Coordinate measuring machines, or CMMs, are vital measurement systems for many quality departments, and are a common site in manufacturing companies where product dimensional quality is important. In it's simplest form, all CMM's are the same, typically being made up from 3 axes with scales and motors, a measuring probe on an indexinge probe head, a CNC control system and measuring software. Of these many active components, the software used to control and record the measurement of parts is vital to ensuring that you get the most complete performance out of your machine, and it can be the difference between efficient or inefficient measurement. Therefore, it is important to be diligent when exploring CMM software to find the package that will best fit your needs. How can you ensure that when selecting a CMM software you have chosen the best option?

CMM SOFTWARE - THE 70/30 RULE

The key to this choice is to understand the 70/30 rule of CMM software selection. This principal is based on the fact that in general all CMM software will meet similar functions for 70% of what you need. Most CMM software should provide for basic tasks such as measurement routines, probe calibration, basic alignments such as "plane-line-point", and data reporting, among other features. The trick is to find the CMM software that goes beyond the 70% in basic performance to deliver the 30% of extra functionality that provides the best added value for your current and future requirements.

HOW TO DETERMINE THE 30% DIFFERENCE

If we consider this 70/30 rule of selecting CMM software, we now have a question - how do you determine what can account for the 30% difference in added value ?

Let's take a look at the main factors to consider when determining the added value that will make certain software packages stand out in comparison to others.

PROGRAMMING

Programming CMM software all comes back to ease of repeatability; you create programs to record your measurement routines and save time and energy upon repetition.

When looking at available programming options there are a couple of important factors. One such factor is the wide diversity of the programming languages, which can be likened to modern-day programming in a wide variety of applications. In order to quickly build robust and functional applications, modern-day software programmers use visual programming tools to get the most out of modern day operating systems and hardware capabilities - the days of typing in text or language based coding are gone. The same goes for CMM programming.

For many experienced CMM users, support for the Dimensional Measuring Interface Standard (DMIS) provides powerful programming using the same standardised language they have been using for decades. However, this demands extensive use and experience to fully implement the programming code required in modern day measuring tasks, and due to the longevity of DMIS and the fact it has to cater for older generation measuring systems, it often impedes the user in getting results quickly. In particular, new users struggle with language syntax and the multiple options and sub-options that DMIS insists on the user getting right.

There are also some softwares in the market that have developed from manual applications where repetitive programming is not required. The solution often adopted is to implement programming languages such as Visual Basic. As is the case with DMIS, the ability to create programs can be greatly hindered by the user's limited knowledge of language based programming - a highly experienced programming expert may extol the virtues of such solutions, however for new users trying to learn to program is quite literally like learning to speak in a new language.  

For less experienced users or the younger generation of CMM programmers that do not have the same "programming prowess", the ability to be able to quickly learn to program and produce results is now paramount. Support for a native programming engine that is ergonomic and intuitive, more visual and feature-oriented will ensure that these users do not need to "fight the code" when programming a part. Users must look for powerful tools that can boost efficiency in the writing of programs and drastically reduce the number of mouse clicks and data entry required. Such tools might include the ability to work with a CAD model that has embedded GD&T, serial feature builders for rapid pattern creation and measurement, and generic feature builders to allow you to rapidly define and measure a series of features regardless of the type. CMM software that includes such features allows the code to practically write itself, providing extensive added value for the operator by significantly reducing the time and effort necessary to measure parts.

ALIGNMENT VARIETY

Part alignments are a necessary component of any modern measurement software and are of special importance if you plan on using CNC movements to measure your part. Getting the alignment right first time is essential to ensuring repeatable and correct measurement results, and while most CMM software can handle simple alignments, not all part geometries are easily accommodated.

Look for CMM software that allows for a wider variety of user-friendly alignment methods when working to align even the most complex part geometries. One thing to consider is if the software has a capable surface engine to allow for alignments based upon surface features of the CAD model. This allows for many more alignment strategies than is provided by language based programming software. If you choose CMM software with a variety of alignment options, you can quickly and easily align even the most complex parts in just a few clicks.

