Jigs and Fixtures: 6 Ways to Improve Production Efficiency with 3D Printing

13 May 2021
3d printing for jigs and fixtures and manufacturing tooling and aids

Whether it’s jigs, fixtures or grips, tooling remains a vital, if seemingly mundane, part of the manufacturing process. Regardless of the complexity of your products, the productivity and efficiency of your production depend on the availability of high-quality tooling aids. 

Over the last few years, there has been a radical shift in how these tooling aids are produced: from Volkswagen to Boeing, Jabil and more, leading manufacturers have seen the benefits of 3D printing as a means of tooling fabrication.

So how can 3D printing these manufacturing aids help manufacturers achieve a lean manufacturing process?

The importance of jigs and fixtures


Maximising production efficiency and productivity is a key concern for manufacturers. Jigs and fixtures are manufacturing aids used to increase the reliability, accuracy and quality of the manufacturing process whilst minimising production cycle times and improving worker safety. 

Fundamentally, the purpose of jigs, fixtures and manufacturing aids is to provide an accurate, repeatable and interchangeable manufacturing process whilst reducing production time and human error.

Jigs

A jig is a tool that holds and supports the workpiece whilst guiding the cutting or machining tool for a specific operation. The most common type of jig is drill jigs, which guide the drill bit to the desired location.  

Fixtures

Fixtures hold, support and locate the workpiece (but do not guide the cutting tool) during the machining or assembly process. Fixtures are typically attached to the machine, and each fixture must be built to fit a particular part or shape. 

Jigs and fixtures are vital for optimising manufacturing processes, and benefits include:

  • Reducing scrap material
  • Improving accuracy and repeatability of processes
  • Reducing the level of skill required (to operate jigs and fixtures)
  • Increasing productivity

3D-Printed Tools: Breaking with Tradition


In 2021, more than half (57%) of companies surveyed by Jabil report that they use 3D printing for tooling, jigs and fixtures, up from 30% in 2017 and 37% in 2019. 

Traditional manufacturing methods require jigs and fixtures to be CNC machined or manually welded and assembled. This process can take days (or weeks if outsourced), not least because machining parts requires intensive planning and skilled machine operators. 

Unsurprisingly, using traditional manufacturing methods results in long lead times and high production costs and offers little flexibility in new design changes. 

3D printing, however, is an ideal alternative. With a 3D printer, you can manufacture jigs and fixtures on demand, for a fraction of the material costs, and can iterate as needed.

Why 3D Printing?


1. Faster lead times

3d printed tooling

A key benefit of 3D printing is the speed with which parts can be produced. Since 3D printing is a digital manufacturing process that uses 3D CAD models, all that is required is to upload said CAD model, and your part could potentially be printed in a matter of hours. 

This poses significant benefits for producing jigs and fixtures. With traditional manufacturing, tooling production can take days or even weeks and involves several processing steps. However, with 3D printing, much of the manufacturing process is automated, requiring less human intervention and accelerating the production process. 

Real-life cases are plenty: Volkswagen Autoeuropa, Portugal’s largest automotive plant, has reported time savings of 89% by 3D printing jigs and fixtures. Research conducted by Stratasys tells a similar tale: according to the manufacturer, 3D printing jigs and fixtures can result in lead-time reductions of up to 90%.       

The speed with which jigs and fixtures can be produced with 3D printing means that it is also ideal for making multiple iterations of a device — facilitating innovative, new design changes.

Frequently, several iterations can be designed and printed on the same day. Compare that to the high costs and prolonged timelines of using an outside supplier, and the benefits of additive manufacturing are clear.

These benefits mean that engineers don’t have to suffer through extended development cycles and long lead times between receiving iterations from the machine shop. They have the freedom and flexibility to incorporate design changes right up until production. 

2. Reduced costs

Alongside time savings, 3D printing offers a significant reduction in production costs. Often, the production of jigs, fixtures and other tooling equipment is outsourced to external suppliers. 

In contrast, 3D printing challenges this approach head-on by allowing manufacturers to bring the technology in-house.  This new strategy — of low-volume, in-house tooling fabrication — means that manufacturers can cut outsourcing expenditure. 

For example, Liberty Electronics, a contract manufacturing shop producing high-end assemblies for the military and aerospace industries in Pennsylvania, saved 85% of a custom tool’s cost by 3D printing it in-house instead of outsourcing.

Inventory is another area where manufacturers can dramatically reduce expenditure with 3D printing. Instead of storing tooling equipment, additive manufacturing enables on-demand manufacturing, so tools can be produced when needed. 

