Tooling, jigs and fixtures have earned a reputation as the somewhat unexciting part of the additive manufacturing (AM) application spectrum. When you’re up against a world of generatively designed automotive parts and jet engines, it’s hard to shine when you’re tucked away on a production line. However, “the mundane”, as Todd Grimm called it in a notable keynote at TCT Show 2014, is rightfully having its moment in the spotlight as major manufacturers from Ford to Volkswagen are adopting these unsung technologies as aids on the factory floor.
According to a recent report based on AM technology providers, around 7% of customer applications were said to be tooling components, similar to the percentage of customers seeking more common applications such as visual aids and models. Responding to this growing demand, Wilson Tool International, the largest independent manufacturer of tooling systems for punch presses, press brakes, and punch and die components for the stamping and tableting industries, has decided to not only adopt additive but launch an entirely new AM-focused product division.
Wilson Tool has been around for over five decades, growing from a basement shop in Minnesota to a 350,000 square foot US manufacturing facility with a network of seven international manufacturing plants and offices. Its new Wilson Tool Additive venture, one of two recent investments including the purchase of the tablet press tooling division of Thomas Engineering Inc., is a prime example of how the company is putting significant stock in innovation.
“With the rapid advancements in the technology we felt it was time to take advantage of what additive can offer to our customers,” Bryan Rogers, Senior Additive Manufacturing Engineer at Wilson Tool, told TCT. “We’ve done extensive testing with additive over the last couple of years to make sure we have the right technology to fit our markets and their applications. We’ve tested several types of technologies and materials to ensure that we get it right and have the knowledge to best serve our customers. Having the technology is important but knowing how to use and apply it is equally as important, if not more.”
The company has been using additive since the mid-1990s for the development of new products and more recently for producing finished parts. Wilson Tool Additive currently has seven machines in-house and more than a dozen material types across both plastic extrusion-based and light cured resin processes. Wilson Tool Additive has introduced two product lines to deliver made-to-order, custom press brake tools and manufacturing support parts, reducing lead times for a standard steel tool from up to six weeks down to just hours.
The first is Bend3D, offering design and manufacture of tools that can be used for forming and air-bending sheet metal. Internal testing has demonstrated these tools are capable of upwards of 1,000 bends, depending on the material type and thickness.
“Our Bend3D line can produce a usable tool in days – not weeks, in the cases of traditional manufacturing – and our pricing model puts that tooling at a price that is very advantageous when you need a tool fast,” Rogers explained. “Customers can also use a Bend3D tool while they are waiting for a traditional steel tool to be completed. This way a customer can deliver the first run of their parts faster.”
The second product is Solv3D, a line of additively manufactured parts which can be used for prototypes, jigs and fixtures or to replace traditionally manufactured low volume steel and plastic end-use parts, eliminating the need for costly moulds.
Wilson Tool hasn’t disclosed exactly which hardware it has in-house, though Silicon Valley 3D printing company, Carbon has revealed the company has been working with its Digital Light Synthesis technology to introduce a line of oil reservoirs for its QuickTap tapping tool. With four different technologies already producing parts and plans to expand in the new year, the value and benefits in terms of cost savings and turnaround that AM can bring to traditional manufacturing processes is clear. To manufacturers and their customers, that’s not mundane at all.
“I think we’ll see additive grow with current forecasts especially as the technology and speed increases,” Rogers added. “The user-friendliness of the software and hardware together can allow for great future savings and streamlining operations where it can be adopted.”