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Top reasons to use 3D printing for jigs and fixtures

Jigs, fixtures, and various tools are indispensable components of the manufacturing process, often serving as the backbone of production floors. The success of repeatability, reliability, and overall product quality frequently hinges on these unassuming manufacturing aids, which provide essential guidance and security during critical assembly and inspection operations.

Jigs and fixtures can be sourced off-the-shelf, but more often than not, manufacturers opt to design custom manufacturing aids tailored to the unique requirements of their products. The advent of additive manufacturing (AM) has ushered in a transformative era, eliminating cost, lead time, and design barriers that previously hindered the adoption of manufacturing aids on the shop floor. AM introduces a paradigm shift in the deployment of jigs and fixtures, rendering possible what was once inconceivable due to several key advantages:

  1. Complex Design Unleashed: Perhaps the most conspicuous advantage of 3D printing, across all applications, is the unfettered freedom it offers in design. Relieved from the constraints imposed by injection molding or traditional machining operations, 3D printing opens doors to nearly limitless possibilities in tool configuration. Conventional design considerations such as irregular profiles, intricate contours, or the number of machine setups cease to be relevant when crafting parts for 3D printing.
  2. Component Consolidation: Leveraging the complexity made possible by AM, you can significantly reduce or even eliminate the costs and extended lead times typically associated with assembly operations. Tools that were once engineered with multiple components, necessitating assembly and fits, can be reimagined as a single, contiguous component. This consolidation streamlines post-build labor and enhances efficiency.
  3. Enhanced Ergonomics: The amalgamation of design freedom and consolidation results in manufacturing aids characterized by improved ergonomics and user-friendliness. Traditionally manufactured tools, bound by design limitations, can be bulky and unwieldy, imposing strain on the workforce and adding time to production lines. Jigs and fixtures that lack fundamental ergonomic considerations can have a significant impact on the bottom line, leading to defective units, extensive floor downtime, and worker discomfort. 3D-printed manufacturing aids provide an effective means of incorporating contours and organic shapes that elevate safety, efficiency, and comfort.
  4. Weight Reduction: Another distinct advantage of 3D-printed jigs and fixtures is weight reduction. Robust plastics serve as excellent alternatives to conventional metal-cutting processes, with AM delivering significantly lighter tools for production workers engaged in assembly and fixture work. Lightweight tools enhance productivity; bulky metal tools that need to be maneuvered across the production floor are less likely to be utilized. A lightweight, optimized manufacturing aid can offer the same functionality while enhancing ease of use.
  5. Customization Unleashed: The freedom of design endows manufacturers with greater control over tasks, enabling ergonomic support for workers and resulting in enhanced precision during operations. Rather than adhering to the constraints of traditional manufacturability, engineers can tailor manufacturing aids to specific tasks or the employees utilizing them.

In sum, the advent of additive manufacturing has revolutionized the landscape of jigs and fixtures in the manufacturing industry. These versatile tools, once bound by the limitations of traditional manufacturing processes, now enjoy newfound flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and ergonomic benefits, ushering in a new era of efficiency, precision, and worker comfort on the production floor.

Digital Inventory: 3D printing jigs and fixtures find their optimal application in scenarios involving lower quantity runs. The inherent advantage of easy access to digital files empowers you to manufacture aids precisely when required. This concept of a “digital inventory” ensures perpetual availability, granting you the flexibility to promptly and effortlessly update and redesign tools as needed.

Eliminating Machining: In cases where a part is designed to meet specific tolerances such as +/- 0.005 inches or +/- 0.0015 inches per inch, whichever is greater, additive manufacturing (AM) can yield a finished part directly from the machine. The synergistic interplay between additive and conventional manufacturing can amplify the benefits achievable with each process individually. Nonetheless, there exist numerous instances where AM jigs and fixtures necessitate no machining, translating into significant time and cost savings.

Cost Reduction: Collectively, the aforementioned advantages culminate in substantial cost reductions when contrasted with conventionally manufactured manufacturing aids. Consider, for instance, BMW’s decision to modernize its aluminum fixtures used in the assembly and testing of bumper supports by replacing them with 3D-printed ABS thermoplastic fixtures. The newly introduced 3D-printed fixtures weigh 72% less than their predecessors, facilitating heightened productivity and precision due to enhanced ergonomics, which significantly reduce the assembler’s physical strain. This strategic shift enabled BMW to achieve a remarkable 58% reduction in the cost per fixture and a staggering 92% acceleration in lead time.

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