Typically the tool responsible for satisfying machine time demands, the CNC mill is essentially the foundation for most machine shops. This provides for some difficulty in decision making when it comes to the need of small volume parts. Previous solutions haven’t been satisfactory, but in recent years, there has been a breakthrough solution –  desktop 3D printing.

The F123 3D Printer Series are the most advanced 3D printers on the market.

Why 3D Printing?

3D printing is increasingly being used by shops to complete support jobs traditionally done with the CNC mill. Not only does this boost production for firms, but it cut costs dramatically. 3D printing is a very cost effective method for smaller jobs. Desktop 3D printers are also hassle free, allowing for minimal operator interaction. 3D printers are used to satisfy various needs, helping to maximize the firm’s ROI (return on investment). The additive manufacturing business has developed rapidly over the past few years, with there now being much easier access to the technology, availability of stronger and more reliable printing materials, and the simplicity of the newest CAD programs being at an all time high.

The 3D Printing Process

In order to obtain a 3D printed product, you much first collect data via 3D scanners. 3D scanners are connected to a 3D modeling software which builds a CAD file from the images produced by the scanner. A major perk of 3D printing is the ability to save the CAD files for future alterations and use. Following the generation of the CAD file, it is exported to the 3D printer in the industry’s standard .STL file format. From there the 3D printer does the rest of the work, building up extremely thin layers until the completed 3D object is finally produced. Accuracy varies from 3D printer to 3D printer, but the vast majority of professional 3D printers develop objects of great accuracy and resolution.

A 3D model is generated by a 3D scanner to create the CAD file needed to 3D print an object

5 Ways to Increase CNC Mill Bandwidth

1. Workholding – Soft Jaws

Additive manufacturing is able to easily produce objects of complex geometry and design, such as soft jaws. Where traditional methods would be extremely timely in getting measurements, 3D technology can produce these items with ease. Scanning a soft jaw, which contains many curved surfaces and indentions, is no more difficult to scan and create a CAD file for than it would be to scan a simple, planar surface. According to Rob Bradshaw of Superstition Machine Works, “I print things to save hours of time machining…I’m drawing the soft jaws in the computer anyway…Not only does it look good but it also worked perfectly. All 32 parts were cycled with no issue, with the last one fitting as well as the first.” 3D printers are an ideal tool for developing parts of complex shapes like these soft jaws because there is no significant impact on the time or accuracy of the project.

CAD File generated for soft jaws

3D Printed Soft Jaw in use

2. Fixturing – Flats & Plates

Flat fixtures and plate like shapes have long been time consuming and difficult to machine with traditional methods. With 3D printing, however, these parts can be easily replicated. 3D printing technology is extremely suitable for the geometric shapes of these particular objects. Design engineer Joe Walters and his team at Arrow Global Corporation used a 3D printed to replace components for a steel drill job which is used on the company’s manufacturing line. According to Walters, “We’re able to take a part that would have costed $400, with two and a half week lead time of machining from one of our local vendors, we printed it over the weekend and the manufacturing floor likes it just as much, if not a little better, because it takes some of the weight out of that jig…” The cost-efficiency, speed and accuracy of 3D printing makes an incredible impact on production time and costs without sacrificing anything. Flats and plates are one of the fastest components that 3D printing is able to produce.

Steel Drill Jig Component Before & After

In Use

3. Gages & Quality Control

One of the major benefits 3D printing brings to users is the ability to conduct quality control. In CNC mills, production rates can be high, but the ability to monitor part accuracy, broken parts and more can be challenging as this high volume of parts are produced. However, 3D printers are able to produce with the tolerances that a good quality control gage requires with ease, and without any monitoring required. As Daniel Shepherd, a quality manager at Turet Lathe Specialists, provides about his company’s use of their 3D printer, “A lot of the template and fitting tools that we used to make out of aluminum, …they match the quality of the old aluminum tools with no question. We haven’t had any issues with tools breaking, at least not any sooner than they would have had they been made out of aluminum. And knowing that we’re saving on time and money, that just sweetens the deal.” The process doesn’t involve an in-depth setup either, it is as simple as developing the CAD for a part and sending it to the 3D printer. Without the use of a 3D printer for quality control, it would be an extensive and expensive process for CNC mills to produce a gage for quality control.

A 3D printer can do more than produce parts — it simplifies quality control.

4. Non-Marring & Modular Fixtures

The ability to conserve and maintain parts coming from a finishing house can be a challenging feat, especially when the parts require touch ups following powder coating or are subject to final machining operations. Traditionally, these parts would take a considerable amount of time to get to their finalized stages, slowing down production and affecting the ability to produce more parts. Keith Durand of Markforged, Inc. uses 3D printed modular fixtures to hold musical instrument parts for bending and machining operations in brass. He explains, “The most complicated bending fixture was for the F-branch — it had to be the right shape to bend things around, but had to have clearance so I could get the tube in there in the unbent configuration AND out once the part was bent… 3D printing more or less makes it complexity free. Machining this particular fixture would have cost a small fortune.”  The use of 3D printing eliminates the timely matter of traditional alterations to these parts coming out of finishing houses by preserving surfaces in the production and assembly line. It also enables users with the ability to equip themselves with complex guiding surfaces that would be extremely expensive and complex to create in a CNC mill.

3D printed parts preserve the delicate surface finishes of finalized parts during production and assembly.

5. Selecting the Right Material

Selecting the appropriate 3D printer material is a vital decision. Depending on the job, the material selected can very. While the table doesn’t provide all the materials a 3D printer is able to use, it references those most commonly used.

This table provides which materials are generally considered suitable for effective shop use

  • Considered the most common consumer plastic
  • Most commonly available plastic material for workgroup printers
  • Requires adequate filtration in office usage
  • May not be robust enough to be an engineering plastic
Tough Photopolymer
  • Suitable for engineering & workshop use
  • Similar mechanical propoerties to ABS
  • Additives reduce strength but increase toughness
  • Readily available engineering thermoplastic
  • Highly chemical resistant plastic
  • Tough and self-lubricating
Fiber Reinforced Plastic (FRP)
  • Fibers provided increased stiffness
  • Perfect for injection molding, aerospace and automotive manufacturing
  • Increasingly popular material
  • Often the ideal prototyping material
  • Low cost, high availability
  • Easy for machining
  • Much stronger than plastic material

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