by engineers, enhancing the automation level in the process.
CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) Software: CAM software prepares the toolpath and converts designs to G-code. G-code is a machine-readable language.
Control Software: Control software reads G-code and generates signals to control stepper motor drives. It tells the CNC machine what to do.
Simulation Software: Simulation software reads the G-code and forecasts possible errors during machining.
This article mainly explores CAD, CAM, and CAD/CAM software. What is CAD/CAM software? A CAD/CAM software is a software package that provides both CAD and CAM functionality. This way, instead of using two distinct software platforms to construct and develop a design, an operator utilizes the same soft platform. As for some common CNC software, we will cover them later.
How does CNC Software Work?
The CNC software acts as the “brains” behind the machining process, taking the CAD model and providing motion and tool commands to physically machine the part. It bridges the digital design to the physical machining. Here is a brief introduction to how CNC software works:
Step 1: The model is first created, whether using 2D drawing or 3D modeling software. Generally, CAD software is used to create models. The CAD model defines the part geometry, dimensions, tolerances, etc.
2D models are just drawings of the parts to be cut, and they are useful when creating parts that will all be cut at the same height. 3D modeling, on the other hand, offers benefits such as the ability to preview the assembly and work with distinct depths of cuts. It also enables more complicated models.
Step 2: The CAM software analyzes this model and generates toolpaths – the path the cutter will take to machine the part.
Toolpaths are optimized to minimize machining time, ensure dimensional accuracy, avoid collisions, and account for the capabilities of the machine. Things like cutter size, spindle speeds, feed rates, and more are considered.
Step 3: The toolpaths are converted to G-code, which provides coordinates and machine commands to guide the motors and tell the machine how to move. G-code is a numerical control programming language.
Common G-code commands tell the machine things like moving the cutter to this X, Y, Z position, turning on the spindle at this RPM, moving the cutter at this feed rate, turning on coolant, etc.
Step 4: The CNC machine executes the G-code line-by-line, driving the tool along the programmed toolpaths and machining the raw material into the finished part.
It should be noted that although you could theoretically cut the model with a CNC machine at this step, it’s always a good idea to do a simulation to ensure that the cutting path is proper. This gives you the chance to make any required adjustments. When everything has been checked, it is time to cut the part.
Importance of CNC Software in Manufacturing
CNC software enables a flexible, automated, and optimized approach to manufacturing that simply cannot be achieved through purely manual processes. Here are some key reasons why CNC software is important:
Precision and Accuracy: CNC software enables manufacturers to achieve high levels of precision and accuracy in their machining operations. The software translates design specifications into machine instructions, ensuring that the final product meets the desired specifications consistently.
Automation and Efficiency: CNC software automates the manufacturing process, reducing the need for manual intervention. This automation leads to increased efficiency, as CNC machines can operate continuously, minimizing downtime and maximizing productivity.
Complex Machining Operations: CNC software allows manufacturers to perform complex machining operations that would be difficult or impossible to achieve manually. It enables the creation of intricate designs, complex geometries, and precise contours, expanding the possibilities for manufacturing intricate components.
Flexibility and Customization: CNC software provides flexibility in manufacturing by allowing quick and easy reprogramming of machines for different tasks. This flexibility enables manufacturers to produce customized products efficiently, catering to individual customer requirements.
Time and Cost Savings: CNC software optimizes manufacturing processes, reducing the time required to produce a component. It eliminates the need for manual setup and adjustments, resulting in faster production cycles. Additionally, CNC software minimizes material waste, leading to cost savings in the long run.
Quality Control: CNC software incorporates quality control features, such as real-time monitoring and feedback mechanisms. This ensures that the machining process remains within specified tolerances, reducing the likelihood of errors and defects in the final product.
The Top 11 CNC Software Platforms
Here are the 11 most capable and widely-used CNC software platforms on the market currently:
- UG (Unigraphics)
Now let’s look at each of these top CNC software options in more depth. We will cover the history, key features, and main applications for each package.
UG, also known as Unigraphics, is a CAD/CAM/CAE software suite offered by Siemens Digital Industries Software. It is one of the most widely used CNC software applications for programming CNC machine tools in the manufacturing industry globally.
