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Published on November 29, 2016

3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures for Manufacturing


3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures for Manufacturing

A specific tool meant to guide, control or make more simple, repeatable or faster the operation of another tool. Usually used for drilling and similar operations and often not fastened to the drill itself.

An assembly meant to hold in place, support and/or position a part being worked on.

  • This post deals with manufacturing jigs and fixtures using 3D printing.
  • It will give readers an idea of what types of jigs and fixtures can be made with 3D printing.
  • It will explain why some jigs and fixtures could benefit from being 3D printed.
  • It will explain why in certain cases traditional methods could be better for making jigs and fixtures.
  • It will go into some detail on the limitations or issues with 3D printing jigs and fixtures.

Today’s Manufacturing Landscape
Many manufacturing organizations are dealing with increasingly short lead times, a higher degree of customization and shorter overall product cycles. Customers are requiring more in terms of finish and quality control while time to market is an ever continuing pressure. Just in time logistics are leading to increased “just in time manufacturing” scenarios as the effects of truly global competition are being felt worldwide. Meanwhile for hardware and product manufacturing, customers have become more demanding across the board. Simultaneously the variety of materials, colors and finishes available for parts has increased dramatically. Consumer and consumer electronics trends such as powder coated, high gloss and brushed aluminum parts bring about increased issues with handling, scratches and dents. Overall consumer electronics devices, automotive interiors and many other manufactured items are increasing in complexity. More materials, more parts and tighter tolerances mean that manufacturing has never been more complex and difficult. This coupled with fewer parts per production run or product cycle means that the economics of many manufacturing organizations are shifting dramatically.

3D Printing for Use in Manufacturing
Whether a company is active as a large scale contract manufacturer making millions of finished items per year or is in a high mix low volume niche the industry trends and pressures are the same. Whether you make cellphones or MRI scanners global competitive pressures, higher customization and shorter lead times are being felt by all. Whereas the role 3D printing has to play in accelerating product development in and of itself has been widely understood for decades by many companies, 3D printing within manufacturing itself is a newer application. Whereas 3D printing of end use parts such as the millions of hearing aids and surgical guides produced each year is also expanding there are still many opportunities within the supply chain itself. Rather than only make prototypes or end use parts 3D printing can still play a role in optimizing conventional manufacturing.

Jigs & Fixtures
Jigs and fixtures are used throughout many assembly processes. Whether to guide a single bracket on a satellite or to hold fast a television these parts are myriad. From simple Even when companies are at pains to implement lean processes, go through Kaizen like initiatives, do a lot of value engineering or do a lot of design fom manufacturing jigs and fixtures often seem an afterthought. In the product development, design and tooling phases jigs and fixtures are also not often considered. Someone somewhere on the floor usually is the one to in an ad hoc way implement or call for a jig or fixture. Or these parts are made after manufacturing begins in response to QC issues or other problems.

In our minds it would be better for manufacturers to look more and look earlier at jigs and fixtures. This may let them save significantly on manpower and quality errors. The earlier a proper jig or fixture is implemented well the quicker the team can use it to reduce error rates and improve tolerances. However, if a jig or fixture has to be made quickly it may not be possible to do so in time or for a reasonable cost.

Many jigs & fixtures are made of die steels, carbon steels or similar materials. CNC routers, lathes or mills are often used to make them. For many high strength and highly durable applications these materials and the production processes are more than suitable. Many manufacturers also have an in house tool shop where such parts can be quickly and relatively inexpensively made. Especially for large volume applications today’s technologies suffice.

Ideal Fixtures & Jigs

  • In an ideal world a jig or fixture would:
  • Bring about higher efficiency in manufacturing either by:
  • Increasing the speed of part production,
  • Increasing the accuracy of parts or production steps,
  • The repeatability,
  • Tolerances,
  • Yield,
  • Reducing error rates,
  • Saving on material cost,
  • Saving on labor
  • Or increasing customer satisfaction or overall finish
  • Or some combination of the above.

