SOLIDWORKS, Mastercam, or Both?

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I often get questions related to using Mastercam or SOLIDWORKS for a given task because they overlap in a lot of what they do and not everyone can learn or even afford to buy both tools right away. Both can create model geometry, both can generate NC code, and both have additional unique capabilities that might make it a compelling choice for you. So, when do you use one or the other and do you need to buy both? The easiest way to describe which tool you should primarily use is to ask yourself if you are a “designer who also needs to program some parts”, or if you are a “machinist who is modeling parts to program them”? However, even that fails to capture the question in full and how it might impact your daily work. It depends on what you need to do. So, let’s compare the two programs to see how they stack up on a variety of topics. Keep in mind, these are two very different tools that are considered the leader’s in their respective markets. These tools don’t typically compete on features unless you happen to fall right in the sweet spot between their respective primary capabilities.

3D Modeling

SOLIDWORKS is the world’s most widely used design software for a reason. It has a clear advantage for anyone routinely performing the design of products or fixtures, but it isn’t necessary for every company. To illustrate the differences more specifically, I recently modeled the same basic part in both tools and here are some of my impressions in terms of the modeling component alone:

  • The SOLIDWORKS User Interface is highly optimized for modeling, with slick contextual menus and intelligent sketch snapping and dimensioning. It makes quick work of generating the exact model geometry you need, and parametric geometry makes quick work of design changes. If your primary function is design and model creation you can’t do better than SOLIDWORKS.
  • SOLIDWORKS is everywhere and is easy to learn. Anyone with any CAD experience will find SOLIDWORKS easy to pick up and use. Previous SOLIDWORKS or parametric CAD users will find using the Mastercam Design to be frustrating to use beyond small design changes and edits.
  • Mastercam doesn’t use sketch relations and constraints, so for someone just learning CAD or for a company that is just creating models for machining, Mastercam is simple to learn. However, design changes tend to be a bit harder to perform.
  • Time-saving features like libraries of standard hole sizes and the ability to reverse engineer imported geometry are being added to the newer versions of Mastercam, but the SOLIDWORKS versions tend to have more capabilities and are more streamlined.
  • Assembly models, including the ability to have several different related models open simultaneously, is a big advantage in SOLIDWORKS. You can create multiple components in a Mastercam project for things like fixturing design, but assembly motion and part interaction is absent in Mastercam.
  • Many toolpaths don’t require fully accurate geometry to be able to build accurate parts, and often the goal of accurate models is to make accurate parts. You can often skip many steps using CAM software because it can achieve the correct toolpath easily with simple curves or surfaces applied to a simplified model. Engraved text and J-Curves, for example, are much faster and easier to program in CAM than they are to model with perfect accuracy in CAD. Edge breaks or chamfers can be applied to square corners automatically in Mastercam, which simultaneously makes 3D modeling faster.
  • Importing bad or incomplete geometry, including scan data, is easier in Mastercam without requirements to generate watertight geometry and the ability to create toolpaths for incomplete data. Many advanced features in SOLIDWORKS require additional processing of this bad data before it can be used.
If you are already familiar with both Mastercam and SOLIDWORKS design tools you’ll generally prefer SOLIDWORKS for design work if you can justify the purchase. SOLIDWORKS is the superior design tool, but for just creating and modifying 3D models for programming Mastercam Design can get the job done.

CNC Programming

Mastercam is the World’s #1 CNC Programming software for a reason, it is powerful and easy to use and supports a wide range of machines and technologies, so how does that compare to SOLIDWORKS CAM from a purely programming perspective? Why would you choose to add Mastercam to your license of SOLIDWORKS, or when would you opt to work only in Mastercam?

