Manufacturing Applications for 3D Printed Jigs & Fixtures

| The Essentium Team

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Manufacturing Applications for 3D Printed Jigs & Fixtures

Jigs and fixtures are the unsung heroes of the factory floor. They enable the consistency and repeatability needed to achieve mass production, guiding people and robots through precise manufacturing and assembly operations.This article discusses how Essentium’s HSE technology helped open the door to a growing number of production line applications for 3D printed jigs and fixtures.

Traditionally, most jigs and fixtures are machined from metal. These tools are heavy, expensive, require long lead times to iterate a final design, and are often made by third-party suppliers. Once the die is cast, these tools are difficult and expensive to modify.

Functionality comes first; user ergonomics are not usually a priority. Further, a lost or damaged tool or any changes in product design to next year’s model can result in significant delays and retooling expenses.

Examples of Production Line Applications for 3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures:

Today, additive manufacturing (AM) offers a number of advantages to overcome the challenges of traditional tool creation processes. Advances such as Essentium’s High Speed Extrusion (HSE) technology and the development of a number of chemical- and temperature-resistant polymers capable of replacing metal have opened the door to a growing number of production line applications for 3D printed jigs and fixtures. Here are a few examples:

3D Printed Production Tools

Jigs and fixtures used on the production line that aid in component assembly or act as guides for precise placement or joining of parts.

  • Assembly jigs help with labor-intensive tasks by holding a part in a specific orientation to make it easier for a technician to work on the part, connect it to a subassembly, or add a fastener, improving speed and consistency.
  • Protection jigs are items like boots and covers used to shield sensitive areas of printed circuit boards during chemical coating or bathing processes.
  • Alignment jigs and drill guides ensure precise tool positioning when connecting parts or milling holes within prescribed tolerances without bit drifting.
  • Soft vice grip inserts for clamping parts with unique geometries in an exact position without shifting. Essentium offers filaments designed to prevent the marring and marking of soft parts held in a vice.
  • Bonding jigs hold a part in exact position while it is being connected to another part with liquid adhesive. The high rate of replacement due to solidified adhesive collecting on the jig during curing makes bonding jigs an excellent candidate for AM.
  • Robotic grippers, a.k.a. end-of-arm tools or end effectors, are the parts on the end of a robotic arm that pick up, hold, and position parts for machining or assembly tasks. 3D printed grippers are lighter, and therefore require less robust arms to hold the jig in place, and less power to operate.
  • Part cradles are fixtures or nests that hold a part in position while another machine works on it. These often have notches and pins in exact positions to ensure the part is oriented and locked into the fixture properly.
  • Labeling and masking templates ensure that an imprint or label is placed at the same exact location on every product. AM is excellent for producing low-impact, non-marring templates customized to a specific shape, like those printing precise markings on a measuring cup or positioning a brand logo plate on every unit.

3D Printed Quality Control and Inspection Tools

Jigs and fixtures used on the production line that aid in component assembly or act as guides for precise placement or joining of parts.

  • Go/No-go gauges optimize product quality, reduce costs, and speed production by helping QC inspectors validate parts and subassemblies for use in the final product. AM quickly, easily, and affordably reprints worn out gauges.
  • Disassembly jigs are necessary to examine a product that has failed inspection or requires internal access for refurbishment or repair. They hold a part in place and disengage multiple snap fit or spring-loaded connectors that must be released simultaneously to access the interior without damaging the exterior casing.

3D Printed ESD-Safe Tools

In electronics manufacturing, any tool that contacts an electronic component must be grounded and offer surface resistance sufficient to prevent the buildup of static electricity and resulting electrostatic discharge (ESD) events that can fry sensitive electronics. Rather than milling them from blocks of expensive ESD-safe plastics like Delrin®, manufacturers can 3D print their own ESD-safe screwdrivers, pliers, tweezers, part trays, etc. in-house using Essentium’s Z Collection of ESD-safe filaments at low cost.

3D Printed Proof of Concept Tools and Parts

Not every jig and fixture can be 3D printed; many will require the strength of metal to meet the rigors of long-term mass production. However, 3D printed jigs and fixtures can serve as proxies for the final tools to test fit, ergonomics, and performance while the assembly line is being built or retooled. Surrogate parts can be printed in the shape of a final part to validate the production line so as not to waste actual parts during pre-production testing.

3D Printed Packaging and Holding Fixtures

3D print customized inserts in the exact shapes needed to package and transport odd-shaped products without incurring damage. Excellent for prototypes and one-off products.

Realize New Efficiencies with 3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures Using Essentium HSE

The cost and time of producing jigs and fixtures through traditional means often yield tools that are not optimized for the job at hand. They may be bulky, heavy, or result in user fatigue and injury.

3D printed jigs and fixtures can reduce lead times, save money, and deliver increased control over functionality and ergonomics. With in-house production and oversight, customization and creativity are enhanced. Complex shapes are not an issue as with conventional molds; AM is great for applications like soft vice inserts with unique features like teeth needed at precise positions to secure a custom part. These can be iterated quickly and at low cost with minute changes to the CAD file and reprinted until the exact shape is achieved.

Lost, worn out, or broken tools can be 3D printed in any quantity on demand for just the cost of filament. Should an engineer or assembly line worker have an idea to improve upon a tool’s current form or function, AM offers a cost-effective platform to experiment and design new solutions for the health, safety, and improved productivity of users – and most likely much lighter than the weight of the original tool.

While AM does not replace jigs and fixtures requiring the highest levels of strength and durability, if a product is expected to change frequently, if a tool is expected to have a shorter shelf life, or if the volume cannot justify the cost of producing conventional tools, 3D printing offers a viable alternative to produce needed jigs and fixtures at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional methods. The Essentium HSE 3D Printing Platform and our portfolio of engineering-grade materials deliver the speed, strength, and scale to support the in-house jig and fixture production required by manufacturers to minimize downtime on the production floor.

For more information on how Essentium can improve the performance and ergonomics of jigs and fixture used on your factory floor, download our white paper, A Guide to 3D Printing Jigs and Fixtures.

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