Using additive manufacturing not only can reduce lead times, it can provide significant cost savings through reduced material consumption and improved design.
Quality and production performance play a crucial role in automotive manufacturing today. With many automotive innovations on the horizon, such as autonomous vehicles and smart cars, OEMs and suppliers are under pressure to adopt new manufacturing techniques and expertise to ensure design, cost and labor efficiencies.
One simple, yet critical application in automotive quality and production ripe for transformation is the use of manufacturing aids (e.g., jigs, fixtures, templates and gauges). These often-overlooked tools help manufacturers deliver products reliably, repeatedly and at a low cost in order to maximize profits and product quality. Using additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) to produce jigs and fixtures not only can reduce lead times, it can provide significant cost savings through reduced material consumption and improved design.
This article covers the benefits of 3D printing jigs and fixtures over traditional fabrication methods, as well as the limitations of additive manufacturing (AM), ideal applications for AM on the production floor and case studies from two automotive manufacturers that are 3D printing jigs and fixtures today.
Benefits of 3D Printing Jigs and Fixtures
Traditionally, manufacturers have CNC machined or molded jigs and fixtures, requiring a high investment with uncertain returns. AM has the ability to quickly produce new parts in lightweight and inexpensive materials and to provide significant cost savings, reduced material consumption and improved performance. And 3D printing jigs and fixtures offers the following key advantages:
- Speed to market – With 3D printing you can bring new production lines online faster because jigs and fixtures can be 3D printed on demand. Lead times are 40-90% faster than conventional fabrication.
- Design freedom – 3D printing builds parts from the ground up, layer-by-layer, which removes traditional design-for-manufacturing constraints and opens up endless opportunities for tool configuration. Holes, contours and complex organic structures are no longer an obstacle when designing for AM.
- Component consolidation – Tools previously built with multiple components requiring their own assembly time can be redesigned and combined into one part due to AM’s design freedom.
- Ergonomics – The additional design freedom also allows you to create curves and contours to help increase worker comfort and ergonomics. With no added cost or fabrication time, you can design for functionality rather than manufacturability to increase safety and comfort for employees who use and interact with tools.
- Weight reduction – Another comfort and safety advantage for production-floor employees is weight reduction. There are many strong, lightweight plastics available for 3D printing versus cumbersome and heavy machined metals.
- Digital inventory – 3D printers build directly from CAD data, so new designs can be produced as-needed, and existing designs can be modified with ease. For example, if the size of the final part changes requiring a new assembly jig, it’s just a matter of updating the CAD file and ordering a 3D-printed part, and a new fixture is on the production floor within a matter of days.
All of these benefits decrease risk and put more manufacturing aids on the production floor for better accuracy and consistent operational performance.
Additive Manufacturing on the Production Floor
While the terms “jigs” and “fixtures” are often used together, they have distinct differences and are used in differing applications. Jigs are customized tools used to guide and control the location and motion of a component during an operation. They provide repeatability and accuracy to maximize efficiency when manufacturing products. Fixtures, on the other hand, are devices used to locate and hold a component in a fixed location during a machining operation or another industrial process. Fixtures maintain consistent quality, reduce the cost of production and enable a variety of parts to be made to correct specifications.
From assembly and quality control to logistics, jigs and fixtures streamline operations to manufacture a range of automotive parts. Common applications for 3D printing jigs and fixtures in the automotive industry include:
- Production and assembly – 3D-printed tools are most commonly implemented in this stage of manufacturing for alignment and holding devices and guides for milling or drilling components, either attached to equipment or used by workers.
- Safety – Workers are often involved in checking the safety of components and equipment, so it is important for jigs and fixtures to be lightweight and ergonomic for easier use.
- QC and inspection – 3D printing delivers highly accurate, customized tools that meet stringent specifications for holding or inspecting devices in quality and inspection departments. Durable thermoplastics formulated for AM can also provide a non-marring surface for final inspection.
- Packaging and logistics – The most common application in packaging and logistics is building customized holding fixtures for the transportation of products throughout the factory. AM offers durable, heat-resistant thermoplastics that can withstand transportation stresses, such as vibration, pressure and humidity.
Limitations of Using Additive Manufacturing for Jigs and Fixtures
Despite the many opportunities and advantages of 3D-printed jigs and fixtures, there are some limitations to consider when choosing additive over conventional fabrication. Some manufacturing environments and processes require high heat-deflection temperature (HDT). Although there are AM technologies that offer HDT materials, such as fused-deposition modeling and laser sintering, some environments may exceed their mechanical properties. There also may be mechanical-stress requirements that exceed the capabilities or mechanical properties of additive materials.
While AM technologies offer a wide range of materials, there are always instances in which polymers formulated for 3D printing will not meet the mechanical or chemical resistance requirements. Lastly, there may be large quantities or very simple geometries that could be easier and more cost-effective to produce using conventional manufacturing methods.
It’s an exciting and disruptive time in the automotive industry. Manufacturers who innovate beyond vehicle design and transform each area of the design and production process will gain a competitive edge. Additively manufactured jigs and fixtures will continue to be a key element to that success by improving worker productivity, eliminating errors and increasing lead times for inspection and delivery.