Freesteel Blog » Where’s all the CAM programmers?

Where’s all the CAM programmers?

Friday, August 22nd, 2008 at 9:38 pm Written by:

“This is the boss’s son; he’ll be working his way up from the bottom over the next two weeks.”

I’ve always wanted to use that sentence. Fortunately, neither my employment with NC Graphics, nor NC Graphics itself lasted long enough for this morale-obliterating situation to come to pass.

However, announced at Surfware on 1 July 2008:

Stephen A. Diehl has been named President and CEO of Surfware, Inc., developer of SURFCAM® CAD/CAM systems.

“I am proud and happy to announce that my eldest son Stephen will take over as Surfware President and CEO of Surfware, “says Alan Diehl, founder and former CEO of Surfware, Inc. “Stephen has been working with me behind the scenes for several years and more recently, full time at Surfware.”

But I’m not here to pick on the elements of shouldn’t-be-admired experience gained working in the vast global swindle and misallocation of capital of which the real-time trading of stocks, bonds and swaps for Fortune 500 companies is but part.

My attention was actually grabbed by a 19th of August announcement of a Notice of Allowance signifying that their patent application has been examined and is allowed for issuance as a [software] patent.

I blogged about this back in November 2005. The links to the patent pending pages on the US Patent Office webpage seem to pull out random patents now (for a Jet nozzle mixer and a Classification-expanded indexing and retrieval of classified documents thingie) because the Office’s website is absolutely shite and inexplicably avoids the use of the handy centuries-old unique-id system provided for these documents by the patent number. On the other hand, my European Patent Office link from three years ago does still work, because it does.

You can read the entire 38 pages of gory details on-line there. The provisional applications were filed in April 2004. Think: if all the work and expense that went into writing this patent and applying for it had instead been applied to working on the code itself, maybe they wouldn’t have had to spend the last four years “taking it to new levels of excellence”.

The announcement explains:

The origin of the patent application goes back to early 2002 — Surfware’s R&D Department. Robert (Pat) Patterson came up with the core idea for engagement milling, and he and Surfware co-founder Alan Diehl, set out to develop it into a workable product. Within one year they had developed two different versions of TrueMill, both covered in patent applications.

Over the next several years, the pair went on to supervise the project based on their core ideas, with some assistance from the SURFCAM product manager. In 2005, the initial patent application for engagement milling was filed with the co-inventors listed in alphabetical order, without regard to their actual contribution.

So that’s why when you search for “surfware” on the USPTO website (I’m not wasting time with their deeplinks) you get:

  • Application: 20050246052, Filed March 2, 2005: Coleman, Glenn; (Cave Creek, AZ) ; Diehl, Alan; (Westlake Village, CA) ; Patterson, Robert B.; (Bellevue, WA)
  • Application: 20050256604, Filed April 22, 2005: Diehi, Alan; (Westlake Village, CA) ; Patterson, Robert B.; (Bellevue, WA)

Back in 2005, Glenn Coleman was touting the benefits of Truemill in his capacity as Surfware’s Vice President of Product Design.

Also around at the time doing the same thing in his capacity as Vice President of Worldwide Sales, was Domenic Lanzillotta.

And then there was Dr Evan Sherbrooke who was Systems Architect. And there was Terry J. Sorensen who joined in May 2006 and became CEO of Surfware in December 2006, even though he was not Alan Diehl’s son.

Meanwhile, in Scottsdale (Phoenix) Arizona, in October 2006 Mike Coleman (probably no relation) announced the appointment of Domenic Lanzillotta as Vice President of Worldwide sales, and Greg Dare as Director of Marketing at TekSoft. Lanzillotta was formerly Vice President of Worldwide Sales for Surfware, and Dare was formerly Director of Marketing for Surfware.

In September 2007 TekSoft announced a new toolpath strategy, called the Adaptive roughing strategy providing the ability to cut using the full depth of the tool and safely running machines at optimum speed to reduce machining time up to 40% over conventional roughing with less wear.

A friend who went to the EMO 2007 trade show at the time saw it in action. In an interview in the same month, Mike Coleman said:

“Rather than pretending that a couple of guys in the back room can come up with everything that we need, we buy our HSM algorithms from a third party that devotes 10–15 programmers to developing just the HSM modules,” he says. This third party can afford to invest more in the module than most other developers because selling it to companies allows it to amortize the cost over a larger user base.

The two of them, Dare and Lanzillotta seemed happily installed at the TekSoft trade show booths in February 2007 at SolidWorks World (in same room as HSMWorks) and March 2007 at Westec.

Westec 2007 had breasts

In early 2008 Lanzillotta moves to Planit to sell Edgecam software from Thousand Oaks California.

At some point around then, Sorensen introduced his new marketing department with Steve Crane as the Director of Marketing [I have his business card – he told me I was crazy], Steve Myers, Sales Engineer, and Bryan Sullivan, Media Relations Manager.

Then in April 2007, Sorenson, Sherbrooke and Glenn Coleman show up with their new business model attempting to market a new algorithm called VoluMill, which goes on-line in October 2007 from Cave Creek (Phoenix) Arizona.