Finally, since 3D printing is an additive process and not subtractive, manufacturers can easily minimise material wastage, reducing material costs.

3. Improved ergonomics

Since jigs and fixtures require physical handling by workers on the production floor, creating lightweight parts that are easy to handle should be a priority for manufacturers. 

Here, 3D printing can help immensely through weight reduction. High-performance materials, for example, are a great alternative to metal cutting processes and provide a lighter option. Lighter tools also mean greater ease of use for workers on the production floor. 

Additive manufacturing allows engineers to create improved tools to match workers’ exact requirements. 

Eckhart wiperinstall Stratasys
[Image credit: Eckhart]

The assembly environment is harsh and repetitive tasks can be incredibly taxing on employees, says Bob Heath, AM applications engineer at Eckhart, one of the leaders in advanced industrial solutions. Designing customised, ergonomic tooling that’s also far lighter-weight than traditionally designed tools is one benefit of the additive process at Eckhart. 

The company constantly enhances tools ergonomics with 3D printing by incorporating end-user feedback, all while making tasks lighter, safer, more repeatable, and accurate for workers on the assembly line. 

For example, it’s an ergonomic nightmare for an assembler having to install a wiper blade onto a new vehicle entering the station every 45 seconds.

So, Eckhart partnered with Stratasys to develop a 3D printed jig that locates off the motor body of the wiper – assisting the operator by suctioning the tool to the vehicle’s windshield.

The firm-fixed location resulting from the new jig allows for consistent installation of the wiper blade by the assembler and eliminating any rework or quality issues downstream.

Read also: Interview with Eckhart’s Additive Manufacturing Application Engineer on 3D Printing, Automation and Industry 4.0

4. Greater material variety

A wide range of materials is available in 3D printing, from plastics and metals to rubbers and wax. Multi-material 3D printing is a rapidly growing area of interest, with materials combined to create new materials with enhanced mechanical properties. For example, 3D-printed parts can be chemical and heat resistant or possess UV stability. 

One of the most significant implications for jigs and fixtures is the development of high-performance materials, such as PEKK or ULTEM and composites, which can create strong, lightweight tooling parts with enhanced mechanical properties. 

5. Improved performance

3D printing can help to improve the performance of jigs and fixtures by providing a simpler way to create new and improved designs. Previously, achieving this would be a mammoth task due to the level of effort and expense required of producing new manufacturing fixtures with traditional methods

AM makes it possible to add features, such as serial numbers, fabrication dates, and other key data, allowing for enhanced inventory management and tracking. 

Components that would be separated in the machining process can be combined when 3D printing. This will minimise gap space and unwanted accumulation of dust and chips (e.g. for a machining tool). 

6. Customisation

Finally, 3D printing facilitates the creation of customised products. Coupled with the ability to create complex geometries, the technology can easily be used to produce complex, customised tools that would otherwise be unachievable with traditional manufacturing methods. 

And customisation opportunities have benefits across a range of industries, for example, in the field of medical devices. Here, 3D printing is already in use to create surgical guides, reducing surgery time and providing a better patient experience. 

3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures in Action


Many manufacturers are already using the economic and productivity benefits of 3D printing for tooling production to their advantage. 
 

Manufacturing

Jabil

3d printed manufacturing aids Jabil
3D-printed manufacturing aids [Image credit: Jabil]

Jabil is a global manufacturing services company with 100 facilities spread across over twenty countries worldwide. With its arsenal of Ultimaker AM systems, the company is already exploring 3D printing for producing jigs and fixtures. Its Auburn Hills facility in Michigan is a pioneer in the production of tooling using additive manufacturing.  

“Seems to me that, in the long run, all fixtures and jigs will be 3D printed, some will be in plastic, some will be in metal, but ultimately it just makes perfect sense.” – John Dulchinos, Jabil.

With the technology, the company can produce one-off batches of jigs and fixtures with multiple design iterations without any cost constraints. The facility can now reduce the cost of tooling by up to 30% and reduce the time required by 80%, whilst increasing customer satisfaction.  

“3D printed tools and fixtures are an area most manufacturers can benefit from when applying 3D printing into their existing processes,” according to Jabil’s Director of Additive Manufacturing, Tim DeRosett. 

Aerospace

Moog Aircraft Group

Aerospace and defence manufacturer, Moog Aircraft Group, has been using Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology to 3D print Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM) fixtures. According to the company, outsourcing the production of  CMM fixtures resulted in a lead time of four to six weeks, from conception to the final part. With 3D printing, however, the company can produce the same fixtures in-house in roughly 20 hours. The price for the 3D printed CMM fixtures has also fallen from £2,000 to a couple of hundred pounds.

