What Is Engineering Tolerance and Why We Need It?

Tolerances play a crucial role in mechanical engineering by defining the acceptable deviation from specified dimensions. They are essential for ensuring the usability of the final product, particularly when it is part of a larger assembly.

Failure to establish appropriate tolerances in critical areas can result in parts that do not align with the intended design, as different manufacturing methods inherently introduce a certain level of inaccuracy.

On the other hand, determining suitable tolerances enables manufacturing companies to focus more attention on specific aspects of the production process. This attention to detail can be the differentiating factor between achieving perfectly fitting components and ending up with unusable scrap metal.

What Is Tolerance in Engineering?

Engineering tolerance refers to the acceptable range of variation in measurements derived from a base measurement. Tolerances can be applied to various units, such as temperature (°C), humidity (g/m3), or, in the case of mechanical engineering, linear, angular, and other physical dimensions.

Irrespective of the unit, a tolerance establishes an allowable measurement range around the nominal value or base point. To illustrate this, consider the design of a sieve used to separate 3.5 mm pebbles from 2.5 mm pebbles. The objective is to allow the smaller pebbles to pass through the sieve while retaining the larger ones.

The larger rocks have sizes ranging between 3.3 mm and 3.7 mm, while the smaller ones fall within the range of 2.3 mm to 2.7 mm. To ensure that only the smaller pebbles pass through the holes while keeping the larger ones on the sieve, a nominal value of 2.8 mm can be set for the hole diameter. However, due to manufacturing precision, some holes may end up at 2.6 mm.

By establishing a lower limit of -0 mm and an upper limit of +0.3 mm, it can be guaranteed that all the holes will have diameters ranging from 2.8 mm to 3.1 mm. This ensures that the sieve functions as intended and effectively separates the desired pebbles while retaining the larger ones. The range 2.8~3.1 mm is called the tolerance zone or tolerance range here.

Types of Tolerance

Here are the types of tolerance commonly encountered in engineering:

Dimensional Tolerance & Geometric Tolerance

Dimensional Tolerance

Dimensional tolerance refers to the permissible variation in the size or dimensions of a component. It ensures that the component can fit and function within the desired specifications. This type of tolerance is typically specified in terms of linear measurements, such as length, width, height, diameter, or thickness.

Geometric Tolerance

Geometric tolerance controls the form, orientation, and position of features on a component. It allows for variations in shape, angles, and location while ensuring that the component’s functional requirements are met. Geometric tolerances include various subtypes:

a. Form Tolerance

Form tolerance specifies the acceptable variation in the overall shape of a feature, such as straightness, flatness, circularity, or cylindricity.

b. Orientation Tolerance

Orientation tolerance regulates the allowable variation in the angles, inclinations, or orientations of features. Examples include perpendicularity, parallelism, angularity, and taper.

c. Position Tolerance

Position tolerance controls the deviation of a feature’s location from its desired position. It considers both the location and size of the tolerance zone to determine the acceptable range of variation.

d. Profile Tolerance

Profile tolerance defines the allowable variation in the contour or surface profile of a feature. It ensures that the feature’s cross-sectional shape or surface meets the specified requirements.

Surface Texture Tolerance

Surface texture tolerance relates to the acceptable variation in the texture, roughness, or finish of a surface. It considers factors like surface roughness, waviness, and lay, which impact the functional or aesthetic properties of the component.

Material Property Tolerance

Material property tolerance involves the acceptable variation in the physical or mechanical properties of materials used in engineering designs. This can include tolerances for properties like tensile strength, hardness, elasticity, conductivity, or thermal expansion.

Assembly Tolerance

Assembly tolerance specifies the permissible variation in the fit, alignment, or mating of components during the assembly process. It ensures that parts can be correctly assembled and function together as intended.

Considerations When Setting Tolerances

Tolerances cost money, no tolerance cost performances. The trick is to find the happy medium. Here is an example. When I was designing an RC helicopter, I needed to decide the tolerance of the main shaft’s straightness which rotates the main blade of the helicopter. We first did some tests on how much vibration the helicopter would have when the straightness is off by 0.01mm, 0.02mm, 0.03mm, 0.04mm, and 0.05mm. Then we considered how the shaft is made, and made an estimation of the failure rate if we require a tolerance range of 0.01, 0.02, 0.03….etc. And finally, we decide the tolerance should be 0.03mm, where the vibration is in a controllable range while parts are not too difficult to make.

Determining suitable tolerances in engineering involves careful consideration of their impact on other factors and the outcome of a process. This determination often relies on scientific principles, engineering expertise, and professional experience. Experimental investigations, such as the design of experiments and formal engineering evaluations, are valuable tools for studying the effects of tolerances.

However, having well-defined engineering tolerances in a specification does not guarantee compliance with those tolerances. Actual production processes and system operations inherently involve variations in input and output. Additionally, measurements are subject to errors and statistical uncertainties. In cases where measurements follow a normal distribution, the tails of measured values may extend significantly beyond plus and minus three standard deviations from the process average. It is possible for appreciable portions of one or both tails to go beyond the specified tolerance limits.

The processing capability of systems, materials, and products must align with the specified engineering tolerances. Process controls should be implemented, and an effective Quality Management System (such as Total Quality Management) must be in place to ensure that actual production remains within the desired tolerances. A process capability index is commonly used to indicate the relationship between tolerances and actual measured production.

