Ask the Expert: the basics of 3D printing

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Weston Beamor’s Ed Hole outlines the fundamentals of this technology.

3D printing is the buzz term on many a company’s lips – but what is it and how does it facilitate the manufacturing process? Weston Beamor’s head of 3D printing Ed Hole outlines the basics, and offers advice on the different processes available.

From guns to hip implants to instant food, 3D printing has been grabbing headlines recently as the future of manufacturing. Lost your house key? No problem. Download a backup copy from the cloud and 3D print yourself a replacement.

If this sounds somewhat space age you may be surprised to hear that 3D printing has been in use by jewellers for more than a decade, and is becoming increasingly accessible.

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WHAT IS 3D PRINTING?
3D printing is the media-friendly term for rapid prototyping (also referred to as additive manufacturing) and is the process of creating a real object from a virtual design. The 3D printer software slices the 3D design into many thin layers, much like an egg slicer, and then prints the object by either depositing material or solidifying liquid resin layer-by-layer, until the physical object has been built. Depending on the size of the model and type of 3D printer, this could take anywhere between a few minutes to several hours, hence the historical term rapid prototyping.

3D PRINTING JEWELLERY
Although the general public has only been exposed to 3D printing in the media recently, jewellery designers and manufactures have been utilising the technology for years, and with increasing popularity. For such a traditional industry, tech-savvy jewellers were quick to see the benefits that computer-aided design and 3D printing could bring to their business: manufactures such as Domino have been using CAD and 3D printing as an essential part of their new product development since 2001. New designs can be taken from a sketchpad to a 3D-printed master pattern in a matter of hours, dramatically increasing a company’s productivity.

CAD also means retailers can offer their customers truly bespoke pieces, whilst designers can have a virtual online catalogue and 3D print a design when ordered, cutting down on stock.

3D printing also opens up new possibilities for designers to create pieces that would otherwise be impossible or extremely difficult to make using traditional tools and materials, in some ways throwing away the rule book. However, it is important to remember that as powerful and exciting as it seems, this technology is just another tool on the jeweller’s bench. Fine jewellery will always need to be hand finished and set using traditional skills and techniques. So before you get carried away designing, always consider how the piece will look when finished.

CREATING CAD MODELS
Computer-aided design is the starting point for 3D printing, and is key to the success of the final piece. There are numerous CAD packages available, all of which will let you draw anything from a pair of earrings to a nuclear submarine. Popular CAD packages for jewellers include Gemvison’s Matrix, 3Design, ArtCAM, JewelCAD and Rhino. Whichever you choose, bear in mind there will be steep learning curves. I compare learning CAD to learning a language; it is fairly simple to pick up the basics, but becoming fluent takes a lot of time and patience, akin to more traditional skills.

3D printers will exactly replicate your CAD model, warts and all, so there is no hiding place for bad modelling. The main mistake among CAD jewellery designers is scale; it is easy to forget the four-claw solitaire you are designing looks twenty-times larger on the monitor than it is in real life, so keep an eye on dimensions.

My advice would be to have a digital calliper next to your mouse so you can frequently check the on-screen dimensions of parts such as claws and shanks to keep them workable.

3D scanning can also be used as a method to generate CAD models for 3D printing. Any existing physical item can be scanned, digitised and then manipulated in CAD software. From a hand-carved wax design, to a baby’s foot, or even an Aston Martin, once the scan data is in the computer it can be scaled, mirrored or stretched to make into items such as charms and cufflinks. I’m sure you’ll agree it is a lot easier to scan a real pineapple than to draw one in CAD.

AND FINALLY, PRINTING
Once your CAD model is ready the next stage is printing. There are many different options available with varying qualities and materials for various applications. As jewellery tends to be small as far as products go, 3D prints are required to be as high resolution as possible, which equates to much thinner layers and therefore a much smoother surface finish. Unfortunately the £600 3D printer now being sold on your local high street does not have the resolution required for jewellery, so it is the high-end systems, such as those used at Weston Beamor, that are best suited to the jewellery sector. These systems use materials that can be directly cast into precious metals or silicone moulded, depending on whether you are making a one-off piece or a master pattern to be used for multiple casts.

A recent development in 3D printing technology for jewellery is direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) which prints CAD drawings directly into silver or gold using a powdered precious metal mix which solidifies when it comes into contact with the laser. The surface quality is not as smooth as other systems and the parts are expensive, but it will be exciting to see how DMLS improves in the next couple of years.

In conclusion, CAD and 3D printing are proving to be essential to the modern jeweller, whether undergraduate student or Bond Street brand. When used correctly, these processes will help you make better products, quicker and cheaper.

Ed Hole is head of CAD design and 3D printing at Birmingham-based Weston Beamor, specialists in casting precious metals for almost 70 years.

This feature was taken from the January Guest Editor issue of Professional Jeweller, led by Annoushka Ducas. To read the issue in full online, click here

 

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