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Documenting Fixtures and Jigs—Why It’s Forgotten, and Why It Matters

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fixture - T-Slots on the table of a milling machineI wrote a bit on Tuesday about the importance of documenting part information during the design process, and today I’d like to talk about another type of documentation that is commonly overlooked in organizations—the documentation of fixtures and jigs.

We talk to many people working in high-functioning manufacturing departments who document everything thoroughly and consistently except for the fixtures they use to make their product. Big mistake!

Failing to document your fixtures and jigs can cause huge problems down the road, so you need to make it a regular part of your process.

Why do manufacturers forget to document their fixtures?

Fixtures are important—they are the tools with which you build your product. So why do so many organizations forget to document them?

The most common reason is that fixtures can be built over time as needed, and are usually seen as “tools” and not “products”—because of this, many organizations forget to assign formal processes for them.

The perception that fixtures are a secondary concern begins early in an organization’s life. When a company first starts up things happen fast, and no one has time to worry about developing formal documentation processes for fixtures—especially if there are only a few people in the company. At this stage in the game things are very tactical, so plans and processes are implemented as an after-thought in the mad scramble to get products built and out the door.

In an ideal world, documentation for fixtures would be adopted immediately, or at least incorporated into the process as soon as your head is above water, but once things begin to stabilize fixture documentation usually takes a back-seat to hiring additional support and building out product lines. At this point a precedent has been set, and fixtures are typically forgotten until they break or need to be replaced.

So you don’t document your fixtures and jigs—what’s the worst that can happen?

Consider this scenario.

Something changes with your contract manufacturer and your only viable option is to leave. Of course your CM isn’t happy, but you’ve done the research and a continued partnership just doesn’t make sense. As you make the transition you do your best to capture all the information your new CM will need, but right after the papers have been signed you realize you’re not sure how to build an important fixture. (Or what more commonly happens is that you don’t realize the oversight until your fixtures break a few months or years down the road!)

Now this is a bad situation with two choices—reverse engineer the fixture, or crawl back to your former CM and hope they can help you recreate it.

The last thing you want is your engineering team out on the floor with calipers trying to reverse engineer a fixture—at $70-$100 an hour, this is expensive labor! An even worse possibility is that you can’t convince your old CM to help you out (even at a premium) so production stops.

If you’ve never experienced this personally, you probably know someone who has. It’s a high price to pay for something that is completely avoidable—if you document your fixtures and jigs.

If you’re still not convinced you need to document your fixtures...

With proper fixture and jig documentation, not only can you avoid line delays or stops, but you can find opportunities to eliminate waste in your manufacturing line, and become a more lean and efficient organization. And if you’re trying to decrease defects by implementing a Six Sigma or lean manufacturing strategy, the best place to start is with your fixtures—proper documentation allows you to see if there are errors or inefficiencies associated with your fixtures so you can make a change.

Even if you outsource your manufacturing, reviewing your processes, and keeping documentation up-to-date should be an in-house competency. Think of it this way—manufacturing is the only part of business where saving a dollar is making a dollar, so putting resources in place to understand and refine how your products get to market is a great way to improve your margins.

About the Author

Alex Gammelgard

Alex managed social media marketing and communications at Arena from 2011 to 2012. Although coming in fresh to the manufacturing industry, Alex is married to an engineer and is well ...

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