Frequently Asked Questions About Graphic Drill and Rout Software

FAQs: Below are some of the questions asked, and the answers provided, in relation to our Graphics Drill and Rout Software System 7. If you don’t see your question asked and answered here, please feel free to contact California Software Systems today.

Why do I need a computer at each machine?

You don’t. However, generally it is the best way to setup your shop. When we connect a computer to a machine we do three fundamental things:

1. Install and configure an I/O board in the computer which is needed to communicate with the machine.

2. Connect the computer to your network (Typically Microsoft).

3. Load and configure CSS software which graphically displays drill/route programs and transmits them to the machine.

Then we use the computer to help make both the operator and the machine more efficient. We enable the operator to quickly find any job being run in the shop. From the computer screen can verify the customer, the part number, the panel size, and many other details. Next they are shown any notes or special instructions that CAM or Production Planning may have added to the job. Next they can view a picture of the panels, verify hole counts, tools sizes, check for double hits, and see if the drilling program has been properly optimized – before starting the machine.

Stated another way, we enable you use the computer as a computer. The computer makes the machine easier to run and able to do things you have always needed but couldn’t do. The computer becomes a tool that the operator uses constantly. The computer truly becomes an indispensable part of the machine.

Another point worth considering is the cost. New, very good, computers for drills and routers can be purchased today for about $550.00. That is frequently less than the average service call. Compared to the cost of buying and maintaining the machine, the cost of the computer is insignificant. Yet the computer probably enables you to do more for less than any other investment you can make for your drilling and fabrication operations.

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Where should I put the computer?

The computer will be used constantly to setup and run the machine. Therefore the keyboard and monitor should be placed where they can be easily reached while the operator is also using the control console. Probably the best solution is a small table or cabinet beside the machine.

If the controller is an Excellon CNC-6 you can install a small shelf on the top for the monitor. The computer keyboard can be mounted on brackets in front of the keyboard for the controller. The computer can be set on the swinging arm which connects the CNC-6 to the machine. It is not a good idea to set the computer on the floor because it can get kicked or wet when the floor is washed.

The computer should not be more than a few steps away from the machine. Otherwise too much time will be wasted walking back and forth. The operator should always be able to clearly see the computer screen while they are running the machine.

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What are my alternatives if I don’t install a computer at each machine?

Fundamentally there are two ways to communicate with a drill or router.

1. Via a parallel port such as a paper tape reader connector (Normally requires one computer per machine)

2. Via a serial port such as a COM port on a PC (Possible to run as many machines as there are COM ports on the computer).

1. Parallel Connection

Most older machines have paper tape readers but no serial ports. This is true for Excellon CNC-2, CNC-4, CNC-5, and CNC-6 controllers. This is also true for most TruDril, ATI, Wessel, and some PDA machines.

California Software Systems can connect to any drill or router which has a parallel paper tape reader. We simply unplug the reader and plug the computer into the same connector. As far as the machine is concerned it is still operating from the reader. The computer simply “emulates” the reader when it is sending a program to the machine. This will work with any machine with a paper tape reader. No additional hardware or software is needed.

If you going to drive more than one machine from a computer through the paper tape reader port the only practical way to do it is through a manually operated switch box. If you have three machines you will need a three-position switch box. Technically this will work but in the real world it is not a practical idea. You can only load a program into one machine at a time. It the program is to big to fit in the memory of the controller you will have to leave the computer connected to the machine almost the entire time you are drilling the job. While the program is loading nothing else can be done with the computer.

The only time it may be practical to use a parallel connection from one computer to two machine is when you have only one drill and one router. Then, to save a little money, you may want to try a single computer and a two-position switch box.

2. Serial Connection

You can add a serial port to any Excellon machine. This requires an additional printed circuit card in the machine, updated software and normally a “short haul” modem. On significant problem is that these items are no longer available new from Excellon. You will have to find used hardware and software somewhere.