The selection of tolerances is also influenced by the intended statistical sampling plan and its characteristics, including the Acceptable Quality Level. This consideration addresses whether tolerances need to be extremely stringent (ensuring high confidence in 100% conformance) or if a small percentage of deviation from tolerance may be acceptable in certain instances.

Establishing Tolerances

Establishing tolerances in engineering involves careful consideration of various factors and considerations. Here are some key steps and considerations in the process of establishing tolerances:

Design Requirements

Begin by understanding the design requirements and functional specifications of the component or system. Identify critical dimensions, features, and performance criteria that must be met.

Engineering Standards and Codes

Consult relevant engineering standards, codes, and regulations specific to the industry or application. These standards provide guidelines and recommended tolerances for different components and materials.

Manufacturing Processes

Consider the manufacturing processes that will be used to produce the component or system. Different manufacturing methods have inherent limitations and variations, which can influence the achievable tolerances. Understand the capabilities and limitations of the chosen manufacturing processes.

Design for Manufacturability

Design the component with manufacturability in mind. Optimize the design to facilitate easier and more accurate manufacturing, reducing the need for tight tolerances. Collaboration between design engineers and manufacturing experts can help identify areas where tolerances can be relaxed or features can be modified for improved manufacturability.

Statistical Analysis

Conduct statistical analysis to understand the variability associated with the manufacturing process and the potential impact on the component’s performance. This analysis helps determine the acceptable range of tolerances to account for the inherent variability and ensure that the component meets the desired performance criteria.

Tolerance Stack-Up Analysis

Perform tolerance stack-up analysis to assess the cumulative effects of tolerances on the final assembly. This analysis helps identify potential sources of interference, misalignment, or functional issues arising from the combined variations in individual components.

Tolerance Allocation

Allocate tolerances to individual dimensions and features based on their criticality to the component’s functionality and performance. Consider the interrelationships between dimensions and features to ensure that the overall design remains within the desired specifications.

Design Verification and Prototyping

Validate the design and tolerances through prototyping, testing, and analysis. This step helps identify any potential issues or deviations from the intended performance and make necessary adjustments.

Documentation and Communication

Clearly document the established tolerances in engineering drawings, specifications, and manufacturing documentation. Ensure effective communication of the tolerance requirements to all stakeholders involved in the manufacturing and assembly processes.

Continuous Improvement

Regularly evaluate and improve tolerance specifications based on feedback from manufacturing, quality control, and customer feedback. Embrace a continuous improvement mindset to optimize tolerances over time for improved product performance, cost efficiency, and customer satisfaction.

Tolerance Management and Control

Tolerance management and control refer to the process of managing and controlling the acceptable variation in a product’s or process’s dimensions, characteristics, or performance. Tolerance is the permissible deviation or variation in a physical dimension or property of a product or process. It ensures that the product or process meets the required specifications and functions properly.

Tolerance management involves determining the allowable limits for various dimensions, features, or parameters of a product or process. These limits are typically defined in engineering drawings, specifications, or standards. The goal is to strike a balance between the desired functionality, manufacturing feasibility, and cost considerations.

Here are some key aspects of tolerance management and control:

Design Tolerance

During the design phase, engineers specify the tolerances for individual dimensions, geometric features, and performance characteristics of the product. They consider factors such as functional requirements, manufacturing capabilities, and cost implications.

Statistical Analysis

Statistical methods are often employed to analyze and establish tolerances. Techniques such as statistical process control (SPC), process capability analysis, and design of experiments (DOE) can help determine the appropriate tolerances based on the desired level of quality and process capability.

Manufacturing Processes

Tolerance management requires considering the capabilities and limitations of the manufacturing processes involved. Different manufacturing processes have varying degrees of precision, and the tolerances need to be set accordingly to ensure consistent and reliable production.

Inspection and Quality Control

Tolerance control involves inspecting and verifying the manufactured product to ensure it falls within the specified tolerances. This may involve using various measurement techniques, such as coordinate measuring machines (CMMs), gauges, or visual inspection, to check critical dimensions or features.

Cost Considerations

Tolerance management also takes into account cost implications. Tighter tolerances may lead to higher manufacturing costs due to increased precision requirements, tighter process controls, and more inspection efforts. Balancing the desired level of quality with the cost constraints is essential.

Iterative Improvement

Tolerance management is an iterative process. Feedback from manufacturing, inspection, and customer feedback is used to continuously refine and improve the tolerances. It involves assessing the product’s performance in real-world conditions and making necessary adjustments to ensure customer satisfaction.


In CapableMachining conclusion, engineering tolerances play a crucial role in ensuring the functionality, performance, and manufacturability of components and systems. Tolerances define the acceptable variation in dimensions, form, orientation, and other critical parameters of a design. By establishing and managing tolerances effectively, engineers can achieve the desired balance between design requirements, manufacturing feasibility, and cost optimization.

Ultimately, engineering tolerance is a critical aspect of engineering design, enabling the realization of reliable, functional, and high-quality products. By understanding the importance of tolerance and following established best practices, engineers can successfully navigate the complexities of tolerancing and contribute to the advancement of engineering innovation.

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