By Shawna Kulpa
In the iconic 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s DayOff, the titular character directly warns viewers, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
The same sentiment could be applied to the technology used in manufacturing today, particularly in the jewelry industry. Just within the last two decades or so, we’ve seen the introduction and embrace of desktop laser welders that allow jewelers to join metal nearly instantaneously, CAD software that can design jewelry and render lifelike images, and 3-D printers that allow jewelry makers to produce a castable model within hours. And we’re just getting started.
According to the leaders of the World Economic Forum, we’re now in the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, a digital transformation where changes are happening at breakneck speed. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by these changes, especially if you just want to keep making jewelry the same way it’s been made for decades. But you risk getting left behind if you don’t stay on top of the latest developments.
“The days of learning something and being done are over,” warns Kevin Abernathy, chief innovation officer of BISVentures in Burnsville, Minnesota. “We need to continue to learn from now on.”
To help with your education, we offer a peek at some of the latest developments in manufacturing to see how these technologies could soon be impacting jewelry makers.
Although it’s been around for quite some time, additive metal printing is a technology that many see as potentially being the wave of the future.
“Three-D metal printing is the next forefront of printing we’ll see,” says Abernathy. “As that technology curve keeps pushing farther and faster, metal printing is coming into its own.”
Currently, there are three types of metal printers on the market that may have the potential to be used with precious metals. Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) machines use a laser to directly fuse metal powder in a powder bed. Inkjet printers also have powder beds but use a type of glue to bind the metal powder as it builds the model, which then needs to be removed and the powder sintered. The third type, fused deposition modeling machines, uses small filaments filled with metal powder that are extruded layer by layer and then burned out.
Regardless of printer type, one of the big obstacles of this technology has been the price. While some DMLS and inkjet systems can still run upwards of $500,000, the prices have fallen over the last few years, with several entry-level DMLS printers available for under $150,000.
“Prices of machines are coming down,” confirms Steven Adler of A3DM Technologies, an additive manufacturing R&D company based in Burlington, Vermont. “I think they’ll probably get down to the $50,000 to $75,000 range in the next five years, which would be affordable for a lot of jewelry companies.”
Tyler Teague, owner of Proto Products in Fairview, Tennessee, agrees. “Five years from now there could be much cheaper versions, with a little cube of metal powder that you wouldn’t need a second mortgage to buy to run the machine,” he says. “It’ll come, it’s just not there yet.”
Another obstacle has been the high cost of the metal powder, as well as the difficulty of locating a supplier for it. According to Joe Strauss, president of HJE Co. Inc. in Queensbury, New York, “there are only a few companies in the U.S. making powder, and they’re not necessarily making it for jewelry manufacturing. That’s an issue that has to be addressed before anyone starts using this technology.”
One of the reasons for the tight powder supply, Strauss says, is the fact that many of the companies currently making metal powder don’t have or want to integrate the type of security needed if they dealt with precious metals. But if demand for these printers grows within the industry, powder companies are likely to consider offering it. Additionally, the scale of operation of most atomization systems is too large to be used for precious metals. An atomizer that processes 1,000 lbs. of stainless steel per batch would require about 2,000 lbs. of 18k gold, making this economically challenging. To solve this problem, smaller atomizers are needed.
Even if powder supply remains tight, Adler believes that the cost of the powder will become more affordable as DMLS and inkjet printers evolve. “I’m seeing more machines with the versatility of adjustable [printing] envelopes,” he says. “If you only want to print one piece, you would have a small envelope, which reduces the amount of metal needed.”
Developments are already taking place in this area. Last year, Desktop Metal in Burlington, Massachusetts, released a new desktop metal printer. A fused deposition modeling printer, it extrudes bound metal rods (metal powder held together by wax and polymer binders). The printer, which comes bundled with a debinding system and a sinter furnace, sells for $150,000.
Currently, the printer can create parts in a number of metals, including copper, bronze, and a range of stainless steel alloys. Although it’s not designed for use in the jewelry industry, many experts believe that it’s just a matter of time before the technology evolves and gets adapted for use with precious metals.
One improvement that would need to occur to make the system applicable for jewelry would be the level of finish it can achieve.
“The lack of detail isn’t so great,” Strauss says of fused deposition modeling printers. “Casting can achieve much higher level surface details.” However, he does note that “inkjet and DMLS printers [produce finishes] at the same level as casting.”
“It’s not at the point where it’s usable for traditional fine jewelry,” confirms Adler, who also says that the machine’s resolution and the resulting surface finish are not currently high enough for what would be required for typical fine jewelry. “But the output quality will improve over time.”
One concern Teague notes about the printer is the amount of waste material it generates when building a part, as any supports needed for the model are built using the same metal material. “The jewelry industry is not going to go for a machine that has this much waste to make a part,” he says. “It is not cost effective compared to investment casting.”