Remember, aligning your part is the most important task that must be done before automatic measurement occurs, as all measurements are relative to that aligned system, and any errors created at that stage are transferred into the measurements results. It will always be in your interest to choose the software that provides the best variety of alignment choices.

DYNAMICITY

CMM users can spend hours on each part recomputing features and alignments as changes are made. Very often, a change to a single feature can require that the change propagates through several other calculations, especially if that feature is part of a system alignment.

When selecting CMM software, it is vital to look for a choice that allows for dynamic links between features. Software that can do this will allow for real-time feature updates as the parent feature that they are linked to is updated, e.g. following re-measurement of a feature. These real-time updates can provide instant data without requiring that the operator re-run large sections of a program to re-create or re-calculate features and alignments. Consequently, selecting CMM software that allows for feature dynamicity can save hours of machine time. By eliminating the need for costly and time-consuming re-calculations, dynamicity can contribute greatly to the 30% in added value of your CMM software choice.

DEVICE COMPATIBILITY

While today CMMs remain the backbone of many quality departments, advancements in technology have made devices such as portable optical devices, articulating arms, laser trackers, laser radars and robots increasingly prevalent.

Choosing CMM software that provides full compatibility with a wide array of metrology devices can have a number of benefits for your company. First, if you currently have one of these other devices or have potential to purchase one in the future, this can prepare you to better work across devices. Instead of having to deal with a different software for each device used, you can utilise a single software with standardised behaviour. This can also shorten the learning curve for the operator when operating a new device, or when switching between measuring technologies. As a result, you will cut down on training costs, simplify utilization of human resources (no more need for "experts" in different measuring technologies) and allow more time for what matters – inspection.

Additionally, when considering compatibility, it is advisable to look for software that will support a variety of optional CMM devices of all makes, such as probe heads, single point and scanning probes, probe changers, stylus changers and rotary tables. Software that can interface to any device, any technology, and any application can make interfacing between devices seamless for any user, regardless of experience level. It also means that you are not tied to a specific hardware OEM for your future purchases. Making this choice can mean your CMM software will not be a limiting factor when choosing to work with a device now or in the future, allowing you greater freedom to choose the best device for your needs - why use a CMM when a portable device is better suited and can use the same software ?

REPORTING

The end goal of any part inspection is to generate a clean, clear report of the results to accurately present any data gathered. The time required to generate this report is directly proportional to the reporting capability of the software.

Look for software that enables any user to easily create inspection reports in a matter of minutes. If a software selection does not do that, and takes as much time to create a report as it does to actually inspect a part, then valuable production time is wasted as your CMM stands idle while the inspector churns out reports.

For that matter, how complete and customisable your reports are will also depend on your measuring software. While many may be fine with simple tables of results or spreadsheets of exported data, some customers may require more specific details and appearance in an inspection report. For those needs, choose CMM software that allows for fully customised report to be natively generated. Such features can include the ability to create a complete template from scratch, to include any saved views with sticker callouts of measured features, fully customise results tables to include any relevant data value, add pictures to freely add in a company logo, and to use template variables to automate common data fields. The ability to generate complete report templates from scratch with minimal time or effort can provide the added value that sets your choice in CMM software apart from the crowd.

However, in this modern world of computers and visualisation, is a paper-based report really the right solution? Look out for software that also offers data viewers that enable the user to share data, CAD files, colour maps, and graphical views with other users for a better understanding of measurement data.

CUSTOMISATION

When choosing CMM software, how important is customisation? It may seem like a superficial aspect of any software, but it can be the secret to providing added value for you.

