Fixtures Meet Need for Flexibility

October 23, 2008
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The recent economic climate has been a constant moving target for most individuals and corporations. Increasing fuel costs have promoted most of the automotive OEMs to shift their focus to smaller, more fuel-friendly vehicles and hybrids. These shifts cause ripple effects throughout the OEM and its supply base to generate faster results.

The need for faster results is felt throughout an organization, including the engineering and quality groups that must maintain the expected level of quality of these rapid to market products. In order to remain steadfast to the quality standards within an organization, it must strive to improve processes and efficiencies while keeping short- and long-term spending in check. One way to meet this challenge is through the use of modular fixturing, which provides flexibility along with repeatability to accomplish numerous tasks while maintaining the overall needed accuracy.

A modular-based fixture used for a side panel can be used with other side panels or numerous other parts, and after the program is complete, it can be disassembled and reused with the next program. Source: Witte America

Values of Modular Fixturing

Although modular fixturing may sound like a somewhat new concept, particularly when talking about completely replacing traditional fixtures, a few companies have been providing modular based-fixturing since the 1970s. These fixtures have been considered a best-kept secret by key groups within the automotive and aerospace industries, thereby attributing to the use of cost reductions and repeatability. After a group has made the investment in modular fixturing, they become committed to the flexibility and recoup their investment in a short period of time-in many cases groups have been using the same systems for more than 20 years.

Why modular-based fixturing? Two reasons are speed and long-term cost savings. The ease of working with most modular systems provides a high-end tool with simple building characteristics. One modular system would provide the manufacturer with numerous fixturing possibilities, whereas a standard dedicated fixture would allow for limited flexibility and require greater effort to make even minor changes. A modular-based system can be modified with simple changes.

Other advantages of modular-based systems include reduced space requirements for storage and a significant reduction in scrap. In fact, on average 80% of a modular-based fixtures can be reused again; in some cases reusability can be up to 100%.

So what does 80% to 100% reusable mean? Just what it indicates-the initial investment for a modular fixturing system might be the same or a little more than a standard dedicated fixture, but the advantages are not the same. Modular fixturing is an investment that after purchase can be reused, whereas the standard dedicated typically cannot.

For example, if a side panel fixture is created with a standard dedicated fixture, it becomes a dedicated fixture for that particular side panel. On the other hand, a modular-based fixture used for the same side panel also can be used with other side panels or numerous other parts, and after the program is complete, it simply gets disassembled and reused with the next program. In this case, approximately 80% to 90% would be reusable, with the remaining 10% to 20% being contour blocks to fit the particular part. The majority of the time, 100% of the system can be reused over and over.

One important note about program fixtures, like the side panel example, is that it can be reassembled at anytime and used again for the original fixture with limited effort. This provides the flexibility that is needed in today’s reactive environment.

To choose the right flexible system, take a look at all of the different parts being worked with including sizes, material, need, complexity and simplicity and then determine what it costs to create fixtures for all of these parts. Source: Witte America

Choosing a System

Choosing the right modular system is the key to getting the most benefit out of this type of system. Buying a system with the idea that they are all the same is like buying tools-there are high quality tools and low quality tools, there are universal tools and specialized tools, and lastly there is service and support or lack of it.

The right modular fixturing system for a manufacturer will come with the tools it needs to accomplish its goals and objectives. It makes no sense to purchase a lot of items that will never be used or be subjected to purchasing certain items that only work with a particular brand, thereby limiting the ability to expand or handle potential complex parts. The right system gives the ability to build and rebuild based on a company’s needs.

Flexibility also comes in the form of time-savings, which equates to potential improvements in throughput, along the lines of operator ease of use and the ability to quickly modify a fixture to limit downtime.

Meeting the uncertainty with flexibility seems like a novel idea, but what’s the cost? As stated earlier, the cost for a modular system is reasonably close to a dedicated fixture. The cost of a modular system will pay for itself with every project after the initial project. Cost is relative to a company’s needs, but when comparing the cost of a flexible system to a traditional fixture, one also has to look at the long-term costs vs. the short-term costs. Buying decisions should be looked at as investments and not an expense because flexible systems provide multiple uses and can be carried over multiple projects.

Modular fixturing provides flexibility along with repeatability to accomplish numerous tasks while maintaining the overall needed accuracy. Source: Witte America

What is the right system? Always a good question and like some many other choices in life and business, the answer is “it depends.” It depends on the type of parts or projects, a company’s goals and objectives, length of programs, fixture usage, type and size of coordinate measuring machine, the process in the plant, as well as various other choices.

But these choices are not new, and understanding what it means to be flexible is not either: It is sometimes misunderstood and considered too costly because many users are only concerned with their current needs and not with future needs. So choosing the right system might require a paradigm shift and the ability to accept change.

To choose the right flexible system, take a look at all of the different parts being worked with including sizes, material, need, complexity and simplicity and then determine what it costs to create fixtures for all of these parts. Then look at all of the existing fixtures in storage, on the shelf or located offsite. Imagine having tool boxes of flexible fixtures and other components that would allow for building almost whatever is necessary at the time it is needed.

To find the right company to work with, do the research by asking for references, how long a company has been in business and what quality means to them. Do the answers meet your standards?

Change is sometimes difficult and at times requires a person who sees change as an opportunity to make a difference in this reactive environment. Take the necessary steps to be in a proactive environment where the vacuums are eliminated, and goals are based on current and future needs. Q

Tech Tips

  • Modular fixturing provides flexibility along with repeatability to accomplish numerous tasks.

  • One modular system would provide a manufacturer with numerous fixturing possibilities.

  • The right system gives the ability to build and rebuild based on a company’s needs.

  • An appropriate system depends on a variety of variables including the type of parts or projects, a company’s goals and objectives, length of programs, fixture usage, type and size of coordinate measuring machine, and the process in the plant.


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