A leading Irish college ensures it turns out the best trained wood craftsmen by introducing them to the market leading design and machining software, Alphacam, at the start of their courses.
South West College of Further Education has four campuses across County Tyrone and County Fermanagh, at Eniskillen, Cookstown, Omagh and Dungannon, and offers a range of woodworking courses, many of them tailored specifically for the local furniture manufacturing market.
Design and Manufacture lecturer Paul Duffy says the college is regarded as a centre of excellence for CNC manufacture, showing students and industry alike how Alphacam dramatically extends the capability of woodworking machines. As well as featuring the software in NVQ level 2 and 3 courses, National Awards for schools, a Foundation Degree course and B-Tech Furniture courses, the college also provides a short introduction for local companies, giving them a feel of the software and how it can improve their production.
With a world class furniture industry on their doorstep, and some of the companies turning over between £20m and £30m a year, the college has a keen interest in developing people’s skills locally. “The curriculum has been designed to suit the industry’s needs, so they can employ highly skilled local people. As well as the regular courses, we offer bespoke sessions for individual employees of a company, no matter what their specific area of woodworking is – even on a one-to-one basis if required.”
Before moving into education, Paul Duffy worked in industry, manufacturing bespoke furniture such as reception desks, school, church, office and bar furniture. “I used a wide variety of machines, and when I moved onto Balestrini and SCM 5-axis models I saw that Alphacam was the best software to run them to their full capability.” Taking that experience to the college, he chose Alphacam to run their Balestrini 5-axis machine from day one. Today it drives all their CNC machines including their Haas CNC C-axis turning centres and Biesse Rover A3 30 4-axis router.
He says the knowledge of offline programming with Alphacam is vital for students, whether they’ve already got jobs, are training to join the industry, or looking to upskill such as someone with a site joinery background who may have lost their job and wants to learn about CNC manufacturing and CAD. “One of the first things we do on a course is engrave the seat of a workshop stool with Alphacam, and for those who have been using a basic BiesseWorks or woodWOP type of program, this absolutely blows them away.”
Around 40 students a week attend the regular courses involving Alphacam, learning about drawings, aspects of geometry, adding and editing toolpaths and dimensions, generating CNC programs, tooling selection and feed speeds.
The work includes a broad range of exercises such as cover plates, 2D, even MDF doors using Alphacam’s Automated Parametric (APM) function, which enables windows and doors to be created and edited from a user-defined library of designs, saving valuable time in the manufacturing process. “Students are always impressed that the user-defined library gives greater flexibility and increases productivity by removing the bottleneck at the design stage. They quickly see how APM provides a made-to-order solution for bespoke sizing, so that each window and door can be specified individually, providing opportunities for premium pricing. Even the shortest production runs can be achieved without any loss of efficiency, by simply selecting a window or door design from the library, and adding the required parameters.”
From that, students move on to making chair components with basic surface machining using a 3-axis machine, and then on to 5-axis work, including staircase handrails, and 3D trimming of plywood parts for chairs.
“One of our first 5-axis exercises is machining the sides of chair seats using the sides of the cutter. But what really catches the students’ imagination is that dishing out the top of the chair seat is actually done using 3-axis machining. With the appropriate software it’s simply a matter of generating the toolpaths to produce that effect. Many people misunderstand this – they believe 3D surfacing needs to be carried out on expensive 5-axis machines, whereas with Alphacam they can use 3-axis machines to achieve the same result,” says Paul Duffy.
Another project, featuring a small hallway table, also demonstrates to the students how CNC programming with the right software can produce quick and spectacular results. “To the novice the spiral cutting of the little dish looks extremely difficult to achieve. But drawing the surfaces only takes around quarter of an hour, and generating the toolpaths with Alphacam doesn’t even take five minutes. It’s simply a matter of creating a program to machine the surface using a spiral with the start point at the centre of the dish moving outwards, then outputting the code to the machine.
“The students quickly learn that with Alphacam you don’t need expensive 5-axis CNC machines to produce superb results like that, which amaze people. And when we show them what it can do with 5-axis machines they realise that they really can operate at the very highest woodworking level.”