Once the serial port is installed in the machine it can talk to a “serial communications” port on a computer commonly referred to as a “COM” port – provided you have the correct software. This requires a three-wire cable (transmit, receive, and common) between the machine and the computer. The data is transmitted in groups of electrical pulses, one after another. Hence the name “serial” communication. The term “RS-232” is often used. This defines the voltage levels and impedances required in the circuit. Other hardware parameters such as Baud Rate, Stop Bits, and Parity must also be identically defined in both the machine and the computer.

In addition to hardware parameters, both the machine and the computer must agree on what each group of pulses means. This is referred to as the communications “Protocol”. Each machine manufacturer has their own favorite “protocol”. However, in addition to their own inventions, every manufacturer also supports Excellon DNC 1.3 or 1.4 protocol. In this case Excellon has created the defacto, world wide, standard.

COM ports can be run under Microsoft Windows without loss of data even though Windows uses “time slicing”. This is because each COM port has its own, internal, buffer memory. The memory stores the pulses received while the operating system is doing something else.

If your machines have DNC capability you can connect up to 16 drills and routers to a single computer. Assuming the software has been written correctly, the only limitation is the number of COM ports that can be physically installed in the computer. All computer can have at least two COM ports. Four COM ports are easy to install. Eight COM ports gets a bit tricky but it can be done. Twelve COM port in a single computer is about the practical maximum. All of this can be done with inexpensive, off-the-shelf cards available at most computer stores or on-line.

Sixteen of more COM ports can be installed in a single computer using special printed circuit boards designed specifically for very old computers. This is the approach Excellon took with its “DNC File Server” products. However, there are two problems. The first is the boards are very expensive and no longer available new from the supplier. The second is that special software “drivers” must be written to enable all the COM ports on the cards. Today these drivers are not available and, to the best of our knowledge, no one is willing to write them because the special COM port cards are technically obsolete.

California Software Systems offers its “DNC File Server For Windows” which runs on any computer using Microsoft Windows and support up to 16 COM ports (up to 16 machines.). It works with both ISA and PCI type serial add-on cards. These cards are now an industry standard item and are available anywhere in the world from many different manufacturers. They are also very inexpensive.

Yes, we can run at least twelve machines from a single computer. However, in most cases we don’t think this is the right way to setup your shop. If you install a serial DNC network the only thing you are doing is delivering the drill/route program to the machine over a wire rather than from a floppy disk or punched paper tape. You have done nothing to improve the productivity of the operator or the machine. You are also stuck with a orphan network that can’t be used for anything else. Lastly, you have succeeded in upgrading your shop to the state-of-the-art as it existed in 1975!

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Is your software windows compatible?

Yes, our products can be used with any Windows or DOS compatible network including MicroSoft and Novell. However for the sake of both cost and simplicity we recommend Microsoft. In the CAM room and for all network file server computers we strongly recommend any current version Windows (Windows 95/98/2000/Me/XP etc.) We do not support earlier version of Windows such as Windows 3.XX.

Unfortunately, even though our products work fine under Windows, Windows cannot keep up with most drills and routers when delivering the program via a parallel connection such as through the paper tape connector. This forces us to use DOS on the computers connected directly to machines. Please refer to the question below “Why Do I Have To Use DOS”.

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Why do I have to use DOS?

In general, computers connected directly to drills and routers must run DOS. This is because all version of Windows use “time slices”. Under Windows the computer divides it time between various tasks depending upon which programs are loaded in its memory. The time slices are approximately 20 milliseconds. If you are loading a drill or route program, the machine must receive a new byte of data about every 3 milliseconds. If Windows is off doing something else for 20 milliseconds it cannot continually respond with a correct, new, byte of data every 3 milliseconds. This is why, in most cases, you cannot reliably run a drill or route under Windows.

If the computer is doing something else when the next byte is needed, the machine will make mistakes. When the machine makes a mistake it either “locks up” or, worse yet, it drills a hole or routes a path in the wrong place. This is catastrophic because you’ve probably scrapped the job!

