CNC vs. 3D Printing: Buying, Making, or Outsourcing Machined Jigs and Fixtures

Jigs and fixtures are ubiquitous in the manufacturing world. From aerospace engineering to consumer goods production, jigs and fixtures help companies improve their daily operations. Machinists use jigs to guide tools, while fixtures keep machined parts in a firm position. Together, jigs and fixtures benefit companies by:

  • Increasing operational accuracy
  • Reducing cycle times
  • Simplifying assembly processes
  • Improving workplace safety

Companies obtain jigs and fixtures by buying standard models, making their tools in-house, or ordering custom-made parts. In the past, jig and fixture manufacturers have mainly leveraged CNC machining to make their products. While machined jigs and fixtures do work well, CNC machines do have limitations. Limitations include: 

  • Time-consuming and costly set-up
  • Inherently wasteful due to a subtractive process 
  • Requires multiple labor steps when creating complex designs
  • Typical machined jigs and fixtures have blocky or chunky forms making them heavy and awkward to use 

3D printing answers many of the shortcomings of CNC machining. The printers are quick to configure, produce little-to-no waste, and excel at creating complex parts with elegant, lighter-weight forms that better fit processes and accommodate users. This article will examine how companies benefit from 3D-printed jigs and fixtures by comparing CNC vs. 3D printing.

Jig and fixture

Buying Jigs and Fixtures

Machine shops typically make custom jigs and fixtures specific to a given workpiece or operation. Typically, companies prefer to use traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding for high-volume parts. Unlike other mass-produced parts, jigs and fixtures often involve complex, amorphous designs. Standard molds do not have the design capabilities to replicate such intricate shapes efficiently, so engineers break the design down into easier-to-manufacture parts that have to be assembled later, turn to CNC machining, or a combination of both. 

Machined jigs and fixtures are strong, accurate, and used successfully across industries. However, 3D-printed jigs and fixtures offer a few advantages over their CNC-machined counterparts, including:

  • Lower cost: Compared to CNC machining, 3D printers require less setup time, less high skilled labor, and less machine time. These savings allow manufacturers to sell many 3D-printed jigs and fixtures at an economical price point and able to efficiently scale up operations with lower-skilled labor.
  • Better mechanical properties and lighter weight: 3D printers excel at creating geometrically complex shapes. With expanded design capabilities, engineers can print jigs and fixtures that weigh less with latticing and fit better to their application while maintaining the strength and stiffness of a machined fixture. 
  • Better ergonomic fit: Jigs and fixtures designed with ergonomics in mind can provide users with a better user experience. Unfortunately, jigs and fixtures produced with CNC machining tend to be bulky and heavy. Jigs and fixtures made with additive manufacturing eliminate mass from the tools to provide a more elegant design.
  • Single part design with higher complexity and accuracy: Complex jigs and fixtures need to be broken down into simplified, easier to CNC machine, parts. The resulting jig and fixture assemblies have accuracy challenges due to part stack tolerances. 3D printing single part jigs and fixtures with advanced Smart Factory 3D printers and high-performance, high-precision tough materials achieve high accuracy, lightweight, jigs, and fixtures in a single part and with faster production turnaround. 

Machine shops will continue as a basic option for jigs and fixtures, but it isn’t viable in every situation. Specific machines and materials are uniquely shaped and thus require custom-built tools. Companies have two choices to obtain custom or more complex jigs and fixtures: in-house production and outsourcing.

In-House Jig and Fixture Production: CNC vs. 3D Printing

Any company can produce jigs and fixtures in-house if they have the right equipment. With internal production, businesses can condense turnaround time as much as possible and eliminate outside fees. When considering CNC vs. 3D printing for in-house applications, 3D printing is likely the best option.

On average, CNC machines are more expensive than 3D printers and require a trained machinist to program and operate. When companies need to create large parts and quantities (around 500 or so parts), CNC traditionally becomes a more cost-appropriate option. For lower volume applications, 3D printing traditionally is a much better choice.

With an in-house 3D printer, companies can:

  • Create custom parts on-demand
  • Replace broken jigs and fixtures in a tight turnaround
  • Save capital by eliminating third-party production costs

However, if a company does not foresee ongoing internal production, outsourcing to a Smart Factory providing on-demand production services will provide a better alternative. 

Outsourcing Advantages

In-house jig and fixture production is not a cost-effective option for every enterprise. 3D printers require investments, training, and upkeep. If a company only needs a few custom tools, outsourcing to a smart factory or machine shop is a much more cost-effective option.

When companies outsource to a 3D printer-equipped facility, they still receive the benefits of 3D-printed tools without having to invest in the equipment. Combining both in-house Smart Factory 3D printer solutions with outsourced Smart Factory on-demand production services offers the most cost-effective and fastest turnaround outsourcing platform:

  • Design Freedom: There is no need to compromise when it comes to 3D printed designs. Smart Factory 3D printers allow designers to create and test multiple designs in a single printing operation on production 3D printers. Companies are assured that designs, successfully printed on Smart Factory 3D printers, can be quickly scaled with outsourced Smart Factory on-demand production services.
  • Condensed Turnaround Time: CNC machines can take hours to set up and may require a machinist to reposition the workpiece and change tools. The more complex the piece is, the more time and labor steps involved. 3D printing requires minimal human intervention, condensing turnaround time from a matter of days or weeks to a matter of hours. Outsourced, Smart Factory production turnaround time is minimized for low to medium volume.
  • Lower Material Costs: CNC machining is a subtractive manufacturing process in which a machinist programs a CNC mill or lathe with specific toolpaths to remove material sequentially from a raw block. This process is inherently wasteful. 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process, which creates objects by layering material sequentially. Additive manufacturing creates little-to-no waste beyond support structures and some minor post-processing, reducing material costs. Outsourcing to Smart Factories on-demand production services ensures the lowest material use with optimized workflows that minimize support structure, reclaim unused resin, and regenerate detergents to maximize production sustainability and minimize material and consumable costs.
  • Lower Labor Costs: Machined jigs and fixtures take more labor and more highly skilled labor to produce than 3D-printed jigs and fixtures. A typical machine shop will employ an engineer to program a machine, a quality control team for continuous oversight, and a machinist to set up machines and perform finishing operations. With 3D printing, once a design is validated and sent to the printer, the printer works autonomously. Depending on the printer or printing service, an operator might intervene for minimal post-processing or washing a finished product. Smart Factories now employ the latest capabilities like Digital Polishing and automation to streamline workflow and minimize labor.

Choose the Route that Makes the Most Sense to You

Smart Factory 3D printers combined with Smart Factory on-demand production services allow companies to obtain jigs and fixtures in a quicker, more affordable fashion than CNC machining. Whether a group uses an in-house Smart Factory 3D printer or partners with a 3D-printer-equipped facility like a Smart Factory, they benefit from the condensed turnaround time and design freedom associated with additive manufacturing. Regardless of which route is best for your company, LuxCreo can help.

LuxCreo’s line of Smart Factory 3D printers, Smart Factory on-demand production services, and innovative resins will produce accurate, high-strength jigs and fixtures. Talk to us today to find out how to acquire one of our solutions or utilize our smart factory services. 

To learn more about CNC vs. Smart Factory 3D printing machined jigs and fixtures, or any other additive manufacturing-related topic, visit our contact page or call (650) 336-0888.

Smart Factory Team