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Tooling: When to consider additive over CNC machining

Tooling, the process of acquiring the necessary tool components that make production possible, is a critical part of most manufacturing processes. Having the right tools is an important preparatory step for manufacturers, as the quality of the tools used during production has a direct effect on output. If a tool isn’t functioning properly, the product will not be created correctly. Common tool applications — including cutting equipment, fixtures, jigs, molds, and patterns — help maintain or improve output quality while increasing the overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the process.

Traditionally, processes such as CNC machining have been used in tool fabrication. Machining produces accurate and precise parts, but often comes with high overhead costs and long lead times. As a result, many manufacturers hoping to optimize production lifecycles have turned to additive manufacturing.

The notion that additive methods are suitable only for the prototyping phase of production is a common misconception. It’s easy to see why — during the prototyping phase, 3D-printed parts can be iterated at speed and at lower costs than their subtractive manufacturing counterparts, elevating the efficiency of part design optimization.

However, technological advancements and a deepening understanding of how additive methods optimize the production lifecycle — in some cases removing entire steps — have made additive manufacturing an increasingly common replacement for tooling made with CNC.

The benefits of using additive manufacturing for tool fabrication

When used effectively, additive methods offer several key advantages to manufacturers. Crucially, 3D printing can be used to produce time- and cost-effective low volume orders. This is useful for streamlining the tooling process, as most engineers do not require high volumes of most jigs, molds, patterns, and other tools.

Additionally, additive manufacturing simplifies the creation of complex geometries. When using CNC machining to create molds, the cost of production increases with the complexity of the part, and certain internal features may be impossible to manufacture cost-effectively.

Since additive processes create parts by depositing material layer by layer — rather than removing material gradually — the relative complexity of a tooling mold has a lower impact on the cost of production. The ability to create more complicated part geometries also enables part consolidation, or combining multiple components into a single printed piece.

Understanding the material limitations of additive manufacturing

There are, of course, limitations of using additive manufacturing to fabricate tools. For example, the materials commonly used in additive processes are less standardized than those used in traditional manufacturing. If certain tools require specific materials that haven’t been standardized for additive processes, then it’s likely that a combination of additive and subtractive processes will be necessary to acquire all the tooling necessary for production.

This requires manufacturers to prioritize the resources necessary to create tooling through non-additive processes, which may necessitate a longer lead time. Ultimately, manufacturers should maximize their operational flexibility by using additive processes when they’ll be most advantageous to improving efficiency.

Engineers would do well to assess the requirements of all parts and tools upfront in order to determine the appropriate materials, which will inform the decision regarding the manufacturing method.

Maximizing efficiency by using additive and traditional methods together

The advantages that additive manufacturing methods offer are difficult for traditional tooling methods to compete with, and vice versa. Additive methods offer unparalleled speed and iterative potential, but CNC machining has very few restrictions on the materials that can be used. By balancing the capabilities afforded by both additive and subtractive methods, manufacturers can fully capitalize on the advantages of each.

Fast Radius is a dedicated team of engineers and designers looking to shake up how traditional manufacturing works. Committed to serving as collaborative partners to every customer, we guide parts through every stage of production to ensure you receive superior products that are produced affordably and quickly. Contact us today to get started.

You can learn more about the services we offer — including subtractive processes like CNC machining and additive methods like injection molding and 3D printing — at our resource center. There, you can also read up on various manufacturing materials and check out some of our latest case studies.

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