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One of Steve Caffey’s students likened toolpath simulation and verification software to the navigation system in his car, in that it guides him through a series of step-by-step directions. Another, a devotee of manual machining, had sworn off CNC operation entirely until taking Caffey’s class on toolpath simulation; he’s now one of its biggest fans. And given the impact of pandemic-related school shutdowns over the past year or so, Caffey—a 50-year veteran of the machine trades—has become even more of a believer. 

“When COVID first hit, we were struggling,” said Caffey, the Manufacturing Program director at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. “Unlike some of the courses taught here, it’s practically impossible to teach CNC machine programming in a Zoom session. But VERICUT has allowed me to do exactly that. In fact, the classes where we use it are my favorite. By giving them a much better understanding of what’s going on inside the machine tool, it’s made a huge difference to our students. I’ll even go so far as to say VERICUT has become indispensable.”

Mathematics knowledge is a must for any machinist, but nothing beats hands-on machine tool experience.

Teaching the trades

Among its many career opportunities, Lane Community College (LCC) offers two-year associate degrees in manufacturing technology, one focused on manual machining and the other on CNC. It’s the latter that draws the most interest, by far. There are also Career Pathway Certificates of Completion (CPC), designed to qualify students for entry-level machining jobs or advance in their current ones. 

LCC’s 10,000 sq. ft. manufacturing technology facility boasts more than 65 different machine tools. These include fourteen CNC lathes and machining centers, the majority of which are from Haas Automation. Students also gain design skills using Solidworks CAD software, learn CNC programming with Mastercam, and have access to Tooling U-SME’s suite of online manufacturing classes. And, of course, they learn how to use VERICUT from CGTech Inc., a software development firm in Irvine, California, that specializes in CNC toolpath simulation, verification, optimization, and analysis.

Despite the wide range of learning options, there’s nowhere near enough students to meet employer demand, Caffey explained, a situation that has only gotten worse since the pandemic. “I have a lot of pressure from local businesses to supply them with people that I simply don’t have,” he said. “Because of this, many of them are going directly to the high schools for new employees, which short-changes the student and employer alike. It’s the trade schools that should be the natural bridge for young people wishing to enter the workforce.” 

VERICUT toolpath simulation and optimization software from CGTech not only makes it easier to learn CNC programming, but helps to avoid crashing expensive machine tools while doing so.

Rethinking remote 

Caffey has been working to change this unfortunate turn of events. Shortly after the outbreak started and he was forced to send his students home, the school equipped them with laptop computers, each with a seat of Mastercam installed. Because VERICUT offers cloud-based licenses, all Caffey had to do was provide each student with templates that include virtual representations of the different machines and the cutting tools needed for each one. 

“They could then just program the part in Mastercam and load the code into VERICUT,” said Caffey. “If someone ran into problems, they could share their screen with me and we’d work it out together. I was constantly amazed at how effective it was as a learning tool. More importantly, it gave us a fighting chance to keep the class going.”

Caffey has first-hand experience with toolpath verification software. Before starting as a full-time instructor at LCC, he would teach nights and work during the day at an area machine shop; even though he is fluent in reading and writing G-code, he found that VERICUT made the job easier. 

“I was glad to have access to it through my school laptop,” he said. “If I came across a legacy program that didn’t make sense to me, I’d load it up and do a quick simulation, just to see what was going on. It was quite handy to have at my disposal.” He hears similar tales from his students. “Anytime someone comes in wondering about a program, we put it in VERICUT and simulate the toolpaths. Suddenly, the code starts making sense to them. They can also play around with the program—changing a line here or tweaking something there—and immediately see what effect that will have on the part, the cycle time, and whether it’s going to cause a crash. You can’t do this in a CAM system.”

Lane Community College is one of a growing number of technical schools that recognize the importance of toolpath simulation as an educational tool.

Making the case

Caffey cites these and other examples when making the case to local business owners trying to shortcut the educational process. “I tell them that learning is costly,” he said. “When students come here for training, they’re making all their newbie mistakes in a virtual environment, not on a CNC machine tool. They can see the results of their decisions in a very realistic software simulation, rather than hearing a piece of expensive equipment come to a screeching halt. That’s why they need to work with us to encourage young people to attend school.”

As mentioned, LCC attendees also have access to another important virtual learning tool. Chad Schron, senior director at Tooling U-SME in Southfield, Mich., explained that students can take more than 500 interactive online classes covering everything from “Introduction to Abrasives 101” to “Drill Bushing Selection 230” and more. 

Left – As most machine shops today can attest, knowledge of robotics and advanced automation is a valuable asset for any aspiring manufacturing technician. Right – Lane Community College offers a variety of education programs, from Arts and Communications to Health, Medical, and Fitness. To Manufacturing Director Steve Caffey, the Industrial Trades rank among the most important.

“We offer a wide range of training opportunities through our digital books and videos,” he said. “And later this year, we’re planning to introduce a virtual reality (VR) product, which will use an Oculus headset to augment our existing programs and provide a more hands-on, skills-based approach to learning.”

Until then, Caffey will continue to leverage whatever tools are available to him, but agreed that Tooling U-SME is a valuable piece of the LCC curriculum. He should know—he’s completed every single lesson. “I like to stay current with technology,” he said. “It also helps me to see what the students are seeing. And if I find a typo or mistake in one of the lessons, I just call or send them an email and it gets fixed in about a week. Try doing that with a textbook. That’s one of the great things about e-learning. Overall, I think it’s a good product.”

He’s also quite pleased with the support from CGTech. Said Caffey, “In all honesty, these guys have a wonderful team. I mean that. I’ve never had a problem getting hold of a CGTech person to help me through some little problem I was having. They provided us with solid models of our lathes and mills, and are always available for questions. We used a competing toolpath simulation package before VERICUT and I’m glad we made the switch. It’s been a great relationship.”