The Jewellery Sector and 3D Printing
When it comes to applications of 3D printing, there are few more appealing or captivating for the consumer than jewellery. Just take a look at the jewellery gallery we presented last week, browse through the archives of 3DPI or visit the sites of some of the talented jewellery designers that have embraced 3D printing technologies. However, the technical requirements for 3D printing jewellery — particularly at the high end of the market — are fairly extensive in terms of sophisticated processes, materials for casting within the traditional process and, more recently, printing jewellery pieces directly.
Few, if any, can dispute that the jewellery sector is huge. Last year alone the market size was estimated to be in the region of $150 billion, according to Alphaworld.com. The sector covers a wide spectrum — from top-end products that retail for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, down to the lower end of the market where products are produced in high volumes and retail for only few dollars a piece. Regardless of the price, though, jewellery is purchased and worn as a personal statement made by the wearer — and the appeal of jewellery is universal.
Traditionally, the design and manufacturing process for jewellery has always required high levels of expertise and knowledge involving specific disciplines that include fabrication, mould-making, casting, electroplating, forging, silver/gold smithing, stone-cutting, engraving and polishing. Each of these disciplines has evolved over many years and each requires technical knowledge when applied to jewellery manufacture. Just one example is investment casting — the origins of which can be traced back more than 4000 years.
3D Printing and Jewellery
For the jewellery sector, 3D printing has proved to be particularly disruptive. There is a great deal of interest — and uptake — based on how 3D printing can, and will, contribute to the further development of this industry. From new design freedoms enabled by 3D CAD and 3D printing, through improving traditional processes for jewellery production all the way to direct 3D printed production eliminating many of the traditional steps — 3D printing has had a tremendous impact.
Today, most jewellery is still produced in the traditional way — but jewellery manufacturers across the world now have a much wider variety of tools at hand.
The traditional manufacture of jewellery typically involves a number of key steps:
• creating the design
• creating a primary model of the design (traditionally by hand crafting or CNC)
• creating a pattern
• producing a silver master
• creating a silicon/rubber mould for wax injection of mass produced pieces
• casting/production of final pieces and finishing.
One of the most profound ways in which 3D printing has impacted the jewellery sector is as a method for prototyping and tooling — as the precursor to investment casting or die casting, whereby 3D printing is used to create the primary model or a direct wax pattern from which to achieve a rubber or silicon mould. These applications have seen massive developments in many areas of the jewellery sector, eliminating some of the most time-consuming steps of the traditional process.
However, these applications require a specific type of high-end 3D printing process, namely those that produce parts with the tightest tolerances and highest resolutions. There are some processes that have had notable success within the jewellery sector, including the Perfactory process from Envisiontec; the SLA process from 3D Systems; and Solidscape’s range of additive machines, utilising wax materials.
In the last couple of years there have also been some quite dramatic developments in terms of using 3D printing for direct production. The DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) process from EOS has contributed significantly to this with the ability to process metals such as titanium and stainless steel.
For many years 3D printers have been (and still are really) limited by the materials that they can process. However, recently, new materials such as silver and gold have been added to the list of printable materials among others. These have been specifically developed for jewellery applications and look to be very well received.
Companies such as the previously mentioned EOS in partnership with Cooksons Precious Metals, as well as the Legor organisation have been developing gold materials specifically for 3D printing. A specific gold 3D printer is expected from EOS / Cooksons in 2013. Jewellery 3D printed in silver is now available for consumers to purchase through online stores such as Shapeways and Ponoko, with i.materialise offering both gold and silver 3D printed pieces.
Last week, Juho highlighted some of the really cool 3D printed jewellery applications in an image gallery. Here is a closer look at some of the ranges and the jewellery designers behind them:
Mark Bloomfield’s Electrobloom has a great collection of jewellery along other design gift items:
Generative design studio Nervous System have a wide selection of jewellery and other decorative products in their online shop:
unellenu is another inspired jewellery designer. Their products are available through Shapeways:
Also don’t forget Christina Chun, whose fantastic bracelet designs made quite an impression. Unfortunately they are not available for retail yet, but she has promised to keep us informed, when the time comes.
For 3D printing, the jewellery sector, with money to invest, is proving to be one of the most inspiring sectors in terms of uptake and innovative applications. It is certainly one to keep an eye on as the technologies continue to evolve and new systems and applications emerge.