Meanwhile said jig or fixture must:

  • Be simple to use. Any complexity or variability in its use would lead to a reduction in its efficacy.
  • Must be simple to use in an actual manufacturing environment. Shop or manufacturing floors can be confusing or highly regimented places where a mixture of devices and people must work in harmony to accomplish often complex tasks. The place itself may consist of many moving metal parts or be filled with abrasive materials for example. The jig or fixture would have to be tough enough to resist such an environment.
  • Bring about higher efficiency commensurate with the time and money invested in making it. The part development and production cost and its lifespan would have to be considered to determine if it would actually be cost effective.
  • Retain accuracy/positioning capability under repeated stress or load over time. If a jig or fixture fails in a non predetermined or non predictable way or if said jig or fixture becomes inaccurate, unforeseen quality control issues could emerge.
  • Be made for man. Human factors and the user experience of the device by the individual worker must be considered. Bad jigs and fixtures live on paper, good ones are cherished on the factory floor.
  • Work in only one way. Simple repeated operation of the jig or fixture by the operator is key. Any variability or imprecision in jig or fixture operation could lead to it bringing about more inefficiency or errors than it is meant to deter.
  • It must be safe for the workers involved.
  • It must not cause additional harm to workpieces.

3D Printing Jigs & Fixtures

If we look at ideal jigs and fixtures and compare them with the ones already made we can see a number of opportunities for 3D printed fixtures and jigs.

On the negative side:

  • If something needs to be high volume and last for many millions of parts in a high volume environment than conventional tooling will provide an adequate solution.
  • 3D Printing’s thermoplastics are far less durable than tool steels.
  • 3D printing build volumes may be constrained when compared to the larger build sizes of other machinery.

Whereas a greater variety of 3D printing materials are becoming available there are still many more materials available for CNC and similar processes.

On the positive side:

  • In low volume applications 3D printed parts are often less expensive than conventionally manufactured ones.
  • If a single jig has to be made for one part or a very small series than 3D printing is almost certainly cheaper than the alternatives.
  • In 3D printing a more complex part does not increase the manufacturing cost as is the case with CNC processes.
  • With 3D printing jigs and fixtures can be customized for the individual worker taking into account their hand sizes, length, arm length or range of motion for example.
  • If a jig or fixture has to be made same day or next day then 3D printing is often (depending on part size and complexity) quicker than conventional tools.
  • If one already has a file for a part then 3D printing lets you iterate, improve and change this part far quicker and at less cost than other designs.
  • While 3D printing thermoplastics may be less durable than tool steels, they are considerably softer and less likely to harm parts or workers.
  • If a plant does not have an in house metal shop then implementing a 3D printer solely for jigs and fixtures will have a lower labor cost and lower setup cost than purchasing a new piece of conventional machinery.
  • Additional, replacement or new jigs and fixtures can be printed out with very little labor cost as compared to conventional manufacturing tools.
  • By varying infill and surface texture jigs and fixtures can be tailor made for certain applications. By for example varying a texture more grip can be added to a part or by varying infill a part can be made flexible at a predetermined point.
  • Quick revisions, improvements and alterations to fixtures can be done overnight and will make production departments more flexible.

What we can see is that there is a sweet spot for 3D printing jigs and fixtures. 3D Printing is not a panacea but for certain applications it is the lowest cost process. If a soft but durable jig or fixture has to be made in low volumes, high complexity or is very unique then 3D printing is going to be your most suitable solution. Often the case will not be so clear cut but there are many cases where 3D printing can provide you with a very cost effective series of jigs and fixtures. With product cycles and variations accelerating 3D printing is sure to find more applications in short run jigs and fixtures. In an accelerating market place 3D printing will increase in its application areas. Inside the supply chain and in manufacturing 3D printing is sure to play an increasingly important role. If you’re a manufacturer and would like to know about the possibilities of using 3D printed jigs and fixtures for your business, contact us and we’ll be sure to give you the right advice if 3D printing makes sense for your business.