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Andrew Edman


Cost, Quality, Schedule: How 3D Printing Helps Production Engineers Get the Job Done

3D printing fixtures is a quick, low-risk solution for testing and implementing ideas for boosting efficiency

Published: Wednesday, September 4, 2019 - 12:02

On factory floors all over the world, 3D printing has quietly moved from a prototyping novelty to an essential tool. Advances in printer technology and material science mean that today’s 3D printed parts are robust enough to hold up to real-world wear and tear, and precise enough for demanding production requirements. Today, when production engineers look to maintain quality, reduce cost, or boost efficiency, they are turning to 3D printing to get the job done on time and on budget.

Shortly after Ashley Furniture, the world’s largest furniture manufacturer, brought in the company’s first Formlabs stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer, one of their production engineers decided to try replacing machined alignment pins with 3D printed parts. If these held up to constant cycles and impact, the company could avoid the long lead times and minimum-order quantities of outsourcing the production of the alignment pins.

The engineer’s experiment was successful and led to more tests to find out where they could use 3D printing to improve fabrication and assembly processes. By examining how Ashley Furniture is driving best practices with 3D printing, we can better understand how to apply those insights to any manufacturing or assembly environment.

3D printing the alignment pins alone saved significant time and costs from outsourcing the parts in nylon. Shifting from lathe turning at an external machine shop to in-house 3D printing avoided the minimum-order quantity of 1,200 parts and also cut the cost per part in half.

A 3D printed alignment pin used for CNC routing operations

Not only has printing in-house saved resources from outsourcing, it also has reduced the downtime from changing out between jobs. Previously, a special fixture was created for each board. Now workers use a setup sheet to quickly relocate pins on a simple grid work.

Today, about two years and an additional printer later, there are 700 3D printed parts at work on Ashley Furniture’s factory floor in Arcadia, Wisconsin, right alongside industrial robots and CNC milling workhorses, from assembly to fabrication.

Today, 3D printed modules enable Ashley Furniture to use flexible gridwork fixture systems and reduce downtime when switching from one SKU to another.

Ashley Furniture has continued to grow despite a shrinking labor market.

“We’re doing 10-percent more business out of our Arcadia facility alone with probably almost 15-percent less labor,” says Vaughn Pieters, senior director of case good operations. 

With a culture that encourages employees to actively participate in continuous improvement processes, Ashley Furniture applies advanced technologies to supplement labor and maximize the value of its staff, sourcing process improvements and innovations from the people closest to the work.

“Automation has really allowed us to remove some of that heavy physicality that manufacturing has had the stigma of over the last 50 to 60 years,” says Pieters. “We don’t have employees doing that heavy bulk work all day long anymore. Let the machine do that. Let the employee use their mind, try to better the process.

“We put our first robot in five years ago, and now you can see as you tour our facility where else we’ve added automation. 3D printing has taken that same kind of growth pattern,” he adds.

Custom-built adapters, like this 3D printed nail gun adapter, improve repeatability in assembly processes

Printing parts was a quick, low-risk solution for testing and implementing ideas for boosting efficiency, from saving time and money by creating replacement parts in-house, to discovering creative solutions that fundamentally changed how the company organizes the factory floor.

Employees across the company continue to ask questions and propose ideas, and the company continues to grow. For Ashley Furniture and countless other manufacturers, 3D printing is increasingly the tool they turn to when it comes time to answer those questions, experiment, and build better processes day in and day out.

For more on this topic, be sure to sign up for the webinar: “Lower the Cost of Production With Robust 3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures.” Webinar runs on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern.


About The Author

Andrew Edman’s picture

Andrew Edman

Andrew Edman is the Industry Manager for Product Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing at Formlabs. He’s focused on using additive technologies to create value in manufacturing and industrial workflows, like using 3D-printed tooling to bridge from prototype to production. Prior to Formlabs, Andrew worked as a design and engineering consultant, helping startups and Fortune 500 companies develop products from concept through to scale manufacturing.