Five Reasons to 3D Print Jigs, Fixtures and Tooling

If you’re assembling products—anywhere—you should be 3D printing your Jigs, Fixtures and Tooling (JFT) within your production facility. 

According to Jabil’s 2019 Additive Materials and 3D Printing Trends study, 3D printing use has skyrocketed in just a year. Except for prototyping, all applications for additive manufacturing have increased significantly, and using 3D printing to produce JFT increased by 7 percent from 2017 to 2019. 

The advantages are clear. In my experience, producing fixtures and tooling additively can provide more than 50 percent cost savings over outsourcing to an outside machine shop while reducing the lead times from weeks to one to two days. In some cases, the cost savings have been as high as 80 percent. Onsite, open-source desktop printing provides a low barrier to entry and, in most instances, is the right tool for the right job. Here are five reasons why the difference can be so dramatic:

1. New Material Advances

Using traditionally machined materials, such as aluminum, to hold fixtures may cause marring, scratching and other damage to sensitive products. Materials such as PETG ESD or TPU ESD processed through a 3D printer can protect a finished product. New materials with properties similar to Delrin®, Nylon, ABS and UMHW PE enable higher temperature performance and better dimensional stability, as well as the ability to withstand harsh chemical baths or painting. 

2. A Global Network with Local Performance

Before beginning production, in order to extract optimal performance out of 3D printed materials, select a partner that has a global 3D printing network to test and validate material performance in a manufacturing environment.

It is easier to test, modify and validate the final performance of JFT components printed near the production line to further improve the assembly process. Printing on open source, low-cost desktop printers empowers shop floor employees, improves overall efficiency and provides significant savings to the overall business.

Once a fixture or tool is perfected, it can be digitally transferred to facilities around the globe so the enhanced performance is repeatable. 3D printers also speed up the replacement of specific components.

3. Exponentially More Cost-Effective

When examining the value of additive manufacturing, it’s helpful to break down the cost of creating Jigs, Fixtures and Tooling through a traditional machine shop:

  • It requires CNC and other metal fabrication equipment, as well as skilled employees to operate it.
  • 2D drawings must be generated to communicate critical tolerances, and an RFQ must be generated if outsourced.
  • If produced off-site, time and transportation costs in conveying it between the machine shop and the manufacturing facility drive up overall costs.
  • Fitting a small fabrication job into the machine shop’s workflow can take several days and sometimes multiple weeks.
  • Toolmakers can be scarce and are often underutilized making JFT parts when they could be crafting more complex, higher-value tooling. 
  • Because external machine shop fees include additional overhead costs, the overall cost of externally sourced JFT is higher when compared to producing components internally. 

Also consider that every design iteration, whether involving changes in dimension or functionality, will incur similar costs over and over. And these costs will continue to build with each new iteration and with the addition of each new manufacturing facility. As a result, production teams often tolerate substandard fixtures. If 3D-printed fixtures are available the next day, fast iteration is possible while providing optimal configurations, improving production, increasing quality and supplying a more ergonomic work environment.

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Compared to legacy processes, we have found that many 3D-printed JFT components can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. A recent survey within one of our plants showed savings of $1,500 to $2,500 on average. With the average costs of a desktop 3D printer around $5,000, the initial investment can be recouped in just a few jobs. In fact, we find that the ROI is realized in the first 30 to 45 days of use.

Additive manufacturing also supports LEAN manufacturing by enabling the production of highly efficient workstations that are cost-effective to build. 3D printing specialized in tooling to maximize efficiency can cost as little as $10 per tool. In comparison, it could cost $1,500 or more to have the same tooling crafted at a machine shop. That translates to workstation designs that can be continuously improved via onsite 3D printing to test, tweak, redesign and iterate until every workstation is optimized and hitting LEAN standards. Further, this process can be digitally transferred and repeated at other facilities.

“Creating parts in-house has the potential to reduce inventory and the associated capital significantly and to reduce idle time because there is no wait time for deliveries. 3D printing allows tool [and] jig manufacturers to move away from reactive or schedule-based service models because digital data can be used to constantly monitor equipment health and predict future failures.”

-Pradeep Amladi, Vice President Global Marketing Head, High Tech, Manufacturing, Energy and Resources Industries for SAP, in an interview with Digital Engineering

4. Dedicated Agility

As noted earlier, 3D printing enables quick changes on the assembly line. This allows manufacturers to capitalize on dynamic changes in components and processes, improve the efficiency of today’s shortened product lifecycles and take advantage of market opportunities. Additive manufacturing can also integrate seamlessly with legacy technology to increase agility without stopping the line for extensive overhauls. When a fixture is 3D-printed, a metal spring or contact point can still be included. When 3D printing is integrated at the right place and time on the assembly line, it can deliver any adaptations and adjustments needed to achieve the best possible performance.

5. Create Complex JFT

3D printing is highly capable of creating complex geometries that would be cost- and time-prohibitive through typical metalworking. Think about the functionality you could achieve if it were so easy to print and test new prototypes, then print and test them again. Whether looking for an adapter for a vacuum loader, a quick coupling for a winder, a holding fixture for an assembly or a diverter on a hopper, 3D printing fixtures and manufacturing aids is almost always going to win the performance, cost, time, efficiency and adaptability game, especially when compared to outsourcing to a local machine shop. Additive manufacturing is simply the right tool for the right job, and businesses that fail to take advantage of it risk falling behind in 21st-century manufacturing.

Additive Manufacturing Jigs, Fixtures and Tooling