UG has been used since the 1970s and continues to be a leading CAD/CAM solution. It provides powerful tools for designing parts as well as generating machining toolpaths.
Key features of UG include:
- Advanced modeling capabilities for part and tool design.
- Automated feature recognition and CNC programming.
- Support for multi-axis machining of complex 3D parts.
- Powerful simulation of machining processes.
- Integrated toolpath verification identifies collisions before machining.
Applications of UG include:
UG is excellent at modeling, assembly, curved surfaces, motion simulation, CNC machining, etc. It is the preferred programming tool for NC machining of aircraft parts. In addition, this software is an excellent choice for automotive, aerospace, machinery, mold and die, and consumer product manufacturers. It offers top-level capabilities for 3D machining, multi-axis milling, turning, wire EDM, robotics programming, and more.
Mastercam from CNC Software Inc. is the most commonly used CAD/CAM (Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing) software on the PC platform. MastercAM integrates drawing and programming. It is not only cheap, but also draws wireframes quickly, has a good zoom function, and has strong surface roughing and surface finishing functions. It can design complex curves and surface parts.
Mastercam has been on the market since 1983 and is popular for milling, turning, routing, plasma cutting, laser cutting, and more. With its user-friendly interface and robust toolpath generation, Mastercam enables users to program CNC machines efficiently. It offers advanced features like dynamic milling and multiaxis machining, making it suitable for both simple and complex manufacturing tasks.
Notable features of Mastercam include:
- Streamlined 2D toolpaths for fast programming.
- Advanced multi-axis 3D toolpaths for complex parts.
- Powerful drilling and hole machining cycles.
- Easy roughing, finishing, threading, drilling, slotting, engraving, and more operations.
- Dynamic Motion technology for optimized toolpaths and reduced machining time.
- Extensive library of post-processors for compatibility with different machine tools.
- Automated fixture design tools.
Applications of Mastercam include:
Mastercam is an excellent “all-around” solution for job shops, tool & die, medical, aerospace, automotive, and consumer product manufacturing. It is highly flexible for 2.5 to 5-axis machining of plastic, metals, foam, and wood for prototypes and other applications. It offers extensive programming automation and easy-to-use capabilities.
Cimatron is a professional CNC programming software from Israel. It is an integrated CAD/CAM solution developed specifically for mold, tool, and die makers. Its function on the tool path is superior to that of Mastercam and makes up for the shortcomings of Mastercam. The system provides a relatively flexible user interface and an excellent drawing system, and it is very popular in the international mold manufacturing industry.
Cimatron has been on the market for over 30 years and is installed in over 40 countries worldwide. Cimatron and Mastercam are used in 99% of machining programming. In the early days, these two software were used to draw pictures and write CNC programs, but their functions in drawing and modeling were not very good.
Key features of Cimatron include:
- Specialized plastic injection and die design tools.
- Intelligent CNC programming for milling, drilling, and turning.
- Automated toolpaths optimized for high-speed machining.
- Efficient electrode design and programming for EDM.
- Realistic CNC simulation.
- Fast design changes with automatic reprogramming of toolpaths.
Applications of Cimatron include:
Cimatron caters to both prototype and production toolmakers. Cimatron is mainly widely used in the processing of molds and electrodes in the fields of machinery, electronics, scientific research, aerospace, and other fields. It is an ideal solution for automotive, medical, consumer products, and general machining applications.
HyperMILL from OPEN MIND Technologies is a powerful CAM solution built specifically for 2.5D, 3D, and 5-axis machining applications. It provides advanced capabilities for programming CNC mills, drills, lathes, and EDM machines. The five-axis toolpath of HyperMILL is very powerful, and it is called the “five-axis king”.
HyperMILL has been on the market since 1991 and is highly regarded for its machining efficiency, speed, and automation. It provides efficient toolpath generation, reducing machining time and improving surface quality. HyperMILL intelligent automation features, such as collision avoidance and adaptive feed control, enhance safety and productivity. It supports a wide range of CNC machines and is suitable for various industries.
Key features of HyperMILL include:
- Specialized strategies and cycles for 5-axis contouring and cutting.
- Intelligent roughing strategies with optimized toolpaths.
