A manufacturing workforce’s productivity is dependent on its access to tools that speed up routines. One less-talked-about area is the 3D printing of jigs and fixtures. Additive manufacturing can put a new jig or fixture into the hands of shop floor workers in a day, and the process is quickly repeatable to eliminate upkeep.
Current headlines about 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) seem to be pushing a narrative focused on how AM has helped companies build better prototypes or create functional end-use parts. While these stories stand as a testament to 3D printing’s significance, they obscure one of its greatest values: its ability to create low-run, time-saving, job-specific jigs and fixtures.
Admittedly, jigs and fixtures aren’t the sexiest topic in additive manufacturing. If you’re looking to convince management of AM’s value or streamlining your shop’s workflow, however, jigs and fixtures are invaluable resources.
When you think about your shop floor, you’ll likely think of the tools that are used to create your products. Whether you make simple or complex goods, your output and productivity are dependent upon the efficiency of your workforce’s access to tools and production routines. In most cases, a jig or fixture can speed these up and improve your bottom line.
Although that idea is pretty straightforward, putting it into action can seem impossible. Budget constraints or long, labor-intensive manufacturing processes can mean the difference between having a jig or not. With AM, however, those concerns get tossed out the window. Given the nature of additive manufacturing, enormously complex components can be built quickly and for pennies on the dollar compared to traditional methods.
Because jigs can be created in CAD with relative ease, 3D printing can take any fixture design and put it in an employee’s hand within a day. This means any job can get the jig or fixture it needs quickly, speeding up productivity literally overnight.
Beyond increased productivity, jigs and fixtures can reduce scrap materials and ensure products don’t have to repeat a stage in the assembly process for reworking. As a part progresses down an assembly line, 3D-printed jigs and fixtures can be built to support an evolving set of operations that focus employees’ attention on simple, easily repeatable tasks. Mistake-free manufacturing is profitable manufacturing, and AM fixtures can deliver that reality.
Following on the idea of repeatability, AM-built fixtures can be a handy bit of shop infrastructure when it comes to organizing tools and keeping them close at hand. As your employees interact with machinery on the shop floor or with tools that aid their work, having ad hoc methods for organizing workflow can save time and make employees more productive. What’s more, given AM’s flexibility, employees can arrange their fixtures to best suit their work styles, increasing job satisfaction.
In addition to being incredibly useful, AM jigs and fixtures can be expendable. While traditionally manufactured hardware is often considered an asset that needs to be stored, cataloged, and cared for, AM-built parts don’t require the same upkeep. Because of that characteristic, 3D-printed jigs and fixtures can save a company an enormous sum on storage and maintenance alone. If an AM-built jig is broken, or if it falls out of tolerance, you can simply throw it away (or recycle its materials) and replace it with a new component within a matter of hours.
Fundamentally, jigs and fixtures are a means to optimize manufacturing by reducing cost and cycle time while also increasing product quality. Using traditional manufacturing techniques, jigs and fixtures can take weeks, if not months, to create, and that degree of lead time can be damaging to a bottom line. However, with a switch to AM-based jig and fixture manufacturing, your manufacturing processes and the quality of your products can increase, all while their costs plummet.
Top photo credit: Stratasys