For decades, the anodizing industry has rapidly expanded into a billion-dollar industry. The catalyst for this growth was the countless process improvements that lowered anodizing costs, making it more applicable to mass markets. While initially only used for military applications, anodizing is now used in manufacturing microchips and even as decorative coating for aluminum products. Anodizers are always looking for new ways to innovate within the industry, and 3D printing is opening a pathway for many game-changing opportunities.
Masking is a fundamental operation of the anodizing processes. It requires the skilled use of tape, paint, and razor blades to delicately cut out shapes to the precise dimensions given by the customer’s print. To achieve such a high level of precision, maskers typically need years of experience to acquire the necessary expertise to mask for high-complexity anodizing jobs.
To increase production speed, custom fixtures were implemented to streamline the masking process. Masking is essential so that only the requested surfaces get anodized, the rest have to be covered with paint or tape. Fixtures act as cookie cutters so that the same exact shape is always anodized on a part surface, instead of slowly cutting by hand.
The use of custom-designed fixtures was often avoided due to slow prototyping speed and the high cost of outsourcing to a vendor. But now with rapid prototyping 3D printers, the same fixtures can be designed and printed in less than 24 hours – at a fraction of the cost. This type of massive convenience is why most manufacturers as well as tech companies have heavily invested in rapid prototype technology.
In 2020, Semano started producing its own fixtures in-house thanks to a small Anycubic 3D printer. This cheap printer is now retired, but it was the start of a new approach to masking that allowed for much greater flexibility. Its successor is a large format 3D printer (A Modix Big 60, pictured left), with much more freedom for creating fixtures. Because of these additions, Semano now has the ability to design and fabricate fixtures quickly and at fractions of the cost of outsourcing.
The main caveat is that 3D printers require an investment of money and time in order to produce good-quality results. They are still primarily used for prototyping, but as the technology gets better they are increasingly becoming capable of making final products.
There are still many situations where tight tolerances or material requirements make it necessary to outsource. Fortunately, it has also become easier to get custom-fabricated fixtures from vendors. The cost is still considerable, but being able to do most of the work in-house has made fixtures a considerable advantage.
The time savings vary by part, and there are still many parts that can’t be masked with fixtures. However, in some parts, we see time savings of 5 – 20 minutes alone. Taking this into consideration, we have been able to lower the costs for these parts and save both Semano and our Customers thousands of dollars.
The future of innovating using in-house solutions looks bright for the Anodizing Industry, as fabrication options become more reliable and cost-effective. The use of 3D printing is a significant way that we have been able to streamline fixture creation and reduce the cost and time of masking.
We continue to look for all the ways we can continue to keep an edge in the anodizing field and deliver the best products at the greatest value. As we keep developing new ways to innovate, the use case for anodizing has also grown and expanded into new markets. If you have questions about anodizing or need a quote please contact us at your convenience.