Boeing

However, 3D printing is not only beneficial for small manufacturing aids. In 2016, a collaborative project between Boeing and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, produced an impressively large 3D printed trim-and-drill tool for Boeing’s 777X aircraft — setting a world record at the time for the largest 3D printed object. 

Previously manufactured with traditional manufacturing methods using metal, the trim-and-drill tool was 3D printed with carbon fibre-reinforced ABS in only 30 hours. The rapid production was achieved thanks to the proprietary Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine, developed mainly for large-scale AM applications.

Read also: 4 Impressive Applications of Large-Scale 3D Printing

Automotive

BMW

BMW 3d printed tools for assembly lines
[Image credit: BMW Group]

3D-printed tooling is also widely used in the automotive sector. BMW is one notable example: the German automaker used Fused Deposition Modelling to produce hand tools for assembly and testing as an alternative to traditional metal-cutting manufacturing methods like milling or turning.  Thanks to 3D printing, the weight of the ergonomically designed tools has been reduced by 72%, making it easier to use for workers and enhancing the device’s functionality.   

Renault Sport F1

3D printing has also been a valuable solution for tooling fabrication at Renault Sport Formula 1. Among its many applications of 3D printing, the company has used Stereolithography (SLA) to produce jigs for the exhaust system of its race car. 

Before adopting additive manufacturing, Renault used CNC machining to manufacture its jigs, which could take days – and assembling pre-machined parts could take a week. In contrast, with additive manufacturing, 15 jigs can be produced overnight — a significant time-saving. 

Further reading: 3D Printing and Formula One: 5 Trends in Motorsports

How to get the most of jigs & fixtures 3D printing 


Optimise tool design 

Successful 3D printing of manufacturing aids begins from the design. Take some time to consider what additional functionality can be built into the jig or fixture at the design stage to take advantage of the design flexibility of AM. Small features that would be difficult to machine and geometries considered impossible due to tool clearance in milling or turning are all within the scope of AM processes. 

What’s exciting is that the AM companies are now actively developing automated solutions to speed up the design process and enable engineers to quickly assess design options before printing anything on the machine. Such a tool could be beneficial for the designing of tools. 

For example, Ford has showcased how automation can reduce the time to design tools from hours to minutes.

By partnering with a German software company, Trinckle, the carmaker gained access to software that could automatically generate the tool’s geometry to fit the car’s contour and form the base of the new jig. With a simple click, engineers could also add elements such as handles, magnet mounts for fixation and edge guides. 

Automating the design process for this part has saved several hours of work, reducing the design process to just 10 minutes. Ford believes this approach has the potential to save thousands of Euros per tool. 

Hardware manufacturer, Stratasys, is also developing 3D tool design automation solutions in collaboration with the software company, nTopology.

Called the Fixture Generator, this new solution allows engineers to prepare tooling parts in a simple drag-and-drop manner. It does this through the use of nTopology’s topology optimisation software engine, which optimises part designs with the end-use application in mind. You can request access to the Fixture Generator here

Digitalise inventory for easy reordering of 3D-printed tools

AMFG digital catalogue
A digital part catalogue can significantly simplify the ordering and re-ordering of 3D-printed parts. [Image credit: AMFG]

If you print many tools on a regular basis, you should then consider streamlining the workflow for their ordering. 

Many companies implementing 3D printed jigs and fixtures often store design files in shared folders, while engineers need to send email requests to order their tools. At the same time, 3D department managers have to sort through the emails and hunt through the folders and spreadsheets to find the requested files and their production requirements to send them for production.  

It’s plain to see why this workflow is not very efficient: it’s not user friendly for engineers ordering parts, and it’s time-consuming and error-prone for 3D printing technicians.  

An alternative, more efficient solution would be to create a digital catalogue complete with 3D design files AND production requirements. By making it available to engineers, companies can simplify the ordering and production scheduling if the catalogue is also integrated with an additive MES system

Read also: 4 Ways Digital Inventory Can Support Your AM Operations


The Future of Tooling is 3D Printing


While jigs and fixtures may not be the most glamorous aspect of additive manufacturing, they remain crucial to the manufacturing process. AM is an ideal alternative to ensuring an efficient production process, helping to produce jigs, fixtures and other aids in a fraction of the time and cost. 

Looking ahead, as tool-making becomes more of a customised endeavour, manufacturers who have already adopted 3D printing will reap the benefits of a more streamlined manufacturing process and experience vast improvements in efficiency and quality within production and assembly lines.

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