If there is a secret in driving machines from computers it’s in the timing. When sending a program to a machine you must include very small and very precise time delays in the data string. These delays can be hardware generated in the computer by dividing down the CPU clock. This hardware approach was taken by several of our competitors including Centrum and Fox. Now there’s an insurmountable problem. Their software will not run on a fast, modern PC because hardware delay become shorter as computers become faster. When the computer goes down you have to find old, slow, used parts. You can’t buy a new computer because it’s too fast to work with your machines.

At California Software Systems we generate the necessary time delays in our software rather than via the computers’ hardware. This makes our timing independent of the speed of the computer. Therefore, our products will run correctly on any modern PC regardless of it’s speed.

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Why do you recommend DOS in the drill room?

You are running a business, not playing games. To make money you need a simple, fast, and accurate way to drill and route boards correctly – every time. Windows has many good features but rock solid stability is not one of them. Think about this. If it cost your company $100.00 every time Windows screwed up on your office computer, how long would you keep the computer? Probably not very long.

It can easily cost you more than a $1,000.00 every time a drill makes a mistake. So, how many mistakes are you going to tolerate before you call someone to fix the machine?

DOS has been evolving for more than 20 years. It is a small, stable, powerful operating system designed for one computer running one program at a time. Windows is prettier and it can do a lot of things at the same time. However, the current version of Windows are not nearly as stable and reliable as DOS. If you need to write a letter while checking a spreadsheet and downloading a game from the Internet then Windows is the right choice. If you need to control a printed circuit board drilling machine in real time, DOS is a much safer way to go.

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How do I connect a DOS computer to a Windows network?

Both Microsoft and Novell provide client software which enables a DOS machines to communicate over a wire with a network file server. Unfortunately, some of the earlier versions of Novell were not truly “DOS Compatible”. The result was that some computers “locked up” and sometimes had to be rebooted for no apparent reason. We have not seen any indications of this in current Novell software. However, if you plan to extend you existing Novell network to your drill room contact us for more specific information.

Microsoft has included networking capability in all versions of Windows starting with Windows 95. Before Window 95 they sold a peer-to-peer networking product called “Workgroup Add-On for MS-DOS” which included both client and server capability. Microsoft now offers, free of charge, “Microsoft Network Client” version 3.0 from which the server capability has been removed. This is exactly what you need to connect DOS computers to any Windows file server including Windows ME, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. You can download the software directly from Microsoft at:

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What version of Windows can I use?

Assuming you are using either a serial connection (typically DNC) or a Microsoft network connection to your machine, you may use any current version of Windows you prefer. Our personal preference is Windows Me because we find it to be the easiest to setup and most stable version of Windows in a machine shop environment. We also realize that most people would not agree with this selection so – use what you like.

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Can I run other software on your network?

Yes – definitely. Remember we are using industry standard local area networks from the leaders including Microsoft and Novell. For example, you might run a work-in-process tracking system on the same computers and cables used to run your machines in drilling and fabrication. You might also install an in-house e-mail system to communicate with your employees. Another possibility might be a system to collect production statistics on the utilization and performance of your machines. Information such as how long it y took to drill the job, how many bits were used and/or broken, and how many panels were scrapped and for what reason could be gathered over the network.

Basically any software that is designed to run on a real local area network, using the type of computers you have, can be run simultaneously with our products. This is one of the major advantages of our system compared to an old fashion DNC installation. A DNC system only allows you to deliver a drill or route program over a wire to a machine. Absolutely nothing else can be done via DNC.

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Will I still have to load the operating system for my machine from paper tape?

Many drills and routers load their operating systems from paper tapes. This includes the Excellon CNC-2, CNC-3, and CNC-5 controllers. It also includes most TruDrill machines and PDA routers using General Automation Controllers.

We can copy your operating system from the paper tape to the hard disk of the computer connected to the machine. We will also give you a copy of the files on a floppy disk. You will then be able to re-load your machine from the computer. You should store your master tapes and the floppy disks in a very safe place where they will not get lost. If you ever sell you machine the new owner will want the original system tape.

