How—And Why—To Avoid Tolerance Stacking In Your Technical Drawings

If you want to have your part designs fabricated, you’re going to need to provide the manufacturer with a technical drawing. Yes, 3D printers and many modern machine tools rely on toolpaths created from 3D models. But, there is a good chance the manufacturer will be recreating the 3D model in their own system, instead of using the one you provided. Or, they may use traditional manual machining and not touch a 3D model at all. More importantly, the technical drawing gives them vital information on how closely they need to adhere to your dimensions in order for you to accept the parts.

On a technical drawing, the dimension that you want is called the nominal. But, no manufacturing is ever perfect, so you have to allow some wiggle room in what you’ll accept. That wiggle room is called tolerance. Maybe your part could be a little longer than specified and it wouldn’t affect the functionality. Maybe it could be a little shorter—or either. Specifying a tolerance is necessary, because it tells the manufacturer exactly how much wiggle room you’re giving them.

But, tolerances can introduce unforeseen consequences if you’re not careful. The wiggle room provided by tolerances is absolutely necessary, but if you don’t use them properly you can easily end up with unusable parts, even if the manufacturer followed your instructions to the letter. That usually happens because you have multiple tolerances being added together, which is called tolerance stacking.

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