Michael Raphael, CEO of Direct Dimensions in Owings Mills, Maryland, witnessed the Desktop Metal’s printer at a trade show last year. He thinks it’s not a matter of if this technology will evolve and be adapted by the jewelry industry, but when. “I think the machinery will be further optimized and economized for the jewelry industry and precious metals. It seems like it could meet a lot of strong, pent-up demand.”
Strauss remains hesitant to predict what the future might hold for metal printing. “I don’t think it’s going to replace manufacturing,” he says, noting that casting will still continue to meet most jewelers’ needs. But jewelers interested in creating complex, geometrical designs that can’t be easily accomplished through casting should definitely stay tuned.
When it comes to software, there have been developments in generative design tools that could be poised to play a part in the future of jewelry design and manufacturing. These tools use cloud computing to determine the best way to design something based on a fixed set of parameters. Although it’s been around since the early ’90s, the technology has been incorporated into a wide range of CAD design programs only fairly recently.
“Generative design is currently utilized in other industries to radically push the boundaries of what is possible by creating unique, lighter, stronger, and more efficient products,” says Abernathy.
Adler points to the aerospace industry, which has already started using the technology in its development of the many parts used in the building of aircraft.
“Imagine someone making an airplane wing,” he says. Previously, an engineer would determine the shape and size of the bolts needed based in part on the stresses to which they would be subjected. “With generative software, instead of an engineer deciding what the bolt should look like, you type in the information and the software decides the shape needed. It’s the next wave of intelligent software—generating designs without the human factor based solely on the requirements.”
Already, the technology has migrated to this industry. One example is Grasshopper, a modeling plug-in designed for use with Rhino. It allows designers to create unique shapes and patterns that might ordinarily be too difficult or time consuming to render in CAD or to create by hand fabrication, such as a pendant featuring a Voronoi pattern.
Most jewelry CAD programs are designed to easily adjust for changes to designs that fall within the parameters of the program. But for designers interested in creating unusual shapes, patterns, or settings, any changes or adjustments—even just the resizing of a ring—would have to be done manually. Grasshopper allows for these designs to automatically adjust. However, it’s not a matter of simply pushing a button. The plug-in requires users to manually program what they want to do, so some technical understanding is needed.
In addition to helping jewelers design in a more intuitive and accessible way, software programs like Grasshopper could also soon be used to improve the function of jewelry, such as determining the optimum thickness of prongs or a ring shank for optimum strength and durability, or modifying a ring’s shape to prevent it from spinning around a finger because it’s too top heavy.
“I think we could see this start to affect jewelry design,” says Adler. For example, if a designer wanted to create a large, hollow platinum ring in such a way that would minimize potential denting, the software would help to create the best internal structure to achieve that. “It’s a balancing of form and function,” Adler adds.
If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by such technological changes, take heart: Whatever technology we may use to create jewelry in 10, 20, or 50 years, there’s still an important piece of the puzzle that a machine just can’t duplicate—the human touch.
“No matter how much technology I use to design or print a part, at the end of the day, it takes a human, an artist, to bring it into the final phase of a finished piece,” says Abernathy. “That love, that nurturing to bring a piece of jewelry to life—no machine is ever going to replace that.”
If you’ve put off investing in CAD/CAM technology, now is a great time to finally get your feet wet. The software and ma-chines currently on the market offer a lot more than they did just a few years ago, and they are available for a much lower price. “Products now are doing more stuff, such as tool pathing, and can be bundled for a reasonable price,” says Kevin Abernathy, chief innovation officer of BISVentures in Burnsville, Minnesota. “You don’t have to spend $50,000 anymore. It can help the smallest of companies.”
In addition to a surge in the number and availability of printers geared toward smaller companies, new advancements could soon be coming, thanks to the work that printer manufacturers have been developing for large, industrial production setups.
“The latest buzz around 3-D printing is far more industrial than we’ve seen in the last 5 to 10 years,” says Michael Raphael, CEO of Direct Dimensions in Owings Mills, Maryland. “There seems to be significantly more interest among hardcore manufacturers, and vendors are responding with a design and style of machinery that meets that type of demand.”
Such machines are currently being designed for large manufacturers in the aerospace and automotive industries, but the jewelry industry could soon see the benefits.
“It’s the ‘trickle-down’ effect of advanced technology,” says Raphael. “Large manufacturers need new solutions all the time, so they chase new things, fund development, and hopefully things get worked through. And some of this then makes its way to smaller manufacturers, such as jewelers. The big guys underwrite the major R&D costs so that the rest of us can benefit.”
In the meantime, jewelers can start thinking of their own ways to use CAD/CAM technology to benefit their business.
For example, some manufacturers are starting to look at 3-D printers not just as a way to print a model that will then be cast, but also as a way to print molds that can then be used to create models for casting. “Because the printing materials are becoming so diverse, we’re starting to see people think outside the box,” says Abernathy. “They could print a mold and then get a group of parts from it. The mold can last longer, and if something happens to it, you just print a new one. It gives us more flexibility, allowing you to create models in a castable material quickly and in a high resolution.”