Incidentally, we have never had to punch a new system tape from the files on the floppy disks. However, it could be done – if you can find a working paper tape punch!

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Will I still have to load the operating system for my machine from the machine’s floppy disk?

The CNC 6 controllers requires the loading of the drilling and routing machine operating software from the the built in Excellon floppy disk drives. In addition, there are maintenance floppy disks that have specific software for service engineers to use in order to do machine tune-ups. Due to the special formatting requirements of these operating system floppy disks and the machine hardware software interfaces, the operating system can only be loaded by the machines themselves.

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Why not use the Diameter Page in my machine rather than your Tool Tables on the computer?

Our Graphical Drill/Route System can hold up to 40 different tool tables. Each table contains the diameter, size, feed, speed, depth correction, and retract rate for every tool you use in your shop. You assign each table a name such as “FR-4, 059” which reflects its intended use.

System 6 allowed the operator downloads a new job from the Drill Room File Server. They then selected the tool table to be used to drill the panels. System 7 can include links between tool tables and drilling programs which automatically load the correct tool information into the machine. The operator no longer has to select the Tool Table. The computer then inserts the correct tool information, on the fly, as the drilling program is loaded into the machine. This is simple, fast, and eliminates human errors.

The advantages of our tool system include the following:

1. It’s simple, fast, and easy to use.

2. The operator never has to type tool information on the keyboard of the machine.

3. It eliminates human errors including using incorrect tool data from the previous job.

4. Key parameters effecting hole quality can be controlled by your Process Engineers rather than your machine operators.

You can load a “diameter page” into your controller. The tool table is then initially loaded with values from the diameter page according to the diameter of the tools being used. The problem is you are limited to one or only a few diameter pages. You don’t have enough choices to match the various laminates often being processed in a modern shop.

To compensate for not having the correct diameter page in the machine, the operator is required to type in the tool parameters including the feed, speed, and max hits. The probability of him doing this correctly every time is zero. It just doesn’t happen. The result is poor hole quality which can appear to be a random problem.

The solution is to take the human out of the equation. Tool tables are all numbers. Computers crunch number much faster and infinitely more accurately than people. You setup the tool tables you need in the computer and then let it load the correct data into your machine.

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What happens to Step-and-Repeat commands when I use the graphical display?

When the computer loads a new drill program it stores the “X” and “Y” coordinates for each hole in its memory. If the program contains step and repeat commands the computer calculates the exact location of each step and repeated hole and also stores it in its memory. The graphic display is then generated by drawing the appropriate size circles around each of the hole centers stored in memory.

When you select holes to be drilled from the graphic display the computer generates a new drilling program from the hole centers stored in memory. The computer first outputs the M48 header. It then outputs a tool change command followed by the exact coordinates for each hole you selected. The program ends with an “M00” command which simply means “End of Program – No Rewind”.

The answer to your question about step and repeat commands is that they are no longer needed, nor used, if you drill from the graphic display. The same is true for route programs.

Note: If you think you are having trouble drilling correctly from the graphic display, try the “non-graphic” mode. When asked “do you wish to use graphics y/n” answer “No”. The computer then outputs the drilling program exactly as written including any step and repeat commands.

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Do you use different colors for different hole sizes?

We do! Starting with Graphic System 7 you can select either color, or black and white for both holes and segments.

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Where are my drilling and routing programs stored – physically?

Assuming the computers at your machines are connected to a network, all of your drill and route programs are stored on other computers which act as “network file servers”. Normally the Drill Room File Server is in or near the CAM department. However, it doesn’t have to be.

Today, by the use of the DSL telephone connections and the World Wide Web your Drill Room File Server and CAM department could be literally anywhere. Your production facility could be in Mexico and your network file server in San Jose, California – or vice versa. Expensive, dedicated, leased lines are no long necessary.

So, the answer to your question is – your drill and route programs can be stored across the room or across the country. It really doesn’t matter any more.

