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Automated Jig And Fixture Generation Eases 3D Printing Onto The Factory Floor

Additive manufacturing (AM/3D printing) is bringing change to manufacturing as we’ve known it. Changing the way things are made also demands that we change the way we design those things. When material is added — rather than subtracted/milled or injected into a mold — new possibilities open up for design. Holes don’t have to be round; assemblies can be consolidated; biomimicry may see the internal structure of a bone or the veins of a leaf inspire high-strength designs. Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) is a rising discipline where these new capabilities are taken into account from design concept through final product.

Even as more final parts are indeed produced using these technologies, the biggest applications remain a bit less glamorous. Rapid prototyping continues to lead the way in usage — and about a fifth of professional 3D printing is put to use for jigs, fixtures, and other manufacturing aids.

Jigs and fixtures are a fixture on the manufacturing floor. These ubiquitous devices are invaluable, guiding tools and securing work pieces. They also happen to work best when they are specifically made for each individual job. And custom-making pieces just so happens to be a specialty suited for additive manufacturing.

In November, two powerhouse companies in 3D printing announced a collaboration centered on “a series of accessible, customizable” DfAM workflows. 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys


and next-generation design and engineering software company nTopology are beginning their collaborative launches with what they call the FDM Fixture Generator.

Stratasys’ FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) extrusion-based 3D printers are often put to use to create jigs and fixtures using strong materials (e.g., Nylon 12 Carbon Fiber, PEKK, ULTEM) for the production line. When, however, designing each individual tool takes several hours, a bottleneck can occur. While mere hours is significantly speedier than lengthier creation times for processes requiring tooling to make tooling, it can still be an unnecessary holdup.

“Creating a jig or fixture takes two or three hours. Look at some of these projects our customers are working on; look what we just announced with Boom [Supersonic], where they announced that they’re 3D printing a thousand fixtures,” Pat Carey, Senior Vice President of Products and Solutions at Stratasys, explained in an interview. “If they took three hours each and we can now make that three seconds, you can imagine the savings.”

Stratasys’ “number one” customer complaint relates to the tooling creation process, Carey added. Responding directly to what customers — and the application engineers working internally at Stratasys — most want was a driving force for this initial workflow launch.

For its part, nTopology sees the collaboration with Stratasys as a strategic move to “push industry forward and drive adoption,” as nTopology CEO Brad Rothenberg underscored. “This workflow automates the grunt work that goes into designs like this, so engineers can focus on the actual engineering problems at hand,” he said.

With Carey adding that “tooling is a huge use” for 3D printing that has encouraged corporate decision-makers to decide to invest in the technology, it’s clear that this collaboration is well targeted.

The FDM Fixture Generator automates jig and fixture design. Drag-and-drop ease in nTop Platform turns a part file quickly into a ready-to-print fixture. The teams at nTopology and Stratasys see easing this pain point as a step toward poignantly addressing a significant potential market. As Carey said upon the initial collaboration announcement, “Our analysis shows manufacturing applications are currently seeing the most growth in our industry, from $2.8 billion in 2015 to $25 billion in 2025, so we focused our first collaboration on serving that segment.”

Rothenberg noted that nTopology has long been collaborating “with all machine vendors” as they “think the combination of advanced software and advanced hardware will make the industry better.” For Stratasys, though, joint development like this represents a bit of a change of pace. The company has largely “been focused internally” for development, Carey noted, but “we’ve identified a number of key partners we think will help us grow the industry and we’ve been talking to nTopology for a year now.” 

By identifying an existing customer issue, automating the solution, and allowing for parameter tweaking, the teams developed a well-received workflow — all within a two-month development window. The next workflow is set to launch early this year as nTopology and Stratasys continue to discover and codify needed solutions. They’re beginning with FDM-focused workflows, but Carey noted that “we’re talking beyond FDM” eventually.

“The biggest barrier to growth in the industry is skills,” Carey said. “We’re bound with these old tool sets that are holding us back. This workflow enables better tooling; the more tooling we get on the factory floor, the more people are exposed to additive.” And from there, adoption — and applications — are set to take off toward greater market potential.

It’s tempting to focus AM capabilities on a final product. But 3D printing in manufacturing isn’t only for the end-use good. To date, the best place for a 3D printer is alongside traditional manufacturing equipment. Rather than consider the full conversion of a shop floor to additive manufacturing, integrating additive into manufacturing can present a cost-effective, efficient new workflow — and one with ever more capabilities and opportunities.

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