The Case for 3D Printed Jigs & Fixtures

Jigs and fixtures are critical tooling items in countless production systems. They allow for higher output levels and more repeatable first-time quality, all while lessening the amount of labor hours required to complete a task. The main drawback to jigs and fixtures is the cost for the initial fabrication and the lead time to receive the tools. Tooling is not delivered to the customer, which makes it a cost item that should be minimized as much as possible. Jigs and fixtures, as a 3D printing application, have emerged recently as a way to improve both the cost and lead time of two of the most common types of tools used in fabrication.

Improve the Tooling Value Stream

Whether it be a fully built 3D printed tool or a 3D printed component within a larger tool assembly, 3D printing has some serious value to offer over conventional tool-making methods. Machining, a subtractive method, creates a large amount of wasted material and is relatively limited in the geometries it is capable of fabricating. Like machining, 3D printing can produce low volumes of 3D printed jigs and fixtures economically, but unlike machining, these tools can be produced faster, cheaper, and with more complex features. This has some great implications for the new product development process as new 3D printed jigs and fixtures can quickly and cheaply be produced as the product design is modified along the way.

Capabilities and Advantages of 3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures

3D printing has some unique capabilities that machining, and injection molding simply cannot offer. Both injection molding and machining are limited by where the cutting tool can reach on the block of material when creating the part or creating the mold in the case of injection molding. 3D printing is not limited by a cutting tool and as a result can product products and tools with more geometric complexity.

3D printing can also efficiently produce low volumes of customized products. Special molds are not required to build 3D printed parts, so setup costs are much lower. As a result, one-off tools, or highly customized products can quickly and cost-effectively be produced on-demand.

3D Printing Materials for Tooling

There is an increasingly wide variety of materials available for 3D printing which include both metals and polymers. Various grades of steel and aluminum powders are available as well as a range of polymers that includes nylon, polycarbonate, ABS, polypropylene, carbon fiber, fiberglass, and TPU with more being developed every day. The capabilities of 3D printing combined with the variety of materials allow for tool designers to “best fit” a process and material with its application and the actual mechanical properties that it is required to have. The mechanical and thermal properties of metal are sometimes required; however, it is a waste of money to pay a premium for these high-performance properties when they are not needed. High-performance composites can provide comparable properties to metal for a fraction of the cost and weight. However, when metal is required, 3D printing offers the flexibility to make tools out of both polymer and metallic materials rapidly for a low cost.

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