It is important to remember that software customisation is not just a matter of having a flashy interface. Rather, it is a function of enabling you to tailor the software to your own personal needs to increase efficiency and usability, rather than just the needs of the software designer. Every user will use the software in a slightly different manner and therefore it is important that your software choice be customisable to your individual needs. In this respect look for software that allows you to easily customise both the appearance and function of what is on screen, so you can have the important tools you need close by. This can be simple, such as the ability to customise window placement for personalised user comfort. Or it can be more complex, such as customising various inspection aspects. For CMM software this can mean the ability to set custom tolerance and measurement defaults to save time instead of having to constantly change these values from the software default. Additional features such as custom toolbars, hotkey assignments and the ability to customise any parameter can allow for a fully personalised experience.

With CMM software, the goal should be a selection that enables you to more easily inspect parts and not be intrusive of that inspection. Such intuitive ease of use can mean that your software will provide the optimal interface for each user regardless of experience level.

TECHNICAL SUPPORT

One often-overlooked aspect when choosing CMM software is the level of technical support that is included. Here the 70/30 rule of CMM software selection can also apply.

Every software company will provide some level of technical support for any issues that may arise, but what accounts for the 30% difference in added value? Consider choosing CMM software that provides not only considerable online resources and help, but also offers the personal touch. When faced with the need to call for assistance, the difference between being placed into an automated waiting queue or being directly connected to a qualified support engineer can make all the difference. Having a knowledgeable support engineer directly answer the phone ensures that the problem is not only solved quicker, but also that the user has a better understanding of the solution and the software as a whole. Remote-support tools such as TeamViewer enable software support technicians to directly connect and take control of your software, so you can be shown exactly how to solve a measurement problem. Additionally, quicker connections to qualified engineering support leads to faster problem resolution and a subsequent reduction in machine down time. In every instance, look for the software (and company) that enables you to utilise extensive and complete help files with direct human support to get help immediately.

Beware also the promise of "free" updates and product support. Many companies offer "free" product support, but in most cases there is no commitment to what that support actually includes. If you want direct access to highly trained and qualified local support, plus software that is regularly updated with new functionalities and updates for new PC hardware and operating systems, don't expect it to be free of charge. When software support and updates are promised free of charge, ask yourself what that really means in the long-run.

Another aspect that is often not considered is the ability of the software supplier to support the measuring system itself. Let's take a CMM as an example - when a problem raises its head, the software supplier often has no technical knowledge regarding the CNC control system or calibration of the machine, and therefore it is all too easy to absolve any responsibility. In order to ensure complete peace of mind, your software vendor should be able to deal with all aspects including general maintenance, calibration, CNC control systems, scales & probin systems, etc. - not just the software.  

PERFORMANCE

Modern computing has come a long way in terms of processing and performance power, but does your software fully utilise these capabilities?

Consider CMM software that allows for raw data storage through unlimited memory usage and multiprocessor platforms through 64-bit based architectures. In choosing software with these capabilities, you will attain maximum performance when working with large CAD files or point clouds. This can be the deciding difference in allowing software to capably handle more difficult calculations such as point projection, tolerance evaluations, and point cloud filtering and fitting. Pay attention to operating system compatibility as well. Software that works on today’s OS might not be compatible with the OS that will surface five years down the road, and will restrain your ability to update your system at minimal costs.

Software that lives up to these standards can provide the 30% difference in making sure that you get the best value and performance out of your selection both now and well into the future.

CHOOSING CMM SOFTWARE WITH THE 30% DIFFERENCE

The 70/30 rule of CMM software selection should be a key factor when making the choice that will bring the best value to your system.

While generally 70% of all CMM software will be the same, it’s the 30% difference that provides the real value in performance and use. Once you understand the 70/30 rule, the only challenge is discovering the software that meets the 30% difference in added value. Consider the factors that would determine the 30% value for your needs before making your choice.

For a long-term solution that embodies the suggested qualities, serious users of CMM's will choose software from companies such as Metrologic Group, with a powerful yet user-friendly software suite that can be optimally tailored to all your measurement needs, and worldwide product support to ensure that you are always in good hands. With the critical role that CMM's continue to play in the industry and the ever-increasing demand to boost production efficiency, having the right CMM software can be a vital factor in driving the success of your company today, tomorrow and for years to come.

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