In a demonstration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the time required to program a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine for a complex multi-axis machining operation was cut from 105 minutes to just 15 minutes. This stunning reduction was made possible with the help of two new software products from STEP Tools Inc., Troy N.Y., and the use of an emerging international data standard for computer-aided manufacturing called STEP-NC. "The STEP-NC standard will usher in a new era of manufacturing automation in terms of productivity, safety, reliability, ease of use and CNC machine tool usability and interoperability," says STEP Tools' CEO Martin Hardwick. And STEP Tools' suite of software, which has grown to four products, gives industry, government agencies and academia the first-ever commercial tools to evaluate the emerging standard. STEP-NC (Standard for Exchange of Product data-Numerical Control), is an extension of the STEP standard already used in computer-aided design (CAD). STEP-NC adds all the necessary manufacturing information and tooling recommendations in a new format that is then utilized by computer-aided manufacturing software, the CAM of CAD/CAM. This software controls the action of CNC machine tools, and using STEP-NC formatted data, will essentially drive the geometry of CAD 3-D models into the workings of the fabricating tool. STEP-NC data is independent of myriad inputs required by machining equipment and is digitally friendly -- allowing machining instructions to traverse the Internet. Currently, the capabilities of CAM and CNC machines are significantly underutilized because the only programming available -- vector codes -- is "dumb" manufacturing. A tool is simply given coordinates of movement, marching orders if you will, and has no idea what it is making. "We have high-tech tools driven by low-tech codes," says Hardwick, who chairs the worldwide team of 200 product data experts collaborating on STEP-NC. Imagine the challenge of programming the X,Y and Z coordinates of movement to cut a complex airfoil shape with a multi-axis machine tool. With STEP-NC, the CAM software driving the machine tool receives CAD 3-D solid model and manufacturing data for that shape and applies its own intelligence to the task. The software looks over the entire model, creates a set of cutting instructions to create the shape in the fastest and most-effective way, checks for unforeseen problems or interferences and then directs the sculpting. "In the past the burden was directly applied to the programmer, the machine tool operator and the machining procedures to assure the tool cut the part correctly," says Hardwick. With STEP-NC that burden is lifted, allowing the use of sophisticated multi-axis equipment by operators who need not be experts. STEP-NC offers other advantages. Tool paths are optimized for the available tooling. Rapid, accurate cost estimates are facilitated. Adjustment to design change is easily accommodated, without reprogramming from scratch. The new STEP Tools products include: ST-Plan which takes CAD STEP data and adds the manufacturing information to output STEP-NC data; ST-Machine, which converts STEP-NC data to instructions executed by a machine tool; STIX tool kit for CAD developers to add STEP-NC capability directly into CAD programs; and ST-Explorer, a viewer that allows users to see models and manufacturing information without starting up CAD or CAM programs.