CAD/CAM Pioneer Donald Welbourn Remembered

Delcam is very sad to announce the death of Donald Welbourn MA FREng. Donald was the key pioneer of CADCAM research and development in the UK. His work lead to the creation of Delcam, now the world’s leading specialist supplier of machining software, and contributed to the establishment of Cambridge University as a major centre for CADCAM research.

Donald first became aware of the potential of computer-aided manufacturing in March 1965 when he heard a lecture to the Engineering Society by Prof. Strachey on the early work at MIT on Computer-Aided Design. He was so fascinated by this that, the following morning, he caught the Head of the Cambridge University Engineering Department (CUED), Prof. J.F. Baker, and told him that the University must get started in this field. Prof. Baker was enthusiastic, and by the end of the year, the UK Science Research Council had awarded a grant of £65,000 with which to start work on CAD.

From the start, the research concentrated on 3D design, unlike other systems of the time which were being developed purely for 2D drafting. During his time in industry, Donald had become aware of the problems experienced by toolmakers that were working from 2D drawings. These were frequently ambiguous when describing complex 3D models and Donald believed that 3D computer models could provide a more reliable solution. Initially work was done on the PDP11 graphics computer, with 8k memory, bought in 1965 for £45,000.

In 1972, the CUED was able to obtain two 3-axis NC machine tools with a DTI grant to help the machine tool industry, thus enabling the work in CAD to be expanded into CAM. One of these, a Hayes milling machine, went onto the firm’s stand at the Machine Tool Exhibition at Olympia that Autumn, probably the first ever public demonstration of 3D CADCAM at a machine tool exhibition.

Meanwhile, in 1971, Donald had become Director in Industrial Co-operation and Director of the Wolfson Cambridge Industrial Unit. With the Science Research Council claiming that his work was no longer research, he focussed his efforts on raising support from industry.

In 1974 he persuaded the late Lord Caldecote DSC, Chairman of The Delta Group plc, and a former member of the staff of the CUED, that his companies must get involved with computer aided engineering. Delta seconded Ed Lambourne to work with the Unit for two years while taking an M.Sc. In 1977, after Ed’s return to Delta, Lord Caldecote founded a new subsidiary, Deltacam Systems Ltd., to advise on CADCAM and to supply time-sharing services to other firms in the group. The Managing Director of the subsidiary was Hugh Humphreys, while Ed became the Technical Director. Hugh and Ed subsequently lead the staff buyout from the Delcam Group which created Delcam as an independent company in 1989.

Surprisingly for such an important figure in the history of CADCAM, Donald never did any of the programming in connection with the software. He made it his job to set targets for what needed to be done, to get money and to get able staff to do the work.

Donald retired from the University in 1983, but continued to play an active role as a Fellow of Selwyn College and in supporting Delcam. He attended most of the company’s annual Sales Partner Meetings, where he gave regular presentations on his pride at seeing that such a large and successful company had developed from his initial ideas.

Donald’s wife Esther, Fellow of New Hall, Cambridge, predeceased him in 2001. He leaves a daughter, Ann, and a son, Hugh.

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