When To Use 3D Printing For Tooling

Custom tooling to aid in manufacturing is a common practice used across industries regardless of whether you’re turning out otoscopes, jet engine components, or heavy machinery. Using 3D printing to create tooling is a new and growing application because of the design freedom inherent in 3D printing. 3D printing = Customization.

What Do You Mean, Tooling?

Tooling can refer to layups, drill guides, assembly aids, holders, brackets…basically, anything that can help the people on the floor put your product together. The question of when you should use 3D printing for tooling is simply, whenever you have a unique application.

Custom = Costly, Right?

The more customized something is the more expensive it is. That applies to everything from luxury cars to homes to packaging equipment to production tooling and it’s only through the design freedom found in 3D printing that custom becomes common. Before 3D printing, Custom Tooling meant maybe an aluminum mold and weeks of waiting. Perhaps Custom meant specialty fabrication and then if the tool breaks, multiply the cost and it quickly becomes an area where costs can overrun.

A 3D printed injection mold off of a PolyJet machine.

Additive Manufacturing is Design Freedom

Designing for an additive manufacturing process is different than a subtractive one in more than a few ways. Your 3D print is going to lay on a build sheet for example, and simply orienting it in different ways can change the build time drastically. Subtractive would account for toolpaths cutting away material and you have excess, waste, in that process. Additive by contrast uses only the amount of material necessary to complete the build.

Where To Spot Opportunities

Ask yourself a few simple questions and you’ll quickly get an understanding as to whether you should 3D print that tool.

  • How many do I need? If it’s something replaced often, consider a plastic, 3D-printed alternative.
  • Will making this lighter help? Trading metal for plastic makes tools much lighter and more ergonomic.
  • How much will it cost to source otherwise? Compare costs. 3D printing will almost always provide a significant benefit.