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How Professionals are Using 3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures

Learn how using 3D printing to create custom jigs and fixtures can save time and money in the production process for any product.

Overview

In the manufacturing environment, desktop 3D printing has graduated from conceptual design and prototyping to become an essential resource in product production. The cost and time savings gleaned from the design engineer’s desk is now being achieved on the production floor. One example is in the fabrication and use of 3D printed jigs and fixtures. To fully understand this development, one only needs to appreciate the prevalence of jigs and fixtures in product fabrication.

Figure 1:  Hive Stool 3D Printed Jig (Photo Courtesy of Troy Baverstock)

What are Jigs and Fixtures?

In the common vernacular, jigs and fixtures are used interchangeably since they basically “hold or guide stuff.” However, for those close to and involved in manufacturing, not much can be accomplished without their use. A jig (see Figure 1) is a type of custom-made tool used to control the location and/or guide the motion of parts or other tools. In other words, a jig holds the work and allows the guiding of a tool. A fixture (see Figure 2) holds the work in a fixed location and allows for modifications to be conducted to the workpiece. Often times, jigs can be used at various places or stations in the manufacturing environment, whereas fixtures are pretty much designed and used for a set task or number of tasks during fabrication.

Figure 2:  Fixture for Carbide 3D Nomad 883 Machined Part

Why 3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures?

Jigs and fixtures are important because they reduce production cost, accelerate product delivery, and increase quality.  The reduction in cost is a direct result of 3D printing. Previously, jigs and fixtures were designed and tooled for traditional injection molding. Now, molds are no longer needed.  Jigs and fixtures can be printed overnight and the cost of molds is excluded from the production equation.

This relates directly to the reduction in production time thereby accelerating product delivery. Designing for molds, tooling, and production of molds and then the eventual injection molded part delivered to the manufacturer previously took days to weeks. Now jigs and fixtures can be designed and 3D printed in one day or less and provide the design engineer with greater latitude and flexibility in the use of the assisted devices. This has led to jigs and fixtures proliferating along the entire production process. Cost and time are greatly reduced and the devices are appearing in places or applications previously not practical or even considered. In other words, 3D printing lowers the threshold for justifying a new tool, which allows you to address unmet needs throughout the production process.

Finally, jigs and fixtures improve product quality. Poorly fabricated and assembled products are a direct result of poorly fabricated or lack of jigs and fixtures. The entire concept of product quality is in the reduction of defects which is reflective of jigs and fixtures. Without these assisted devices, more end products would need to be reworked thus increasing the cost of production. End users no longer accept poorly fabricated products, and quality is an attribute that is not only essential, but expected. Poor quality will eventually run the manufacturer out of business.

Figure 3:  Fixture For Vacuum Cleaner Component (Photo Courtesy of Oreck Corporation)

A Use Case for 3D Printer Jigs and Fixtures

One manufacturer that has experienced the benefits of desktop 3D printing is Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton is a premier manufacturer of quality, high-end consumer products and prides itself in its wealth of discriminating, fashion-conscious consumers. Quality is a core objective taken to heart and is evident in every step of the manufacturing process -  from material sourcing to end product.

Initially, injection molding and hardware fabrication were limiting factors on production time. Louis Vuitton changes manufacturing lines every three to four months and excess time is a luxury. Now, by 3D printing jigs and fixtures (see Figure 4), the time to manufacture has decreased by two to three weeks. Since Louis Vuitton utilizes modular manufacturing, this has endowed the manufacturer with the flexibility to conduct studies and to experiment in layouts and processes. This in turn reveals optimal processes which directly impacts production quality and time to market.

Figure 4:  Louis Vuitton Fabric Fixture

However, another benefit of desktop 3D printing was soon revealed. One of the limiting factors in the manufacturing process was the sourcing of hardware. Often, the production of hardware would limit the time required for product line set-up, testing and initial fabrication. Now with 3D printing, the form and the factor of 3D printed hardware can be substituted for the end use hardware, and the layout and production of products may commence earlier in the product lifecycle (see Figure 5). This in combination with 3D printed jigs and fixtures has reduced total production time by three to four weeks. Now Louis Vuitton uses this extra time to explore additional ways in which desktop 3D printing can be brought to bear to improve production.

Figure 5:  Louis Vuitton Hardware Stand-in Fixture

Conclusion

With desktop 3D printing, the threshold for justifying a new tool or a new assisted device is much lower. Jigs and fixtures may also be fabricated with little to no prior experience and with little training on how the process works. This, in turn, allows the manufacturer to address unmet needs throughout the production process.

The message is quite clear. Desktop 3D printing is prime time in manufacturing. Do not be left behind.

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