What is CAD, CAM, and CNC?

Computer-aided Design (CAD) software helps designers build things – from keychains to skyscrapers. Computer-aided Manufacturing (CAM) software allows people to control machine tools, such as precision Computer Numeric Control (CNC) hardware tools that “cut” material. CAD and CNC have a niche role in woodworking and composite material fabrication. I use software and hardware to design and build parts and products, as well as teach these topics to aspiring inventors using this simple CAD, CAM, and Cut overview document.


As the great philosopher Won Ton “Animal” Chin once opined, “…teach them well, and let them lead the way.” I use the following technical files to teach K-12 students what is CAD and CAM, and then actually build items using a Handibot® smart power tool, made by ShopBot Tools, Inc. This lesson plan and activity use technology to allow for artistic creativity and precision engineering with an ample serving of math. Further lessons cover the science behind materials such as carbon fiber, plastics, and wood, as well as how students can program in G-code to control CNC machines. Through these files and my lesson, I teach the concepts of science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

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The following files are for people with a solid understanding of CNC machines and the software used to control them. These machines can be dangerous, and are not toys. If you have never used a CNC machine before, please do not attempt this workflow. Take classes on CNC or contact someone who knows what he is doing. Initially, you should become familiar with CAD and CAM software tools such as Vectric® or Autodesk® Fusion 360.

Getting Started

This simple CAD, CAM, and Cut overview document sets the stage for these technologies.

The following files will help you to customize and build nine custom key chains or pendants. You will need a ShopBot or Handibot CNC machine connected to a device that can host the following SBP (ShopBot) and Vectric CRV files. You will also need a thin material such as 1/8th” plywood, hardwood, or HDPE plastic, as well as a suitable router bit on your CNC to cut this material; I suggest a 1/8th” Straight “O” Flute bit.

The general workflow is to begin in the Vectric software to modify nine letters or shapes using the keychain_letters.crv file set to cut at a shallower depth than your material, then use the keychain_parts.crv file to cut the nine keychains at a depth equal to your workpiece.

You will then create toolpaths from the Vectric program and push them in SBP format to the Handibot. Files already completed for you include the hearts_9.SBP file, and the corresponding hearts_9.LOG file – that create the nine heart shapes for you, the shapes_letters.SBP file with the corresponding SHAPES_LETTERS.LOG file to cut sample letters and shapes, and the PARTS.LOG file to cut the keychain profiles.

1. Open the keychain_letters.crv file, and create new letters for your desired initials and symbols.
2. Edit Object and select from the Drawing section a 1L font from the dropdown list – such as Helvitica 1L or Script 1L.
3. Modify up to nine different letters or symbols; you can replace the Heart with another design, you can also leave some blank.
4. Select all of the letters and shapes to be toolpathed and create a new Profile toolpath – ensure the depth is half the total depth of the material so you do not cut through it. Ensure you have Machine Vectors On so the machine does not care about closed vectors (such as the letters D and O).
5. Add Tabs to toolpath so your material does not move around during cutting.
6. Calculate the toolpath, name your toolpath, and select Close. Select Save Toolpath and save to SBP format. Your CNC will read this file.
7. You can now test how your material will cut using the Preview Toolpaths icon and select Preview All Toolpaths. You can adjust the speed of how you preview this, and this is why it is more useful to fail inside your computer than on your material under the CNC machine.
8. Prepare your material in the Handibot and begin cutting the nine letters.
9. Now select the keychain_parts.crv file to cut your nine keychains. This file does not need to be modified, and the SBP file is already created for you as parts.SBP. You can still Preview Toolpath to view the simulation of how the chains will be machined.
10. In the ShopBot software, select the parts.SBP file and cut out the keychains.