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Laser & Waterjet Profiling
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Originally providing kitchen designers with CAD software to create functional culinary spaces, Planit has come a long way in a short time and now has an enviable position as one of the largest suppliers of manufacturing software to the metal, woodworking and stone industries. Simon Lott examines its rise to prominence and its extensive product offering.
For a company that around ten years ago had a sole focus in the niche area of kitchen design, 40,000 users making use of 140,000 software seats around the world certainly demonstrates ambitious growth. Now offering a product line featuring five key brands, the company believes it truly offers something for everyone.
Alphacam is a fairly general woodworking and metalworking product which can be readily bespoked for customer applications; Edgecam offers milling and turning programming for all levels of complexity; Radan covers sheetmetal processing; and Jobshop is the company’s own production planning system. Cabinet Vision, which aids in the design of cabinet and case goods, completes the line-up.
To get to this point, Planit has undertaken a strategy of progressive acquisition, taking over the activities of eight companies since its commitment to expansion began. The most recent of these has been Dutch-based Somatech in August last year, which has enabled it to expand its sheetmetal capabilities, with additional features such as Radbend offline programming for press brakes.
With the exception of its cabinet making packages which are developed in California, the lion’s share of R&D takes place at Planit’s offices in Reading and Bath. It currently employs around 350 staff across 16 offices around the world and has over 100 resellers in 52 countries. In 2006, a £40.9m management buyout and a refreshed business strategy bought these disparate strands together into a complete integrated product offering.
Chief technology officer Russell Franks explains: “Under the hood our products are becoming increasingly automated, removing operator requirements where preferred and we’ve been componentising the software so a lot of the technology is now shared as opposed to developing each product from scratch. One particular example has been using the nesting module from Radan and expanding that to the nest-based manufacturing applications required of Alphacam. This approach has saved us 30-40 man years of development time in the last two years.”
Increased versatility is of course an aspect of development that carries over onto the shopfloor. The idea is that no matter what a process might be, operators can be involved as much or as little as they want to be, with key modules such as Strategy Manager in Edgecam allowing for rapid offline programming and toolpath editing.
One of the more recent headline features across all of its brands, and one that can seriously cut production leadtimes is feature recognition – where the program takes a CAD model and works out all the features such as holes and slots and how best to machine them. This is designed to cover all the processes required to turn a solid lump of metal into an end product. Of course, once the program has run, full operator customisation is then available to suit particular needs.
In the current industry environment however, automated programming is not just a way to become more efficient, it is crucial to any company’s ability to make full use of its equipment. Mr Franks continues: “Of particular significance to many of our users is the fact it is harder to find skilled engineers. The difficulty of actually finding someone with the expertise to get the most out of a machine is a real driver for those investing in the software right now. Finding someone who knows which order bends need to be put in to a piece of sheetmetal for example is becoming really tough so automating that process with something like Radbend means you’re not so dependent on labour and you’re not producing so much scrap.”
Nichol McKay is one such company that has adopted the Radbend module. Based at Prestwick Airport in Scotland, it manufactures components for power generation, fork lift truck chassis, agricultural machinery and earth moving equipment.
Of most importance to Nichol McKay is the accuracy with which Radbend generates bend allowances. Senior engineer Tim Paterson explains: “It has to be precision bending every time, so the welders can create perfect joints. If it’s not spot on, it can’t be welded. Radbend helps to ensure that everything we do is totally accurate and repeatable.”
The software gives Nichol McKay a full, accurate 3D model simulation of the bending process, including advanced features such as automatic bend sequence calculation, automatic tool selection and automatic finger-stop placement, offering simple programming and high productivity. As it programs and verifies bending operations offline it frees up valuable machine time and improves first-off reliability, reducing manufacturing costs. It is also used extensively to prove out prototypes for customers. Costly mistakes are also eliminated with automatic detection of collisions both with the tooling and the machine tool itself.
The parts made on its punches, press brake and lasers are manufactured from various types and grades of materials up to 15mm thick. Before the parts are taken to the LVD press brake for bending into shape, they are created on its Amada or Trumpf punches, or its Trumpf laser cutters. Mr Paterson continues: “We generally receive customer information as a 2D drawing which we then model in 3D and design the sheet metalwork, including the mitres, corner reliefs and bend allowances. Radan flattens it and we add the toolpaths before saving it as a part on the nester ready for machining.”
With fluctuations in Nichol McKay’s raw material costs, Mr Paterson adds efficient nesting is particularly important to give them the very best material utilisation. “We try to avoid passing on costs to our customers, and Radan’s powerful nesting software is just brilliant for keeping waste to an absolute minimum. It has saved a lot of money through material utilisation – it would be impossible to squeeze any more parts out of a sheet when Radan produces the nest.”
Another of Planit’s customers, ZF Friedrichshafen AG has invested in 52 Edgecam seats in order to supply to domestic, commercial, construction and agricultural vehicle manufacturers around the world with components such as transmission systems, axles, shafts and housings for customers including Caterpillar, Claas, John Deere, CNH and AGCO. Product variation means about 600 setups are needed daily, with changes of workpieces, tools, equipment and NC programs.
Production services team manager Peter Robl states: “Edgecam was the only system that delivered the process automation tools we demanded. The degree of integration and interoperability we achieve between Edgecam and our corporate CAD solution, Pro/Engineer, enables us to take component designs and automatically generate and apply optimised toolpaths.”
Edgecam also gives planners additional options for rationalising every individual processing step, and because of its complete relationship with the CAD model, 100% error-free data transfer is assured. The simulation feature is also a key part of the software, as ZF’s Max Weishaeupl describes: “With the user being able to simulate how the part, the fixture, the tool and the machine will all combine to carry out the programming before the actual production run, we can have absolute confidence to press the button and start the manufacturing process, knowing we’ve created safe, up to 99.9% collision-free CNC programs.”
The Edgecam post-processor is also important for the complete process. Many things, like syntax check for the controller, proofing the limits in the working room, output cycles for this machine and longhand for the other machine, help to avoid machine errors. The compatibility for the posts is absolutely necessary for the in-house process, because a considerable amount is changed on different machines in the production.
ZF’s day to day Edgecam requirements are managed by the software’s reseller in Germany, which works closely with the manufacturer on an ongoing basis to achieve its objectives. For example, the two companies are currently developing a new tool to improve the efficiency with which Edgecam receives information from its CAD system.
While sales of Planit’s software across all of its platforms have remained strong, perhaps the most telling change to business given the turbulence of recent years is that its support business has grown very quickly to 12,000 users, over a quarter of its client base and a clear demonstration of the ever rising value of time to any business. Chief executive officer Bryan Pryce expands: “It’s intrinsically attractive anyway as it resolves any problems quickly. In sheetmetal for example, Radan is critical to the running of a factory and the take-up of support is very high. The next thing for us now will be to continue to develop e-support solutions. It sounds unusual but we’ve also got client to client support where customers are helping each other out and that’s proving very popular.”
Customers can also expect Planit to continue its strategy of growth and further acquisitions will be on the cards over the next few years to ensure that it remains as one of the most complete manufacturing software product offerings in the world.