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Unlocking Efficiency: End-of-Arm Tooling (EOAT) and 3D Printing in Industrial Automation

End-of-Arm Tooling (EOAT) — also referred to as end effectors — refers to the devices and attachments that are mounted at the end of robotic arms or manipulators. These tools are critical components for many factory processes— allowing robot automation to perform a wide range of tasks with speed and precision.

EOAT is important for industrial production: tooling design directly impacts the efficiency, quality, and cost-effectiveness of robot automation. In this blog, we'll delve into the basics of EOAT: how it’s used, design considerations, and the benefits of 3D printing the components. We'll also showcase five real-world examples of 3D printed EOAT that underscore its value.

What is EOAT used for?

EOAT isn’t limited to just gripping objects on assembly lines— it can be designed for other tasks, such as to equip a robot arm with a camera for quality control.

Here are some common uses for EOAT:

Workholding or grippers: grippers are designed to hold and transport objects. They can range from two-finger grippers to more complex configurations. Grippers and workholding account for the majority of industrial end effectors.

Static operation tools: these tools are used for tasks such as welding, drilling, or bending metal. They are often stationary or fixed in a particular position.

Observational tools: EOAT can include cameras and sensors to observe other work processes for tasks like quality inspection, part recognition, and material handling.

Applicators and sprayers: tools such as paint sprayers or adhesive applicators are used in applications like painting or glue dispensing.

Tool changers: these allow a robot to switch between different tools or end effectors without manual intervention. This is particularly useful in applications where the robot needs to perform multiple tasks or work with different objects.

Screwdrivers and nutrunners: these tools are used for fastening screws, bolts, and nuts in assembly operations.

Suction cups or vacuum grippers: these are used to lift and handle objects with smooth, flat surfaces, such as glass or sheet metal.

Cutting tools: in tasks involving cutting or trimming materials, robots can be equipped with cutting tools or blades.

EOAT design considerations

EOAT design must take into account factors like the size and weight of the objects to be handled, the required precision, the production environment, and safety considerations. The goal is to optimize the robot's performance and efficiency for a specific task.

Object characteristics: understand the size, weight, shape, and material of the objects the EOAT will handle. Design the tool to accommodate these characteristics, ensuring a secure grip or interaction.

Task requirements: consider whether the end effector needs to grip, observe, apply force, weld, cut, or perform other functions. This will impact the tool's design.

Strength-to-weight ratio: EOAT strength is critical for the robot to perform its job while avoiding equipment damage. Maintaining strength while lightweighting can optimize robot performance in several ways. A lighter tool can help a robot perform tasks faster, more precisely, and with less energy consumption— ultimately leading to greater productivity and cost savings. Lighter tooling can also enable manufacturers to use smaller, cheaper robots.

Material selection: choose materials for the EOAT components based on factors like strength, durability, weight, and compatibility with the application's environment.

Weight distribution: balance the weight of the EOAT components to prevent overloading the robot arm or causing imbalances that can affect accuracy and precision.

Mounting and compatibility: design the EOAT to be easily mounted and compatible with the robot's end effector interface.

Programming and control: design the EOAT with the necessary features to enable easy programming and integration with the robot's control system. This includes setting up gripping strategies, motion profiles, and coordination with other robot functions.

Adaptability and tool changers: consider whether the EOAT should be adaptable for different tasks or if it should support tool changers for quick, automated switching of end effectors.

Ease of integration: ensure that the EOAT can be easily integrated into the existing production line, collaborative robot systems, or other automation equipment.

Cost-efficiency and supply chains: balance performance and features with your factory’s budget and need-based lead time considerations. Industrial 3D printing makes EOAT on-demand in a fast, cost-effective way without compromising the tool’s performance.

Durability and maintenance: ensure that EOAT components subject to wear can be replaced easily, and that maintenance procedures are straightforward to minimize downtime.

Benefits of 3D printing EOAT

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has brought about significant advancements in the design and production of EOAT for industrial robots. The use of 3D printing technology offers numerous benefits, making it a game-changer in the world of EOAT design. Here are some of the key advantages:

Get your tool faster: 3D printing can put a tool in your hand within hours or days, while lead times for outsourced production can take weeks or even months. If it takes 12 weeks to get an end-of-arm tool made and there are 16 weeks to actually get that production cell up and running, that only leaves four weeks for programming, testing, and confirmation needed to properly optimize the robot arm. Having your part sooner gives you more time to optimize the programming and figure out that workflow throughput instead of troubleshooting.

