May I suggest that if you are operating a panel router, don’t every buy something called bla-bla-CAM MILL. To explain, let me define the difference between a MILL and a ROUTER:
A MILL usually takes a block of material and mills it into some three dimensional single piece, like a mounting bracket, a cylinder head, or a bust of George Washington. The material is typically locked onto the table with a fixture and rarely cut loose. Holes are ‘pocketed’, which means that all the material in the hole is turned into shavings. Typically, the cuts don’t go all the way through the piece and so any cutting order is acceptable.
A ROUTER usually takes a large sheet of material and cuts it into a bunch of loose pieces. Center holes are simply cut away into single smaller pieces, not milled completely down into cuttings. Almost everything is cut all the way through. Because of this, it is very important to define what needs to be cut first, which direction it needs to be cut, and where the starting point is.
There are some very popular MILL software packages which are marketing towards the people using CNC routers. You can somewhat make them work, but everything ends up being an inefficient work-around. I really can’t stress this enough: ONLY GET SOFTWARE WHICH IS PRIMARILY DESIGNED FOR A ROUTER! Here are a few functions you should keep an eye out for:
- The ability to (1) pick the next piece you want to cut, (2) pick the starting point, and (3) pick the direction to cut.
- The ability to automatically calculate holding tabs (I never use them, but it’s a good indication that the software is intended for a router).
- The ability to drill a batch of holes (i.e. provide a G81 drill cycle for a series of points).
- Simplicity; the more options you have, the more things you need to turn off or work-around to get the software to work correctly. A lot of time is wasted trying to get a full featured package set up and working properly.
I use a very simply CAM program from the early 1990’s written in DOS. My parts and cutting paths are written in a separate CAD program and imported as a DXF file. There are very few options and from opening the DXF file to closing with a G-code file takes me about three to five minutes. There are currently free software programs on the internet which do about the same thing.
One final note: There is a software company which I had a fairly bad experience with. It wasn’t that their software was complete junk; it just didn’t work for me. The problem was that their business plan didn’t seem to be based on providing a better product; it seemed to be based on aggressive marketing and the lack of a return policy. Once you purchased their fairly expensive product, their goal was to keep you from returning it. Like many other of their customers that I have found on the internet, I have this software sitting uselessly on my shelf. I suggest that before you buy a product, do an internet search with the product name followed by ‘sucks’ or ‘is crap’; if you get a page full of hits, think twice about buying the product.