I was recently contacted by Robert Grzesek, developer of MeshCAM, a 3D CAM program. He'd seen my earlier article where I express some frustration with "free" software, particularly for CAM. The free software I tried usually did simple rasterized cuts of the object loaded, with the result that a lot of the design's detail was lost.
Robert offered me a free copy of MeshCAM if I'd blog about it. I took a look at the product information online and took him up on his offer.
MeshCAM is in the same price range as the other commercial CAM program I've been using--it's a hobbyist-affordable program. This is very nice, as so much of the available software is well beyond the budget of an amateur, or a small business where CAM work is a sideline without a large budget.
It's documentation and the tutorials are very good. Having recently gone through some tutorial-based training with some other programs that are from much larger companies in the past few days, I'm pretty well up to speed with what can go wrong with a tutorial. The MeshCAM tutorials are up to date and in sync with the current version of MeshCAM. They describe the process well from the basis of someone trying to get a specific task accomplished, they're not just a description of what appears in the menus.
At first, I wasn't sure that double-sided machining for full 3D objects was going to be covered, but it was, I just needed to stop anticipating possible problems quite so much.
Working with MeshCAM itself, I've opened up the provided files and a couple of files of my own. For the file types it accepts (STLs and DXFs, in addition to its own MCF format, plus a number of 2D image formats for image-based height maps), it opens the files without a problem and displays them properly. Wavefront OBJ files would be a nice addition, but then that's why I've got the open source program MeshLAB (which has no relation to the MeshCAM line of products) which is frustrating at times, but mostly does the job of object type conversion and it's free.
Above is an example of MeshCAM's display of an object. The way MeshCAM displays its axes is a bit cartoonish, but at least you won't have to worry about missing them. They can get in the way of small objects in the display screen. There may be a way to deal with that by changing the way they're displayed, but so far I've just moved or rotated my objects away to view detail then moved them back.
The thing that makes MeshCAM stand out for me at this point is its finishing abilities:
It has built-in multi-pass finishing. I've managed to get the same results from Cut3D through a work-around. There, I create a finishing toolpath for one tool, save those toolpaths, then go back and define a different finishing pass, then save those toolpaths, and run them on the CNC one after the other.
MeshCAM doesn't require this. It gives a great set of finishing options for multiple tool passes right out of the box. I'm presently working on a model specifically to take advantage of these capabilities. Since much of what I'm doing is intended to have a high level of detail, I'm looking forward to seeing what comes off the CNC when I use MeshCAM to build the toolpaths.
MeshCAM displays the toolpaths it generates in the 3D view once they've been calculated, which gives a good first-look check to make sure that things came out right. There's no preview of the cutting operation built in to MeshCAM, however, as in Cut3D. Instead, a separate program, CutViewer is offered. Or you can do a "dry run" in most CNC control programs like EMC2 or Mach3 to see what the cutting will look like, at least as far as tool head movement is concerned.
The previews of the cutting operations have been one of my favorite features of Cut3D, so it's a feature I miss in a CAM program. I've gotten a higher degree of confidence from using this to see how the cutting operation will proceed ahead of time--the order of cuts is not always what you'd expect. The ability to check this during the CAM operation is very nice.
So I'd recommend planning to add CutViewer to your purchase if you buy MeshCAM, or make sure you're comfortable with your CNC control program's preview abilities. I'm using the preview abilities of EMC2's Axis view, myself.
Once I've finished the models I'll be trying out with MeshCAM, I'll be reporting on the final results. I'm planning both a flat relief object and a full 3D, 2-sided object.