The Right Tools – How AM Shapes Production


Aya Bentur  

Custom Press Brake Tooling 3D Printed by Wilson Tool Additive - Photo via Wilson Tool International

Production is a complicated process, a simplified and smooth workflow goes a long way, and the tools jigs and fixtures used along the way can shape production. when I was a student one of my teachers explained that building the right tool for production brings you 80% of the way. This is true in many scales, it’s true for a design student and even more so in large-scale manufacturing. Additive manufacturing (AM) brings with it the opportunity to easily create specific tools, jigs, and fixtures for the production floor. Such tools help to maximize efficiency while minimizing costs, here’s how.

More than Once – Iterations

The production process begins even before serial production. Iteration isn’t only done to achieve the best product but also the best production method. Hence the tools, such as molds, should be developed parallel to the product itself. With traditionally made molds the mold is an expensive part of the manufacturing process and only worth creating for a certain number of units. Because of the cost, the production is usually only simulated until the mold is produced, and if something goes wrong at any phase between design and the production of the mold there is no way to correct it except creating a new one. With AM the mold can be redone easily. This also applies to iterations in a product that is already in production, the ease of producing a new mold allows a company to be agile and readapt the products according to newer developments and customer needs. (below a forming die created with Sciaky EBAM Technology – Photo via Sciaky).

Forming Die Created with Sciaky EBAM Technology - Photo via Sciaky

At the IMTS show that took place a couple of months ago, ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) showcased the production and use of additively manufactured metal dies through their Die-in-a-Day Scavenger Hunt. Each day the visitors were guided through a process that can take weeks or months with traditional manufacturing (below ORNL and IACMI showcase the manufacturing process of a motorcycle cover using an additively manufactured die). “The concept of producing a ‘Die in a Day’ not only represents the speed of additive manufacturing, but also how this technology can help revitalize the tool and die industry in the US and provide national capabilities to local ecosystems,” said Craig Blue, director of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at ORNL. A metal die additively manufactured and utilized in the same day, is proof of how agile manufacturing can actually be with AM.

IACMI and ORNL at 2018 IMTS

Michelin’s Mold Line Manager José Cocovi explained how the company recognized the potential of AM for tooling: “We found out that the most mature application in Michelin would be for …. complex sipes.” He added: “In 2009 we validated that AM sipes could be used in industrial molds.” To date, Michelin additively manufactures on a yearly bases 2 million sipes that are inserted into their tire molds.
Michelin Additively Manufactured Mold Inserts for Tire

Pre Production Time

Setting up a production line is time-consuming, manufacturers consider how long it will take to prepare for production and not just the cost and profit of manufacturing. This means manufacturers often have to refuse jobs that require effort in adapting their production line. Yet designing a productive workflow aided by additively manufactured tools, jigs and fixtures can bring value and versatility to the manufacturer. One main production workflow can be customized for a number of products by changing only the tools. And if these tools are additively manufactured the production process can be tailored for more products, for smaller batches. This enables the manufacturer to cater to the customer without losing valuable time in setting up a new production line (below an assembly fixture developed on HP’s Multi Jet Fusion Platform). Scott Schiller, VP Global Head of Customer and Market Development at HP 3D Printing summarized it: “There’s way more cost impact in the flow of the production line, and if you have a change notification coming through and you need to change that jig for the whole production line to work, timing is everything”.

Assembly fixture developed on HP's Multi Jet Fusion Platform

More than One – Variety

3D Printed Bending Tool in Action - Photo via Wilson Tool International

The high cost of traditional tools not only hinders setting up production it also made people use the same tool for multiple purposes even though for each individual purpose there might be a better, more accurate, tool. This led to using the same tool for multiple purposes even though it wasn’t exactly suited, or relying on longer processes. An inaccurate tool can cause an inaccurate product meaning more products are discarded, and longer processes reduce efficiency – both influencing the bottom line. Additive manufacturing can be much more versatile when it comes to jigs and fixtures, instead of using one jig for a number of things with AM a manufacturer can produce a number of jigs according to every need and step in the production flow, from forming (above and up top 3D printed bending tool by Wilson Tool International) to inspection (below 3D printed fixtures in the inspection of machined parts at Cincinnati Inc). Recently Ford has received recognition for their use of additive manufacturing which includes the integration of 3D printed tooling in their workflow, such as the 3D printed lift assist (2nd below).

Cincinnati Inc - 3D Printed Fixtures for Inspection

3D Printed Lift Assist Tool Ford

Do you use additively manufactured tooling? Tell us about it in the comments below or email us. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

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