The buzz around Additive Manufacturing (AM) tends to focus on making parts—how making production parts via AM brings a revolution to some manufacturers and disrupts some established industries. But while impressive, AM parts aren’t the whole story. An important potential use for AM is often left out, and it’s one that could impact dramatically more manufacturers in more industries. That’s tooling.
First, any discussion of AM for tooling must address the obvious—that there are some instances where AM can eliminate the need for tooling entirely. Companies doing short-run production might simply use AM to create production parts directly, bypassing the need to create tooling at all and shortening their product’s the time to market. But when AM simply can’t compete with the speed and volume of the production line, manufacturers can still reap some of the rewards AM is delivering to other industries.
The automotive industry is a prime example. While AM is in use for some end-use components in custom or small-quantity automobile manufacturers, the larger automotive companies don’t find AM a practical answer for production parts. But tooling for production, testing, design validation, and more could be another matter.
Have It All: Faster, Cheaper, More Complex
One of the primary problems with tooling is time. The product design is finished and you’d really rather have the parts in-hand yesterday, but you’ve not only got to contend with production time for the parts, but also production time for the tooling to produce those parts.
Enter additive manufacturing, which lets you make tooling cheaper and faster than the traditional-machining route. Aerospace provides a case study. While polymer-based materials aren’t being used for flight applications, their use has gained traction in production tooling, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Particularly for specialized, one-off parts, the speed and cost reduction of producing fixtures, jigs, and other precision tools rather than waiting for them to be machined from metal can be immense. One small aerospace company converted to making tooling in-house via AM, and their tooling timeline shrank to about a week to produce equipment, versus 12-14 weeks for outsourcing parts to machine shops.
That time savings ultimately meant improved ROI because end-use parts could be made sooner. But the in-house AM work also directly saved money on the tooling itself—in-house AM parts cost only about a quarter of the outsourced, machined parts. In general, companies find that AM saves them money, for any of a variety of reasons, including reduced time, reduced material usage, easier rework or replacement, and so forth.
In the automotive industry, tooling is high value and low quantity. By some accounts, according to the Harbour Results consulting firm, car manufacturers spend $50-75 million on tooling each year for each car model, simply for updates and improvements. Any chance to reduce that cost, via faster production or by creating fewer parts because AM can make more complex shapes, could be hugely valuable.
Volkswagen Autoeuropa has recently converted to using 3D printers to create custom tooling, thereby reducing tool-development time by a whopping 95%. In 2016, they saved $160,000 in tooling costs, and they expect to save even more this year (Additive Manufacturing Magazine). One of the additional benefits of AM tooling they cite is the ability to adjust designs or replace worn parts without redoing the entire tool. Another is the flexibility of iterating manufacturing aids, and making improvements via trial and error, which simply isn’t practical when working with external suppliers.
The other notable benefits of AM parts apply to tooling as well, namely the ease with which AM can create complex shapes, particularly internally, and the ability to customize. Once tooling designers start thinking in terms of AM rather than subtractive machining, they can make tools lighter and even stronger in places. The medical industry provides examples of these benefits, such as “tools” that help surgeons learn how to perform particular surgeries or practice for specific procedures on individual patients.
And there’s another benefit to faster, cheaper production of tooling that might contribute to ROI in a more indirect way: employee comfort and satisfaction. As Volkswagen Autoeuropa notes, one benefit of in-house AM work is the freedom to respond to technician concerns and requests to make ergonomic improvements to tooling. Overall, with a faster time-to-tool, tooling can be optimized more readily, which might not only improve the workplace for the employee, but is likely also to result in better tooling.
Industries continue to buzz with the latest in AM developments, such as AM printers that print in metal—like MarkForged’s Metal X—and other innovations. But it’s not that everything can or should be made via AM. It’s more that AM continues to offer new tools in the arsenal for every industry to consider, especially companies and industries that are searching for every technological development and every advantage to remain competitive. It’s worth every manufacturer considering if there isn’t some aspect of your production line that AM could improve. Perhaps incorporating AM could save your organization money and time, and perhaps it could even change company culture by improving the lives of your employees.