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Computer-aided manufacturing has come to be used as a general term to describe a variety of industrial automation technologies. Some common types of computer-aided manufacturing, also known as CAM, include numerical control (NC) machines; industrial robots; flexible manufacturing systems (FMS); and complete facility systems that incorporate CAM with computer-aided design (CAD) software, product life cycle software, and overall facilities management. Modern manufacturing facilities use CAM technologies to machine products, convert two-dimensional plans into three-dimensional schematics, monitor equipment, and even track and order raw material inventory.
In the early years of computer-aided manufacturing, CAM simply implied automation through computer software. Software helped design and tool aircraft and automotive parts or helped operate robotic arms during assembly. Machinists were still needed in most CAM facilities to reset machines and reason through problems associated with tool misalignment and machine maintenance. Modern computer-aided manufacturing, however, is much more advanced that early CAM technology.
Numeric control (NC) machines, one of the oldest and most common types of computer-aided manufacturing, applies specific formulas to processing raw materials. For example, if a circle must be cut from a sheet of metal, an NC machine can determine, using mathematical calculations and numeric input, exactly where and how to cut to get a perfect circle. Additionally, using the same algorithms, the computer can determine the exact placement of cuts to produce the largest number of circles per sheet, as well as exactly how to position the metal for optimal cutting.
Industrial robots are another example of computer-aided manufacturing. Robots perform many of the repetitive tasks once performed by human hands. Computers control the robots, sending and receiving data such as the number of pieces to produce per minute, placement of robotic arms, and timing between task stations. Programmers and other computer experts thus replace human workers, who now run the computer system rather than performing the manufacturing tasks.
Flexible manufacturing systems, CAM/CAD integrated systems, and setups that integrate with various data exchange systems provide unlimited possibilities for computer-aided manufacturing. As technology continues to evolve and broaden, flexible systems can easily produce several similar products with the same equipment, assisted by CAM software. Specific changes needed for various products can be performed within the CAM software, allowing the entire production process to become automated.
Nearly every aspect of the manufacturing process, with the exception of skilled computer programmers and operators, could be controlled by CAM technologies. Rather than simply controlling the manufacturing or fabrication process, computer-aided manufacturing software can monitor supplies, track performance, order replacement parts for machines, and even notify maintenance personnel of needed upkeep or repairs. Customization of various systems and available technologies makes the different types of CAM software virtually unlimited.