  • Both tools can generate accurate toolpaths, are flexible to setup and configure the specifics of the toolpath options and can output NC code for your machine. From a basic programming perspective, they are both capable tools.
  • Mastercam can go beyond simple 3-axis mill and 2-axis lathe. It can program highly advanced multi-axis machines, up to 7-axis systems including multi-stream mill-turn, so it can grow with you as you expand capabilities in your shop. Machine shops should strongly consider their growth potential to avoid starting over with a new tool or maintaining multiple tools and licenses in the future.
  • Mastercam is widespread in education and industry, when searching to hire programmers or train employees you’ll notice a massive numbers advantage towards highly experienced Mastercam users and companies and schools using it. It is easy to learn, and multiple classroom and online training options are available for all levels of the software.
  • Productivity tools and third-party integration expand the ability for Mastercam to support advanced automation, such as automated tool probing and offsets, robotic controls, material handling, and inspection software.
  • Mastercam has a huge library of post processors for many makes and models of CNC Machine tools and can control nearly any aspect of the machine operation. Mastercam posts are quick and easy to customize. SOLIDWORKS CAM uses a free Universal Post Generator and also provides many free posts, but the provided free posts are not easily customizable by the end user and not all machines are supported. Mastercam has a clear advantage in post processors over other tools.
  • Both programs have intelligent 3D feature recognition capabilities to streamline the programming process from a solid model. SOLIDWORKS CAM requires 3D feature creation/recognition before toolpaths can be generated, where Mastercam can optionally create toolpaths on just about anything from sketches and wireframes to surfaces and solids for a more flexible programming approach. If you deal with imported models that occasionally have import issues a lot of additional work may be required before programming in SOLIDWORKS CAM can begin.
  • Both tools have a dedicated user interface to run as a standalone tool, which is the most common way to use it if you have separate departments doing each type of work. If some users plan to use both at the same time, Mastercam for SOLIDWORKS is an add-in that works the same as SOLIDWORKS CAM to allow you to use both tools in one streamlined user interface. If you want the flexibility to run CAM on one machine and CAD on another you will need at least one license for each machine regardless of the approach.
  • SOLIDWORKS CAM Standard is included with every license of SOLIDWORKS which includes basic milling capabilities for parts, but the license must be on active subscription for it to work. Perpetual licenses are available to purchase for both software packages.
  • Standalone and network licenses are available for both packages using software activation. SOLIDWORKS can utilize online licensing where the license lives on the internet, while Mastercam has a physical Hasp key option for quick transfer between machines.
  • Mastercam can Nest toolpaths, especially useful for routers, lasers, or punches that use sheet stock. Both tools could benefit from more advanced nesting tools when part runs are mixed across multiple product lines.
  • Mastercam for SOLIDWORKS has special features that leverage SOLIDWORKS design tables to create families of parts. SOLIDWORKS CAM can perform tolerance-based machining, which adjusts the strategy to meet the tolerance information defined in the model. Be sure to discuss your specific challenges with an expert to see if a specific unique capability can improve your business.

SOLIDWORKS CAM is a low-cost option for users whose primary needs are design rather than manufacturing, so from a purely programming perspective they are both capable, but Mastercam offers a breadth and depth of features that cannot be matched for machine shops and programmers.

Documentation, Analysis, Renderings…

Not every designer or machinist needs to worry about documenting, communicating, analyzing, or selling parts or designs, but factoring in any additional tasks you are responsible for will help you decide if your CAD tool selection will have additional benefits beyond modelling.

  • Machining setup sheets can be created in both programs, these sheets are derived from the program itself to document the tooling, fixtures, and program file name among other important information for the machinist to run the part.
  • Technical part drawings and inspection reports are easy to generate in SOLIDWORKS. Mastercam allows for creating fully dimensioned 2D/3D part drawings and models but can seem lacking compared to the full SOLIDWORKS drawing environment which can create complex layouts and view projections. Some functions, such as MBD or Inspection reports may require an additional license purchase.
  • Technical documentation, such as assembly instructions or user manuals, can leverage existing 3D geometry to create animations and illustrations. SOLIDWORKS Composer can bring in models exported from Mastercam or SOLIDWORKS to generate this information but works better with native SOLIDWORKS files.
  • SOLIDWORKS and Mastercam both have model displays that are very realistic, but for photo-realistic renderings you’ll need a separate rendering tool like those included in SOLIDWORKS Professional.
  • Mastercam projects can be opened and viewed in the free Mastercam Home Learning Edition, which is a restricted use installation of the full software. Native SOLIDWORKS files can be viewed using eDrawings, a free lightweight viewer for PC, Mac, and mobile. For secure sharing and viewing of geometry with third parties, edrawings file formats and 3D PDF outputs give a clear advantage to SOLIDWORKS.
  • Analysis of part performance characteristics is possible in SOLIDWORKS Simulation tools, such as strength, fluid flow, and design optimization.
  • Model based definition, or MBD, exists in both SOLIDWORKS and Mastercam, embedding the design requirements and tolerance information into the same file as the 3D geometry. Mastercam is focused on viewing the provided specifications to guide toolpath creation where SOLIDWORKS can both generate it and use it.

If it all seems like a lot to process or you have more questions you might find it easier to talk it over with our experts. We’ll start by understanding your specific challenges and budget and provide a recommendation to get you up and running with the best software tools, training, and services in the industry. We’ll educate you on the available licensing options, alternative approaches, and industry best practices that we recommend for you be successful in your business.

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