- Streamlined drilling and hole machining functionality.
- High-speed finishing toolpaths for hard materials.
- Automated CAM programming with feature recognition.
- Best-in-class simulation of machining processes.
- 5-axis simultaneous and turbine blade machining support.
Applications of HyperMILL include:
HyperMILL is an excellent choice for aerospace, power generation, precision tool and die, automotive, and medical parts producers. It excels at programming complex 3D parts and multi-axis CNC machines.
PowerMILL was produced by the British Delcam company in the early stages and later acquired by the American Autodesk company. It is a CNC machining programming software system with rich machining strategies. Meanwhile, PowerMILL by Autodesk is a full-featured CAM solution that provides in-depth capabilities for 2D, 3D, and multi-axis machining. At present, the number of users of this software is increasing significantly, especially in the mold processing industry.
PowerMILL has been on the market since the early 1990s. It combines ease of use with advanced toolpath generation for complex machining tasks. In addition, it enables users to achieve superior surface finish and accuracy. PowerMILL’s simulation capabilities help identify and resolve potential issues before machining, minimizing errors and material waste.
Key features of PowerMILL include:
- Extensive range of 2D and 3D machining strategies.
- Advanced 5-axis contouring and cutting methods.
- Specialized toolpaths for blisks, impellers, and turbo machinery.
- Automated CNC programming from 3D models.
- Easy roughing, finishing, and drilling routines.
- Realistic material removal simulation.
- Extensive CAD file import capabilities.
- Highly configurable interface.
Applications of PowerMILL include:
PowerMILL is flexible enough for both prototyping and production needs. It excels at multi-axis turbine blades, automotive ports, and complex mold and die applications. As a result, PowerMILL is an ideal solution for complex parts and molds for aerospace, automotive, energy, and other sectors.
Pro/E, or Pro/Engineer, is now PTC Creo. Pro/E is developed by PTC and is a suite of solutions offering integrated 3D CAD/CAM/CAE software. The software has multiple functions, such as part design, product assembly, mold development, CNC machining, 3D modeling, and drafting tools. This makes it suitable for designing complex parts and assemblies. Pro/E’s integration with CNC software allows seamless transfer of design data, ensuring accurate machining and efficient production.
Pro/E has been around since the 1980s and continues to be a popular choice in the manufacturing industry. It combines parametric 3D modeling with automated CAM programming.
Key features of PTC Creo include:
- Fully integrated CAM programming from Creo part models.
- Automated feature recognition and toolpath generation.
- Extensive support for multi-axis milling and turning.
- Specialized lathe programming tools and cycles.
- Drilling and hole-making automation.
- Powerful simulation of CNC toolpaths.
- Prismatic and surface machining.
Applications of PTC Creo include:
Pro/E is an excellent choice for product design companies and manufacturers looking for an integrated CAD/CAM solution. It excels at multi-axis and multi-part CNC programming and is widely used in industries such as electronics, machinery, molds, industrial design, and toys.
ZW3D CAM is ZWSOFT’s powerful computer-aided manufacturing solution that delivers efficient toolpath generation and CNC programming for a range of machining applications. ZW3D is an all-in-one, easy-to-use 3D CAD/CAE/CAM solution for complete product development. It takes you through the entire journey from initial concept to final manufacture. With powerful solid-surface modeling, structural simulation, and 2-5 axis machining in one integrated platform, ZW3D helps you build better products faster and at lower cost. As an integral part of the company’s all-in-one CAD/CAM product suite, ZW3D CAM enables seamless transition from design to manufacturing with its tight integration with ZW3D CAD.
Key features of ZW3D:
- Hybrid modeling technology
- Structural simulation and analysis
- Broad machining capabilities: 2-5 axis milling, turning, sheet metal, molds
- Specialized tools for niche workflows
- Tight CAD-CAM integration
- Intuitive interface and automation
Applications of ZW3D:
ZW3D CAM addresses the manufacturing needs of industries like automotive, aerospace, medical, consumer products, and tool & die. It has applications ranging from prismatic & free-form 3D part machining to complex mold, die & stamping production. The intuitive UI and automation tools boost productivity for NC programmers.With its highly functional toolpath strategies and integration with ZW3D CAD, ZW3D CAM provides an efficient, reliable platform for taking product designs to CNC-machined reality.
