I’ve been able to use and review several CAM programs with my CNC router, and was happy to try out another when I was offered a license of MeshCAM Art from GRZ Software. My first impression when booted up was that it had a polished interface that seemed better than the other programs I’d tried so far.
Before I go into my full review, here’s a quick summary of my first impressions of this package:
- Hands down, the most polished looking CAM package that I have tried so far
- Easy learning curve
- Easy machining setup
- Free updates
- Will translate picture files into Gcode
- 2D DXF functionality is somewhat limited
- More expensive than some other hobby-level CAM programs
- With ease-of-use seems to come some loss of control
Visual polish isn’t everything, but the overall interface design seems quite good and easy to use so far. It’s somewhat different than other CAM program that I’ve experimented with, notably in the fact that one simply hits “Generate Toolpaths” to bring up a menu to set everything up. With many other programs, you set up parameters for the paths first, then generating the path itself is pretty academic.
Although generally easy to use, there are a few tricks to remember. Correctly defining the cut area, and your zero points are two things that can throw you off if they are forgotten about. In the middle picture below, I forgot to expand my cutting area, and the generated Gcode didn’t reach the edge of this star.
I generally use Draftsight (my Windows review) to design stuff at home, and, like AutoCAD, it’s primarily a 2D package. Meshcam is meant to work with 3D files, and while of 2D images can be imported, you’re restricted to cuts that go through all of your material. There isn’t an ability to “pocket cut” as I demonstrate in this post. I can probably do 95% of the stuff I cut using this program, but if you’re restricted to cutting only along the drawn path outline, this could be problematic.
Using 2D CAD, one also has to give some thought as to what lines are on your drawing, as everything is treated as a cut in this situation. You can end up with something that looks like the picture to the right if you’ve got an extra circle lying around.
Another small issue is that there wasn’t an ability to cut an internal part first, then cut your outline. Robert at MeshCAM assures me that this feature is very high on the list of things to implement, so this issue will hopefully go away soon. If you purchase this package, GRZSoftware promises to give you free updates of that version, and will actually upgrade you to a new version if one comes out within a year. Pretty cool.
If you generally use a 3D CAD package, I think this program is definitely worth a look. In an “amateur engineering” role, It may seem harder to justify the price tag of $250 for the standard product if you only use 2D CAD. On the other hand, at $500, “Meshcam Art” is meant to translate bitmap-style images into GCode, so this may be exactly what you’re looking for. There’s a free 15 day trial, so even if you’re not sure about it, you can at least check it out.
As a side note, as a hobbyist, the $250, or $500 that MeshCAM costs may seem expensive. If you ever decide to get a quote on a typical professional-level CAM package like MasterCAM, you will probably think differently about this. I don’t see a price listed on their site, but the approximate price that I’ve heard isn’t even in the same ballpark.
Thanks Again to Robert at MeshCAM. I’ve really enjoyed trying out this software, and I’m sure I’ll be using it more in the future!
For another interesting CAM program, why not check out my ESTLCam review? It’s a 2D package, which will appeal to some, and at the extremely low price point of $25 to buy, it may be what you’re looking for. If even that is too expensive (seriously?), you can always use Inscape to generate Gcode for engraving as illustrated in this tutorial.
As for what to actually run your machine with, Here’s my review of Mach3 to control everything from your computer. This is a really great program as well, and seems to be quite widely used.