That gives them about 6 months to write their new algorithm and release it. I observed it in December 2007 while at the Euromold trade show. It uses the neat but flawed idea of hosting the algorithm on their servers and arranging for your CAM system to transfer the model to them, generate the toolpaths, and transfer the results back. It’s a nice idea. The payment is by a monthly service plan rather than, say, per metre of toolpath calculated. We’ve made a much more sophisticated implementation of this, and could have given them the code if they’d asked. It seems that users are not quite as excited by it all as we are, so the innovators all need to work together to create the interest.

Not that any of this happens, mind you. Now I’d thought that VoluMill had basically died as so many on-line things do, but there’s a non-spam message from June 2008 on the forum:

Question: I am a hobbyist user. and although the up-front cost is zero, have you considered a plan which limits the number of tool-paths that can be generated in a month, or maybe a per usage charge?

As a hobbyist I am not so much interested in the aspects of saving time as I am in a good quality tool path. It appears that your paths work well on machines that can not accelerate quickly since they try to maintain a constant velocity.

Answer: At this time we have not received a level of interest that would make it a high priority. However, if the level of interest in such an option increases we will address it accordingly.

That answer is from Joe McChesney, Product Manager. It’s a closed user forum, so I can’t post a message telling the questioner that we’d happily give him a free copy of the Adaptive Clearing algorithm in return for some user feedback and movies.

Given what they achieved in terms of development in their first six months, what have they been doing over the past year? Also, I’ll eat my hat if they have any customers using their service at all. You can see the client source code activity here.

Back to the evil software patents — the filing of which is as much of a waste of programmer time as technical blogging like this — I asked someone about it at Euromold 2005 and took action. I received effective confirmation about it from their General Counsel of Surfware Inc in February 2006. According to the Patent Office rules:

Each individual associated with the patent owner in a reexamination proceeding has a duty of candor and good faith in dealing with the Office, which includes a duty to disclose to the Office all information known to that individual to be material to patentability in a reexamination proceeding.

So that’s all right then.

Not that the Adaptive Clearing algorithm has anything but superficial similarity in intent with TrueMill or VoluMill. But when has that ever been an excuse to avoid grief? The real defence is that the world at large hasn’t found it particularly interesting, so there’s no money worth arguing about.

The fact is, we should all be talking and working together on this. The market does not seem to have taken to new technologies, such as constant engagement milling, as it ought to have been. There are significant savings to be made in production machining by applying something like this, even if it was a very temperamental and unstable release. However, I don’t see evidence at the trade shows of it ever being used by the machine tool vendors, say. The only place it gets exhibited is on the stands of the CAM companies that sell these algorithms, and nowhere else. This is an issue.

With a market that is as conservative as it is, it makes it very difficult to get anywhere, because the dominant CAM companies can keep flogging their ten year old systems at the same high prices, invest nothing into development, and pocketing all the profits for as long as it takes users never to notice.

Ultimately the problem is with the users and their level of interest. They’ve got lots of better things they need to do than care about the software, and none of them seem to show any curiosity whatsoever as to what goes into it. The vendors spin this line about how there’s all these programmers at work in a back room you can’t talk to, and the company has all its secret special valuable algorithms that are extra good works of genius better than the science behind General Relativity, and I don’t think they actually need to bother with these fairy-tales. So few people question it. All the company needs to say is:

“Yes, we sacked all the programmers last year, and we’re down to our last guy who knows how to compile the system for new versions of the operating system. We pay him well to stay. No you won’t get your bugs fixed, because at this stage of development everyone seems able to work around the issues that remain without too much hassle. We’re certain that no one is going to come along with anything new and better because they won’t be able to afford the years of development that it took to get ours up to this stage. Back when our product was being developed in the 1990s it was possible to make money with fewer features and with something that ran slower on the machine, and at that time we were still re-investing the money and keeping lots of well-motivated programmers working on it to get it ahead. Now we don’t need to do this, because we believe that the development gap is too wide for any new start-ups to be able to bridge it with us competing against them while they are still in their early days. We know you, the customer, will not give them a second thought until they have everything we do and twice as good, and they’ll always go out of business before that happens. Today and tomorrow, we own this software. It is indeed stagnant. And if you want it, you can take it at the price we like, and I’ll be able to afford a nice car and continue filling it with gas to drive back and forth across Arizona until this economy goes completely into the ground because we’re not able to tell the difference between producing stuff and making money. Thank you very much.”

Like I said, it would be nice to come clean in the CAM software industry as to which system uses what kernel and whose algorithm. I don’t think the users actually give a toss enough to make a difference to sales. Some transparency would be really helpful for people like me to find out who in the world is actually still programming these specialized algorithms in order to share tips and find out where the jobs are.

In the absence of this, all I’ve got is this blog-ranting about manager-level machinations within the industry that have nothing to do with actually getting any programming work done. Even communication that’s one-way can be useful.

2 Comments

  • 1. Freesteel&hellip replies at 1st December 2008, 12:50 am :

    […] touched on their business model at length in this post in May, following the bringing to my attention of it during last year’s Euromold […]

  • 2. Component Technology R&hellip replies at 7th September 2011, 3:31 pm :

    […] technology is crucial to reduce the size of development teams and thus cut R&D costs. Those who do not adopted it so far will probably have to review this position in a near future, […]

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