FeatureCAM by Autodesk is a full-featured CAM software with a new feature concept and feature recognition. It automatically recognizes holes, bosses, sides, and pockets in a single workflow for faster programming. FeatureCAM is based on the material library, tool library, and process card programming modes of the process knowledge base. It can design from 2- to 5-axis milling to turn-milling compound processing, from surface processing to wire EDM operations, providing a comprehensive multi-module solution for workshop programming.
FeatureCAM has been on the market since 1996. It uses feature-based techniques to automate the programming of CNC mills, lathes, wire EDMs, and CMMs. It offers automated feature recognition, reducing programming time and minimizing errors.
Key features of FeatureCAM include:
- Automated feature recognition from CAD models.
- Rules-based toolpath generation for features.
- Pre-defined machining strategies for holes, pockets, slots, etc.
- Streamlined simulation and G-code verification.
- Customization of strategies with the CAM editor.
Applications of FeatureCAM include:
FeatureCAM substantially speeds up CNC programming by automatically recognizing manufacturing features on parts and applying ideal toolpaths. This makes it perfect for one-offs, small batches, and high-mix production. The automation benefits prototype work, specialized toolmaking, injection molds, and precision components.
CATIA is an acronym for computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application. This CAD software package is developed by the French company Dassault Systèmes. It’s a full software suite that incorporates CAD, CAE, CAM, 3D modeling, and product lifecycle management (PLM). Its powerful surface modeling function ranks at the forefront of all CAD 3D software. Because of its superior programming ability, it can meet the requirements of complex CNC machining of parts.
CATIA has been on the market since the 1970s. It offers a high-end suite of design, engineering, machining, and simulation tools. The advanced capabilities of Catia enable users to optimize product performance and manufacturing efficiency.
Key features of CATIA include:
- Automated prismatic and multi-axis machining strategies.
- Specialized application-based machining packages.
- Integrated CAD/CAM with associative toolpaths.
- High-speed machining optimization tools.
- Five-axis blade and impeller capabilities.
- Machining simulation for collision detection.
- Advanced surface machining capabilities.
- Tools for dies, molds, and prototypes.
Applications of CATIA include:
CATIA is an ideal solution for OEMs and tier-one suppliers in aerospace, automotive, energy, and other complex manufacturing industries. It provides top-level capabilities for advanced multi-axis CNC programming.
VERICUT is a CNC machining simulation software developed by CGTech Inc. It uses advanced 3D display and virtual reality technology to realistically restore the NC machining process and even the factory environment. VERICUT can be stand-alone software. It can also integrate with CAD, CAM, and PLM systems, including CATIA, Siemens NX, PowerMILL, EdgeCAM, Mastercam, and Hypermill. It simulates milling and drilling processes using a three- to five-axis simulation motion. On a graphics screen, the simulation is shown as a solid 3D model of the raw stock, simulating the programmed cutting movements, and finally presenting the finished part. The program verified by this software can greatly reduce the processing accident rate.
VERICUT was first released in 1988. It is used to simulate tool motion and the material removal process. It is highly valued for its ability to detect errors, collisions, overcuts, and inefficiencies in NC programs before they get to the machine.
Key features of VERICUT include:
- Detailed simulation of all types of CNC machining.
- Collision detection and near-miss analysis.
- Material verification with a solid model.
- Detection of unreachable tool locations.
- Simulation of multi-axis machining centers.
- G-code cut visualization and optimization.
Applications of VERICUT include:
VERICUT has NC program optimization capabilities. The optimization can reduce scrapped parts, broken tools, and cutter deflection. For those looking just for cutting simulation and verification, VERICUT is the premier choice. VERICUT is used across industries by manufacturers looking to increase efficiency, avoid errors, and optimize CNC programs.
EdgeCAM is a professional intelligent CNC programming software from Pathtrace in the UK. It is good at processing complex three-dimensional surfaces. It is currently widely used in the programming fields of CNC machine tools such as turning, milling, and wire EDM in European and American countries. It offers powerful capabilities for 2.5D, 3D, and multi-axis machining applications.
