What is a CNC Post-Processor? And how it works

A small introduction to CNC Post-Processor

In the early days of post-processing, a post-processor was considered an interface tool between computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems and numerically controlled (NC) machines – a mere translator, reading the manufacturing instructions issued from a CAM system and writing an appropriate rendition for a target NC machine. Today, however, post-processing has evolved to include a dynamic range of code optimization tools that are responsible for outputting the most efficient and productive machine tool code possible.

what is a cnc post processor

NC post-processing

NC post-processing is responsible for joining two very different technologies, and it often serves to compensate for weaknesses on either end. Therein lies the crux of the issue: a post-processor can enhance technology, or it can inhibit it, depending upon its application.

To understand how a post-processor can enhance technology, it helps to understand how and why post-processing evolved, how it has been traditionally applied, and how the emergence of advanced post-processing systems has changed the way it is used today. This article will show how post-processors can be used as key components in factory automation. If you’re already running a post-processor see how you can improve it with our 5 tips to improve your Post-Processor Manufacturing.

What is a Post-Processor?

Most CAM systems generate one or more types of neutral language files containing instructions for a CNC machine. These are either in a binary format called CLDATA or some ASCII readable format tailored after the APT language.

APT is an acronym for “Automatically Programmed Tools,” software that accepts symbolic geometry and manufacturing instructions, and generates CLDATA describing the manufacturing operation in absolute terms. Some CAM systems provide a large degree of flexibility, allowing just about anything to be included in the neutral file, others are quite strict about what can and cannot be included.

At the other end of the equation sits the NC machine. It requires input customized for the controller being used and arguably to a lesser extent, the operator running the machine. Most important, the NC machine must be driven in a manner that satisfies shop floor criteria, which are primarily based on safety, efficiency, and tradition.

Between these two lies the post-processor. The post-processor is the software responsible for translating neutral instructions from the CAM system into the specific instructions required by the NC machine (Figure 1).

This software responds to the unique requirements and limitations of the CAM system, NC machine, and manufacturing environment. Therefore, post-processing is an important part of factory automation, as is anything that lies on the critical path between the design engineer and the shipping department.

Enter Post-Processing

Post-processors can do many other things besides translating CLDATA to NC machine codes. For example a post-processor may summarize axes travels, feed and speed limits, job run-time and tool usage information, which enables better selection and scheduling of resources.

More sophisticated post-processors may validate the program before it is run by the machine tool. There are many simple rules that a post-processor can follow, with warning messages displayed when these rules are violated.

Some examples: Noting if a tool is not selected near the start of the program, warning when motions at feed rate are done with a stopped spindle, flagging long series of positioning moves, or conversely, flagging feed moves at or above the program clearance plane, or noting if diameter or length compensation switches are not changed when a tool is.

Beyond simple validation comes correction. There are many situations where a post-processor can detect an error and correct it.

Examples include: cycles left active during a tool change (they should be temporarily canceled), selecting an incorrect or nonexistent spindle gear range (the post-processor should select a range that supports the speed), or specifying an unavailable coolant type (the post-processor should select the next best type).

The best post-processors maintain a global picture of the entire job at all times, using upcoming events to help make decisions about current ones. The NC programmer uses this information to optimize the job without intervention.

For example: pre-selecting the next tool as soon as physically possible, segmenting a tape at a tool change if the entire upcoming tool path will not fit on the current reel, selecting a spindle gear that best fits the current and subsequent speed requirements, or switching intelligently between parallel axes (Z and W) based on the types of upcoming operations and available travel limits.

Post-processors can also work around limitations and bugs in the CAM system or in the machine tool. It is generally far easier to change the post-processor than it is to get a new revision of the CAM system, or a new executive revision for the NC controller.

The important point to be made here is that the NC programmer should not be concerned about machine tool or machine operator idiosyncrasies that do not directly affect the production of a job. Wherever possible, good post-processors should hide these details within.

Standard CAM systems, standard NC machines, standard CLDATA and standard post-processor vocabulary can not all be mixed together to instantly produce a working system. There are too many variables in the real world, and standards are too restricted in scope, to achieve integration with off-the-shelf components.

Is this all starting to sound familiar?

It really makes no difference if the interface between CAM and NC is unified or not. Market pressures will ultimately create incompatibilities, and software will be necessary to bridge the gap. The only question left to answer is, what software?.

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A Historical Perspective

People often ask if post-processors are really needed, wondering if perhaps the whole issue has been perpetrated on the unsuspecting by unscrupulous software houses! In fact, there really isn’t a conspiracy, just a lot of practicality. International standards (ISO) as well as national standards (ANSI, EIA) define both an output format for CAM systems and an input format for NC machines. These two formats, output and input, differ significantly.

Why not one standard, one format? Standards are more often than not based on existing practice. They serve to define a single method from a host of possible choices, all of which are generally rooted in actual practice. Standards that go against common practice do appear from time to time, but they are hard to justify, difficult to create and slow to be accepted. They also require a lot more dedication and effort than most people are willing to volunteer.

So when the proliferation of competing APT systems warranted a standard to help define and control the format of its inputs and outputs, standards were created defining the core elements required for manufacturing. Similarly, the proliferation of controllers also demanded some uniformity, and NC control language standards were created defining the core practices of industry.

Can’t Find What You’re Looking For?

No matter your specific manufacturing needs and constraints ICAM’s team of dedicated Post-Processor engineers can provide the ideal solution for your situation. They will take the time to understand and evaluate your existing process in order to deliver the most powerful and refined post-processing solution possible.

Get in touch today and a member of our team will get back to you shortly.