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The History of CAM—Past, Present and Future

A CAM CNC Metal Milling Machine

The manufacturing and modeling industries are constantly advancing—adapting to new needs and changes in industry standards. The entire market and maker community, however, wouldn’t be anywhere if not for computer aided manufacturing (CAM). CAM has certainly has had an interesting history—spanning back as far as the 1940s. Not familiar with the history of CAM? That’s fine—we’ve got you covered. 

Scan2CAD has put together a complete guide covering the beginning of CAM and the first NC machine all the way up to present day. 


Computer Aided Manufacturing

Computer aided manufacturing (CAM) typically refers to the use of numerical control (NC) software to create G-code to drive computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools for manufacturing parts and products. Essentially, CAM takes information from a computer generated design—or CAD drawing—to create instructions that control the movements of an automated tool. These automated tools can include anything from water jets to mills to plasma cutters. 

The primary purpose of CAM is to speed up the production and manufacturing process. It works side-by-side with CAD software so that you can take designs directly from CAD and use CAM to produce them. In most cases, all you need to provide are raw materials and instructions like feed rate, speed and dimension. 

The earliest examples of CAM technology lie in NC machines used in the early 1950s. Nowhere near as intuitive or advanced as the machines you’re probably used to nowadays, these machines used coded instructions on punched paper to control simple manufacturing instructions. We’ll take a look at how these simple machines developed into the complex ones we use now—and how CAM evolved in kind. 

NC Machines, Helicopters and MIT

The birth of NC is largely credited to John T. Parsons. Working as a machinist for his father’s company, Parsons began to look for ways to build helicopter rotors. In a bid to speed up the production process, Parsons began to look towards the idea of using punched card machines to generate engineering calculations. Working with Frank Sulen, Parsons developed punched cards that could be programmed to provide automated machining. These punched cards didn’t gain much traction, however, until 1949 when the US Air Force arranged funding for Parsons to build his own machine that would surpass the performance of current NC machines. 

In order to further develop his machine, Parsons turned to the Servomechanism Laboratory at MIT in 1949. With their help, the first NC prototype was developed. In this time, a system designed to gauge how far controls turn was also developed. The US Air Force stopped its funding in 1953 due to high expense; however, the project was promptly resumed by Giddings and Lewis Machine Tool Co. 

Picture of one of the first CNC machines

Image source: cmsna

A turning point for the first CNC machine was the production of punch tapes under computer control by John Runyon of MIT. With it, the time needed to create instructions and then manufacture the subsequent part was vastly reduced. This success led to the production of many more CNC machines in the following years. Efforts in later years were made to push them into the general manufacturing market. 

G-Code and Commercialization

In a bid to push interest towards the development of CNC machines, the US Army bought NC machines and loaned them out to manufacturers. They did this hoping that once companies got used to the technology, they’d realize how much it increased productivity, and begin to use them in regular manufacturing processes. As the machines slowly began to gain traction among large companies, the US Air Force accepted the proposal to produce a universal programming language for NC.

MIT paved the way for large-scale adoption of CAM with the development of the first universal programming language in the late 1950s. This language—gradually becoming the G-code that we’re so familiar with nowadays—was used to generate coordinates for machined parts automatically. With it, it became possible to control the exact movements of your machine tools—telling motors where to move, how quickly to do so and the exact path to follow. The next following years brought about a rise in CNC technology—replacing older technology like manual machining.

A major turning point for both CAD and CAM was the move from UNIX to PC in the 1990s—both CAD and CAM became far more accessible to millions of engineers and general consumers who would have previously been unable to afford the software. As both became more commercial, companies began to integrate the two. The earliest commercial applications of CAM lie in the automotive and aerospace industries. Examples include Pierre Bézier with developing the CAD/CAM application UNISURF in the late 1960s for card body design and tooling at Renault.

CAM and the Present Day

The evolution of CAM and CAD—more specifically the merging of the two in recent years—has left the disadvantages of earlier NC machines far in the dust. Modern CAD/CAM technology has lowered expense, increased accessibility and sped up the entire design and manufacturing process. Most importantly, CAD and CAM has given the modern designer far more control over every process. Far removed from the first CNC prototype, modern CNC machining processes now include: 

  • Laser cutting: works by burning tool paths or designs onto a material (anything from wood to plastic) using lasers. Interested? Create your own laser-etched plaque
  • Plasma cutting: cuts through electrically conductive materials—usually metal—by using a plasma torch. 
  • Water jet cutting: blasts a chosen workpiece with a high pressure jet of water.  
  • Milling: a process that removes material from a piece—like wood—by feeding a tool directions and angles 

One of the most interesting machines that operates using numerical controls however, has to be the 3D printer. Not considered a CNC machine due to using an additive process, 3D printers create parts using new material. Recent advances have even made it possible to 3D print in multicolor. For a better look at the many machines that are controlled by CAM software, check out CNC machines compared

The Future of CAM

At this moment in time, CAM and CNC machines are readily available to the entire maker community. It’s easy enough to purchase CNC starter kits or even build your own CNC machine. So where exactly will CAM go in the future? 

Much like CAD, it’s clear that CAM is going to have to adapt with the times. Engineers and manufacturers will most definitely be looking for more ways to increase efficiency, minimize waste and reduce overall energy consumption. As with generative design in CAD, another hope in the maker community is that soon enough, CAM will be able to do far more and enable users to do far less. Essentially, machinists and CNC programmers will be able to take a step back. 

With the integration of CAD and CAM, we might also start to see a merging of roles in industries. The divide between engineers and machinists for example, might lessen. One thing’s for sure, as CAD/CAM software becomes more intuitive, designing will become far more advanced. Designs thought to be too difficult to attempt previously will eventually become child’s play. 

Here at Scan2CAD, we’re certainly looking forward to seeing where CAM goes next!


Interested in creating your own CNC projects? Use Scan2CAD to convert your CAD designs to G-code. Try out our free 14-day trial with no limitations or obligations! Alternatively, take a look at our free DXF designs

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