Speed to market and efficiency are crucial in automotive manufacturing today. With autonomous vehicles and electrification on the horizon, automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are under pressure, with compressed product development cycles requiring faster iteration and testing with new manufacturing processes. For years, OEMs have used additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing for rapid prototyping new parts, but the technology is finding new applications in production –manufacturing aids such as test rigs, jigs, fixtures, templates, and gages. These simple, yet essential tools help manufacturers optimize operations and improve quality. By 3D printing manufacturing aids, engineers realize higher efficiencies with reduced costs, condensed lead times, and safer work environments when compared to traditional fabrication.

AM is a no brainer to engineers who have used the technology before, but many manufacturers aren’t aware of the benefits or understand how to design for the process. And when production schedules are on the line, using the old, standby process that has worked in the past seems like the safest bet. However, 3D-printed manufacturing aids can have a significant long-term impact on lean manufacturing practices by eliminating waste and continuously improving processes.

European automaker Opel slashed tool production costs up to 90% using Stratasys 3D printers.

Using this method has several advantages compared to traditional manufacturing methods, as long as manufacturers consider:

  • Ideal applications for AM in production
  • The latest materials, software, and processes developed for automotive manufacturing
  • Best practices from manufacturers reaping cost and efficiency benefits from 3D-printed jigs, fixtures

3D printing advantages

Eckhart Inc. recently partnered with Stratasys and Stratasys Direct Manufacturing to accelerate the adoption of 3D printing for factory tooling. Eckhart 3D prints most of the jigs and fixtures on its production and assembly lines and sees the main benefits as lightweighting and ergonomics, line-of-sight improvement, and simplified build structure and bill of materials. Other advantages include:

  • Speed – Lead times through AM can be up to 40% to 90% faster than milling or welding. 3D-printed parts can also be produced on-demand straight from CAD data with an onsite 3D printer or through a service bureau, enabling quicker iterations and design updates.
  • Design freedom – 3D printing builds parts layer by layer, which removes traditional design-for-manufacturability constraints and opens possibilities for holes, contours, and complex organic structures.
  • Component consolidation – Multiple components that would usually require assembly can be built in one piece. Legacy jigs and fixtures, redesigned with fewer components and increased functionality, save time, reduce post-build labor, and simplify the bill of materials.
  • Reduced inventory – Digital design files provide a virtual inventory of parts available for print on-demand. Manufacturers can quickly adjust and produce new tools as vehicle designs change, saving on storage and warehouse cost and space.
  • Safety – Lighter and more organically shaped jigs and fixtures are safer and easier to operate and move around the factory floor. With no added cost or fabrication time, 3D printing enables design for functionality to increase safety and comfort for employees who interact with tools.

3D printing reduces risk and allows manufacturing engineers to put more manufacturing aids on the factory floor for improved efficiency and consistent operational performance.

Production applications

From assembly and quality control to logistics, many 3D-printing applications can enhance manufacturing operations. 3D- printed thermoplastics can often be a 1:1 replacement for most traditional manufacturing materials, even metals, used within production when the tool’s heat and environment don’t exceed 400°F (204°C).

Some 3D-printed jig and fixture applications on the rise in automotive manufacturing include:

  • Badge alignment, location fixtures – Production line workers typically attach vehicle logos and model names manually using a handheld fixture. Traditionally this type of fixture would be CNC machined out of metal, making it heavy and expensive to update or reproduce for design changes. By 3D printing these tools with thermoplastics, automakers can create more customized fixtures contoured to vehicle body panels. They can also be lightweight and ergonomic to reduce assembler fatigue and injury.
  • Body panel gap gages – 3D-printed body panel gap gauges, used to inspect final assembly, can benefit from complex shapes and contours that match the shape of body panels and provide a non-marring surface for inspections.
  • Surrogate parts – Automotive manufacturers are starting to 3D print parts to stand in for the end-use parts on a vehicle to program automation robots. This speeds the pre-production process and ensures the assembly line is ready to go once the final production parts become available.
  • Windshield wiper assembly fixtures – In the past, windshield wiper assembly fixtures have been aluminum which can damage the painted body panels. 3D printed plastic fixtures minimally touch the car, reducing the risk of damaging paint.
  • Transportation holding fixtures – The most common use of 3D printing in packaging and logistics is a customized holding fixture for transporting parts across the factory floor. Holding fixtures used in packaging are commonly 3D printed with sturdy, heat resistant thermoplastic materials that withstand the stresses of transportation, such as vibration, pressure, and humidity. Trays 3D printed from electro static dissipative (ESD) materials can safely transport sensitive electronics.

Eckhart, for example, is using AM for factory floor applications, including ergonomic lift-assist and torque-mitigating tools that help workers position car engines while bolting them to the chassis. Also, Eckhart and Stratasys are testing embedding micro sensors into 3D-printed jigs and fixtures for advanced diagnostics monitoring of the production line.

Latest technology

The fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printing process produces jigs and fixtures with engineering-grade thermoplastics that have the strength and durability needed on the production floor. FDM Nylon 12CF is one of the latest materials developed for manufacturing aids applications with FDM technology. It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any FDM thermoplastic, making it an alternative for many tooling applications that currently use metal.

Its strength comes from 35% chopped carbon fiber reinforcement by weight. The carbon fiber also adds ESD properties to reduce static discharge for electronic applications. The material is often used in automotive manufacturing for assembly fixtures, tools for the end of robot arms, brackets, and surrogate parts.

Software companies are also working to support 3D printing in automotive. Stratasys recently added a Jigs and Fixtures platform for manufacturing support design to its GrabCAD software. GrabCAD Print simplifies the traditional 3D print file preparation workflow and provides intelligence around printer use so teams can get quality prints faster. Automotive engineers don’t have to go back to a CAD designer every time they need a small tool adjustment. Jigs and Fixtures for GrabCAD Print allows manufacturing engineers to add strength and rigidity to the tool where it is needed and lighten the tool where it is not. The software also:

  • Eliminates need for ile processing knowledge
  • Saves time, eliminates unnecessary iteration during design, processing
  • Allows holes to be sized, supported for standard inserts
  • Converts horizontal holes to self-supporting angles, providing faster print times

The automotive industry is on the cusp of an evolution. Additively manufacturing jigs and fixtures will be key to unlocking lean manufacturing success.

Eckhart Inc.

Stratasys Direct Manufacturing www.stratasysdirect.com
IMTS 2018 Booth #431600

About the author: Chuck Alexander is the director of product management at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing. He has been a key influencer in the 3D printing industry for 30 years. He can be reached at info@stratasysdirect.com or 888.311.1017.