Digital inventory: by leveraging 3D printing, manufacturers can create and maintain a digital repository of EOAT designs. Instead of maintaining large stocks of physical inventory, users can store parts in the cloud and print on-demand to any network-connected printer.

Cost efficiency: in many cases, 3D printing can significantly reduce the cost of producing EOAT components. Along with reduced material waste, there are no tooling costs. Additionally, customization, design changes, and complex geometries do not require any additional setup. For example, Dixon Valve replaced $290 machined grippers with 3D-printed composite grippers that cost only $9 to print.

Increased design freedom: additive manufacturing allows for the creation of intricate and complex geometries that may be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods. This opens up new possibilities for EOAT design, enabling innovative solutions for unique tasks and higher levels of optimization.

High-strength, low-weight: 3D printing can significantly reduce the weight of EOAT components. Lighter tools mean less strain on the robot arm, less power needed, and often improve performance. Strong, continuous fiber-reinforced composites make it possible to lightweight parts without compromising strength and stiffness.

Dixon Valve's 3D-printed composite grippers

Examples of 3D-printed EOAT

Spot welding shanks: before, a machined copper shank cost roughly $2,500 a piece and came with a 12 week lead time. Because these shanks are so crucial for assembly, inventory has to be kept in stock — taking up space on the floor and tying up cash.

3D printing each shank in pure copper cuts lead times from 12 weeks to 1 week, and unit costs down from $2,500 to about $350. Without the need to keep a high volume of spare parts in stock, 3D printing can significantly reduce the amount of capital tied up in inventory.

Composite robotic gripper jaws: Dixon Valve has achieved significant cost and time savings by utilizing the Markforged Mark Two 3D printer to create chemically resistant gripper jaws for robotic arm tooling. These jaws are used to transfer fittings between machining centers and must withstand exposure to corrosive fluids during repeated clamping. With the ability to retool a robotic arm in just 24 hours, Dixon Valve realized a 96% reduction in costs and a 93% decrease in lead time required for the production of these components.

Metal ID gripper jaws: Dixon Valve has traditionally utilized Markforged composite 3D printers to produce End of Arm Tooling (EOAT) for their robotic arms but faced challenges in creating grippers capable of holding abrasive surfaces, as the threads on these grippers quickly wore out due to their surface hardness being similar to thermoplastics.

By adopting the Metal X to print these grippers, Dixon Valve maintained the benefits of 3D printing while enhancing part durability, ensuring they could withstand the abrasion of sharp threads. This shift to metal 3D printing enabled Dixon Valve to achieve 98% cost savings and a 91% lead time reduction. The jaws are hard enough to process thousands of stainless steel pipe couplings without wearing down.

Dixon Valve's 3D-printed metal grippers

Process improvements drive profits: Lean Machine, a contract manufacturer, was limited by their ability to spin up manufacturing processes for new POs. Markforged printers enabled them to create higher yield manufacturing cells in days instead of weeks. Now, Lean Machine can take on more clients, while producing more parts for higher profit. Check out the video below to see Lean Machine’s 3D printed carbon fiber gripper jaws in action.

Lights-out manufacturing with EOAT: Athena 3D Manufacturing was looking for ways to get quality Markforged-printed parts to their customers faster. They installed a collaborative robotic arm to change their printers over, even when they didn't have technicians around. The result? A 40% increase in utilization of their Markforged fleet.

Why Markforged for printing EOAT?

Unmatched strength-to-weight of printed composites: our patented Continuous Fiber Reinforcement (CFR) technology can quickly produce parts as strong as aluminum at a fraction of the weight.

Lightweight metal without extensive design time required: our Metal X System is the first additive manufacturing solution that makes metal fabrication fast, cost-effective, and user-friendly.

Use of bound powder feedstock (instead of loose powder) makes the Markforged Metal X system safe and easy to use. Print stainless steel, tool steels, pure copper, and Inconel without the need for highly trained operators or extensive PPE.

Fast, easy design cycles: use our Simulation software to quickly validate performance of carbon fiber composites, fiberglass composites, and 17-4PH stainless steel parts before pressing ‘print.’

Secure digital inventory: Markforged is an industry leader in cloud data security: we are the first additive manufacturing platform to achieve ISO/IEC:27001 certification.

How much time and money can you save 3D printing EOAT?

How can 3D printing EOAT on a Markforged printer streamline your manufacturing operations, add supply chain flexibility, and bring down costs?

Our experts can help you calculate how much money our printers will save your factory floor.

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