Using 3D Printing To Speed Up Conventional Manufacturing

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!]

20 thoughts on “Using 3D Printing To Speed Up Conventional Manufacturing

  1. In my last two engineering jobs, we did this all the time. We made everything from gluing and painting jigs, to custom height standoffs, to copies of precious hardware (imagine a machined part that you have only 1 of, but need to test in a variety of ways). I also use them in my home shop to avoid complicated setups. I made a video about that a few days ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SkYWAek0lY – it’s a quick way to repeatably drill hole patterns by hand. Quick, because you can do other things while the machine is printing.

      1. We use a simple Afinia and recently, a Makerbot Replicator 2 to print small assembly fixtures, inspection gauges and the like. In many cases it is just “Gen One”, and later will be replaced with a CNC fixture. But in a few cases the 3d printed fixture was enough to get us through a short production run.

        We later purchased a Form Labs printer, but that is for prototypes.

  2. ” 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!”

    VR/AR may come to the forefront for some of this.

      1. there is a cad package for the vive but i have no clue how well it actually works, it is quite pricey for a vive app, though cheap for a cad package, i suspect it is limited in functionality.

  3. I worked as a precision machinist surface grinding the faces on linear rails for precision robotics gear. the process required several steps such as machining the step for the bearing, fusion welding the bearing in place then machining the hex for the motor to connect to. Tolerances needed to be really tight and we used the 3D printer to make a casing for the bearing to protect the bearing while the faces were being ground. The cover also served as a guide to let us know how far in to face the surface. We did hundreds of these things and the 3D printed cover screwed on over the bearing with an O Ring seal. heaps better than having to cover each one with masking tape :)

    In other cases even when the printed part/guide was no high enough in tolerance we were able to face it off to get it near on perfect for whatever job we were doing especially when engraving something and its better to run the engraver off in to plastic than hit a harder fixture.

    1. Great comment. You reminded me of another application. My Dad maintained the chemistry on an anodizing line in his retirement. At that plant (which anodized aerospace and oil industry stuff), they would print hundreds of plugs for all the critical fit/no anodize holes in the anodized parts. According to him, it was a huge change for them and improved productivity over previous masking approaches. He said the printer looked like a knockoff of my old Makerbot, so it definitely wasn’t anything special.

  4. The picture on the left in this article is from a project I did a couple of years ago if anyone is curious http://troybaverstock.com/design/hive/ , it was a smart bar stool that could detect occupancy and provide ambient lighting for a venue, it was also meant to be a ‘food ready’ table beacon. There were actually 4 different 3d printed jigs as the stool was made from 90+ wooden pieces. I had modeled it in 3D so I figured I’d save some time, no need to measure angles and locate holes. There should be images of the jigs on my page.

  5. On the durability issue: You can 3D print casting forms for one-off pieces. One outfit I used to work for did this for a work holding fixture that needed to hold an odd shaped assembly.

    Our lead time on a one-off rush job to the foundry was a couple days so it wasn’t a big deal. The production engineer borrowed some time on the product development guys’ printer and sent out the resulting blob for casting. This saved a machinist a lot of time and the part would be easy to replicate if production increased and more cells needed to be set up.

  6. I designed and printed some knobs for a classic car. Made them so the shells could be filled with urethane resin. I designed and printed snap together jigs to hold drill bits, shank end down, in the knobs to form starter holes. For the shift knob I made the jig to hold a 3/8-16 bolt to form threads in the resin.

    Before shipping them off, I made custom formed vise blocks to hold the knobs for drilling the pilot holes to whatever size was required for the pins to hold them to the window cranks.

    The restoration shop took care of that and filling, sanding, and painting. They had the car done for the show at Hershey. Should never be a problem with the PLA because I post cured the resin at 145F for several hours and the plastic didn’t distort or soften. Before that I tested one of the jigs and an unfilled knob.

    It went much quicker than lathe turning master models and finishing them smooth, making silicone molds and resin casting, especially for a one off job of which there will most likely be no repeats. If I’d made one mold it would’ve taken multiple days to cast all the knobs. Same for if I’d made multiple molds from one master.
    RTV silicone at over $10 a pound is expensive for molds that’ll only be used for one job.

    If I had a CNC lathe I could have cast oversize cylinders of resin, post cured then turned all the knobs identical, but I don’t (yet) have a CNC lathe.

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