EdgeCAM first came on the market in 1989 and combines ease of use with advanced functionality for both simple and complex CNC programming tasks.
Key features of EdgeCAM include:
- Streamlined interfaces and workflows for faster programming.
- Production-focused 2.5D toolpath strategies and cycles.
- Advanced 3D roughing and finishing strategies.
- Specialized 4/5-axis deburring and multi-blade capabilities.
- Automated hole-making with ProDrill.
- Intelligent workflow tools and CNC code optimization.
Applications of EdgeCAM include:
EdgeCAM provides a production-oriented package targeted at machine shops, fabrication job shops, aerospace, automotive, and energy part manufacturing.
CAXA Manufacturing Engineer
CAXA is a self-developed CAM software in China, mainly for two- to five-axis CNC milling machines and machining centers. It not only has good process performance but also has a moderate price. Therefore, the software is very popular in the Chinese CAM market and has become a major supplier in the field of NC programming.
Features of CAXA include:
- Offers a range of CAD/CAM solutions for various applications, including mold design, sheet metal fabrication, and CNC machining.
- user-friendly interface and localized features cater to the specific needs of Chinese manufacturers.
- A comprehensive toolset and efficient machining strategies contribute to improved productivity.
- Affordable package with all required CAM capabilities.
Applications of CAXA include:
CAXA is a major supplier in the field of NC programming. It is specifically for programming CNC mills, lathes, wire EDMs, routers, lasers, and waterjet machines. It combines an easy-to-use interface with advanced capabilities for 2D, 3D, and multi-axis machining.
Factors to Consider When Choosing CNC Software
Selecting the right CNC software is crucial for manufacturing productivity and profitability. By carefully weighing the following factors, you can be confident in choosing a package aligned with your business needs.
CNC Techniques Supported
Before buying a new CNC software package, ensure that it is capable of all the operations required to create the part. Not all software can support many CNC techniques, such as milling, laser, plasma, etc. You should choose the software that supports the CNC techniques you need for manufacturing.
Technical Level of the User
The technical level of the user is one thing to consider when choosing CNC software. Beginners should start with simpler tools and progress to more complicated CNC software programs once they have mastered the basics.
Most CAD packages are very expensive. Hence, it is advised to do proper research on the software before purchasing it. And expensive isn’t always the best, so be sure to keep an eye out for the features you need. Also, newer versions of most software always perform better than earlier versions. It’s a good idea to try out the free version of the program before deciding to buy it.
File Formats Accepted
There are several file types used for CNC operations, such as STEP, STL, IGES, DXF, X3D, Parasolid, and so on. The software you use to create your CAD file typically determines the file type. Problems can arise if your software doesn’t accept various files, both importable and exportable.
Collaboration with Other Software
An issue to consider while selecting software is its compatibility with other software. This would reduce the amount of time required to prepare and move files to manufacture between systems. It is necessary to choose software that performs well and collaborates well with others.
Ease of Use
Look for an intuitive interface with clear workflows for your team to learn and program efficiently. But don’t sacrifice capability for simplicity. And the ability to simulate and verify toolpaths is invaluable, so be sure to look for realistic material removal simulations.
CNC software, or computer numerical control software, is a specialized type of software designed to control machine tools in manufacturing. It’s the brains behind the operation, translating complex design files into instructions that these machines can follow. Choosing the proper CNC software can significantly improve machining productivity, reduce costs, and streamline production workflows.
Generally speaking, CNC software is used to develop part prototypes. If this is your goal, why not consider a reliable company like LEADRP with years of experience in developing prototypes? LEADRP provides high-quality prototyping and low-volume manufacturing, from your initial part design to the final products. Contact us and get a quote instantly!
CATIA – From Wikipedia
Vericut – From Wikipedia
Standalone CAM software focuses purely on programming CNC machine tools from designs, while integrated CAD/CAM offers both design and machining tools in one package. CAD/CAM streamlines the process by avoiding data transfers.
CATIA offers extremely advanced capabilities for multi-axis machining, particularly in aerospace applications. But it also demands high-end computing resources and has a steep learning curve.
Yes, most CNC software solutions offer customization options to fine-tune toolpaths based on specific machining requirements.