The lowest-cost tool is never the best tool and seldom the right tool. When purchasing fixtures for robotic automation processes, buyers should avoid the mistake of putting price first and focus on these three things instead.

Anyone who spends much time building or repairing things has probably learned this important lesson the hard way: Never buy cheap tools. Focusing on the cost can be tempting, but with low-cost you sometimes sacrifice quality. In addition, the new challenges you may encounter are seldom worth the savings.

So, it’s hard to understand why people buying fixtures or tooling for their robotic automation processes tend to focus solely on the cost. If they have three quotes, they typically go straight to the low-cost offer. But no matter how much they saved up front, they almost certainly paid more in the long run.

As you modify your production processes to adapt to new part models, you need fixtures to hold the materials or components being processed. These fixtures can range from relatively simple to very complex. Regardless of complexity, maintenance or engineering experts should focus on these three things to make the best tooling selection.

1.) Buying from experienced suppliers

There are many, many reliable machine shops able to provide you with well-made, dimensionally accurate fixtures. But most of those suppliers lack the unique knowledge and experience that’s available only from companies that work extensively or exclusively with tooling for robotic processes. That knowledge is essential to producing the most effective and productive fixtures.

Robotic-tooling engineers understand the dynamics of the process, the forces involved and how parts flow through automated processes. Also, programmers who’ve spent time on customer sites during commissioning of new robotic processes or troubleshooting problems can offer significant input regarding fixture design.

Relying on companies that specialize in tooling for robotic processes has another huge advantage: Less downtime when retooling. When building models for new fixtures, they can add target points to the model so the part data enables highly accurate offline programming.  When the tool is ready to be installed, there’s no need to shut down your process for several days to manually program all the trim paths. Instead, the offline program can be loaded and you can be producing parts within hours of the fixture arriving at your plant.

Even with all their expertise, fixtures provided by tooling specialists aren’t always perfect. The upside is that fixture suppliers hear customer feedback including pain points and fixture challenges. That feedback is a vital source of information for continuous improvement to ensure those challenges won’t occur on future projects.

2.) Consider the whole process

Your manufacturing operations may include cutting, drilling and other processes. Any well-made fixture will provide the required support for parts. But that’s not the whole picture. There are other things to be considered.

A major aspect of a whole-process view is considering how operators and robots interact with the fixture. Robotic-tooling specialists will conduct a robot reach study in their design process. Data from these studies ensure your fixture and robots are in the best position to optimize cutting efficiency, and your operators’ interactions are ergonomically correct, reducing fatigue and the chance of injury.

3.) Think long term

A fixture provided by a traditional machine shop that works great one day may not perform as well over time. As one example, many fixtures are “egg crated” to provide the required support underneath the part being worked on. Unfortunately, these egg-crate structures clutter the void below the part. That not only interferes with the flow of air, water or coolant, it also creates structure that collects production debris.

A great example of this is waterjet cutting of carpeting in automotive floor-panel production. The water and carpet fibers create a sludge that must be regularly cleaned out. And fixtures that aren’t designed to allow for kerf and knockouts to be evacuated can impair contact between the part and fixture, resulting in higher scrap rates. Experienced robot fixture-makers familiar with these kinds of issues can incorporate design features to avoid them.

When considering new fixtures, remember to include future maintenance in your thinking. Many fixtures include components that incur wear and need to be replaced. Many waterjet cutting processes, for instance, include baffles to deflect the waterjets. These baffles wear out over time. Look at any “consumable” fixture components like baffles to be sure they can be easily replaced when necessary. This is where preventative maintenance and annual service checks are important.

The right supplier is the key

Smart process engineers constantly search for ways to optimize the productivity of their automated processes and minimize maintenance while ensuring the quality of the components being produced. Their most valuable partner in this search is a supplier with specific expertise in robotic automation.

Unlike traditional machine shops, automation experts tasked with providing your fixtures can draw on their extensive experience and the resulting knowledge accumulated from a team that includes designers, service technicians, programmers, field service and others. That knowledge provides them with a holistic, long-term view of your process that enables them to deliver the best possible fixtures.

The next time you’re considering suppliers for your tooling needs, look for a supplier with the knowledge and expertise to minimize your operational costs in the long run.