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How should I backup my drill room network?

We think the best way to backup your Drill Room File Server is to use the “backup” feature of our Graphical Drill/Route System. This automatically copies every job and every change on your Drill Room File Server to the hard disk of one of the computers connected to a drill or router. The technique works by watching the attribute byte assigned to every file by Microsoft Windows. When the computer at the drill sees a change in the attribute byte of any job it copies the file over the network to a subdirectory on its hard disk. Normally the copy is never seen or used unless there is a network file server failure. When it happens you have a complete backup of every job in the shop on the hard disk of the backup computer. Best of all, all your data is stored on a normal hard disk drive as random access files. Any network administrator should be able to view the files, copy them over the network to a new file server, or even remove the hard disk and install it in another computer.

If you wish to also backup your file server using magnetic tape that is ok. However, magnetic tape is not as reliable as a second hard disk. The data on the tape cannot be read on another computer unless the computer happens to have the exact same type of magnetic tape drive. Lastly, and most important, you never really know whether you have a good backup on magnetic tape until you try to use it – and then it may be to late!

You can also use a CD-Burner to copy your files to CD’s. This gives you a permanent backup that can be stored “off site” which is always a good idea. We recommend you install the CD-Burner directly in the Drill Room File Server computer. We do not believe it is a good idea to try to write to a CD with data coming over a network. The results are often unreliable.

In our opinion, “Flash Memory” cards are also excellent for backup. These small devices plug into a USB port on the file server and are automatically configured by Microsoft Windows as logical drives. Flash memory cards are small, simple to use, reliable, and inexpensive. The only thing we are not sure about is how many years they can be trusted to accurately store your data.

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What’s wrong with the Excellon Mini-Server system?

The Excellon Mini-Server is a DNC systems developed in the mid 1980s to run on the original IBM XT personal computer. Nothing much has changed since then. It requires a special printed circuit board with either four or eight serial COM ports. We have been told that you can install up to four of these boards in a single computer (32 COM ports) but we have never seen it done. Each machine requires two short haul modems, one at the Mini-server and one at the machine. If you can picture in your mind one computer connected to 32 external modems, each with its own AC power cord, you have an idea of what the thing looks like. It is tricky to setup, difficult to expand, and wants to be the only program running on the computer.

So – what’s wrong with the Excellon Mini-Server. It is difficult to setup, technically obsolete, and Excellon no longer supports the product.

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What’s wrong with the Highland system?

Highland is out of business. There is no reliable technical support or replacement parts available anywhere.

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What’s wrong with the Centrum Research system?

The fundamental problem with Centrum is that the company went out of business. However, there is more to it than that. The trouble is the hardware design was obsolete even before the product was introduced. The Centrum cards use Z80 microprocessors which preceded the Intel 8080 used in the original IBM XT. The Centrum cards plug into a ISA slot in the motherboard of the computer. They then try to communicate with the CPU by synchronizing clocks. This worked okay with the IBM AT which used an 80486 microprocessor. However, it will not work reliably with a Pentium 1 (or faster) processor. The computer is simply to fast for the Centrum card. This is a very serious problem which can never be solved without a complete re-design of the Centrum boards which isn’t going to happen.

If you want to keep a Centrum System running you will have to maintain a supply of old computers. When the computer dies you can’t simply buy a new one – IT WILL NOT WORK!

Centrum never developed graphics. They simply provided black and white text. However, they did have one thing going for them. They were cheap.

If you have a Centrum System call California Software Systems. We will show you a system that will work with any computer regardless of how fast it may be. We’ll also show you the great things we can do with computer graphics.

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I have a different kind of machine. Can you provide graphics and connect it to my network?

There are three ways to communicate with a machine, parallel, serial, and Ethernet. We do them all . If your machine can talk to the outside world we have the hardware and software to understand what it is saying – and to talk back. The bottom line is we can handle any printed circuit board drill or router manufactured in the last 25 years. Call us. We can help!

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