3D printers, is there anything they can’t do? Of course, and to many across the world, they’re little more than glorified keychain factories. Despite this, there’s yet another great application for 3D printers – they can be used to add speed and flexibility to traditional manufacturing operations.
A key feature of many manufacturing processes is the use of fixtures and jigs to hold parts during machining and assembly operations. These must be developed before manufacturing begins and must be custom made to suit the given application. Many manufacturers outsource the development of such fixturing, even in large operations – even major automakers will often outsource development of fixtures and new process lines to outside firms. This can have major ramifications when changes need to be made, introducing costly delays. However, 3D printers can be used to rapidly iterate fixturing designs to suit new parts, greatly reducing development time. As stated in the article, Louis Vuitton uses this to great effect – the reduced time of development is incredibly useful when changing manufacturing lines every few months in the fashion industry.
Obviously there are limitations – in a factory producing large steel castings, it’s unlikely a FDM-printed fixture will be much use when it comes to the wear and tear of machining hundreds of castings a day. However, as a development tool, it can prove very useful. What’s more, jigs for light industrial work – think electronics assembly, woodworking glue-ups, or any form of delicate work by hand – need not be as robust. Lightweight, readily produced 3D printed parts may be just the ticket.
Another great benefit of 3D printing is its ability to be used for mockups. You may be designing a product that requires several aluminium parts to fit together, but alas – the parts won’t be ready for weeks. Rather than wait all that time, only to find out something doesn’t fit right, it may be advantageous to print out a plastic version of the parts. Being able to check geometry with actual parts is often very useful, and makes a great tool if you need to present your work to others. It’s much easier to communicate an idea to people if they can hold and touch what you’re talking about!
It’s something worth considering if you’re setting up any sort of small production line – perhaps you’re looking for a way to make populating a run of PCBs faster, or ease the assembly of a series of distributed sensor modules. These techniques may prove particularly useful if you consider yourself a scrappy hacker.
[Hat tip to George!]