When look at a complete CNC cut project from start to finish, you can identify a series of major steps that will form the “Workflow” to complete it. Having a good understanding of this process will help you start to appreciate where the different software packages and setup procedures fit into the overall creation of parts. Below is an overview of the different stages, for a more in-depth explanation then you can use this link to download the full Introduction to CNC (4Mb PDF) document and review the detailed step by step.

1. Concept

This represents the idea for what you are going to make. This may range from a specific customer requirement, something you have sketched on a napkin or a ready to go file that someone has already prepared (such as the free Vectric monthly projects). At this stage you should review what it is your making try and think through the other processes in the job to help to get the best approach to achieving it. You should also assemble any reference material you will use to help design the part such as photos, data from the customer, design sketches etc.

2. Design (CAD – Computer Aided Design)

For the design you need create the computer data that will define either the 2D or 3D forms you want to cut on your CNC. This is done in what is typically called “CAD software” (CAD = Computer Aided Design) and you may also hear this type of software referred to as a drafting, drawing or design program.  

The finish point of the Design stage is to have prepared all the 2D data (Vectors) or 3D data (Components) you require to start calculating the specific movements the CNC machine will follow, these moves are typically referred to as the “Toolpaths”.

Most of our customers use one of the Vectric products (VCarve Pro or Aspire) to do their design although there are many other design (CAD) programs available for either 2D drawing or 3D modeling and depending on the file format export options available, this data can be saved and imported into the Vectric programs for Toolpath creation (CAM) which is discussed below.

3. Toolpaths (CAM – Computer Aided Manufacturing)

Once the design is complete, you will start to calculate the actual paths that will drive where the tool will move on the machine, as previously stated these are called “Toolpaths”. Creating your Toolpaths is the key stage in going from the virtual world of a computer design to the reality of the physical world.

At this point you will start to take into account the shape and size of the tool, the type of movement you want the tool to make (the shape you want it to leave in the material) and appropriate settings for how fast the tool can be moved and how much material can be removed safely.

Once the Toolpaths have been calculated the software will let you Preview how they will look in a virtual piece of material. This lets you check that they are doing what you expected. Once you are happy the Toolpaths are correct then they can be saved in a format that is appropriate for your particular CNC.

All Vectric software can be used to calculate toolpaths to drive a CNC. Each product is designed to work with different types of data depending what you plan to make. Visit the Learn About Vectric Page  for information on the different products and their specific functionality. 

4. Machining

Once your toolpaths have been saved then you transfer them over to the CNC either via a network, thumb drive or portable disk. At this stage you will need to adjust various settings and positions on your CNC to match the job setup you specified in the Design/Machining software. This will involve setting up your material in the right orientation, and making sure it will be secure while you’re cutting it. Then you need to load the correct tool and tell the machine where the X, Y and Z reference position is for the tool tip, typically this location represents the zero position for each axis.

Once the machine is setup correctly, the toolpath can be loaded and then executed from the CNC’s control software. The machine will feed the co-ordinates of the toolpath to the machine to continually move its position and create the cuts you setup in your toolpaths. Running a toolpath may take less than a minute or potentially many hours depending on what type of operation it is. Once it is complete, you can run additional toolpaths and if required change the tool and reset the Z zero datum position for the new tool. Once you have run all your toolpaths you can remove the material from the machine.

5. Finish and Assembly

Finish and assembly are obviously going to vary dramatically depending on the type of job you are doing and the material you are cutting. Some projects will be ready to use when they come off the machine without further finishing work being required, some may need sanding or additional hand-carving to get the final shape. Ultimately what your making may need priming and painting or multiple coats of stain or glaze to get the required coloring. The finished part may also require assembly, fastenings or glue if it involves multiple pieces. Ideally its good to spend some time thinking about this before you start a project as you may be able to use the software, tooling and CNC to optimize the amount of finishing required.

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