Precious metal printers are not of the future, they’re available now.
Lost wax casting? Done. CAD design? Done. Laser sintering? Not heard of it? Well, it is likely to be the next major innovation to hit jewellery design and production and could transform the way jewellers work in the near future.
In Birmingham, in the depths of Cooksons Precious Metals to be precise, a laser sintering machine has been skittering away, creating precious metal jewellery using lasers to bond precious metal powder into awe-inspiring designs.
While the technology might not be new – it has been used in the automotive industry for more than a decade – its application to jewellery and watch component design is only just taking hold. It is a tool that could shape how the UK jewellery industry manufactures by allowing for an array of designs to be created at the same time, in bulk and in record time.
The technology can produce the most intricate watch and jewellery parts, using just a CAD drawing to spew out a near-finished piece. Examples of finished items include a chainmail created using only the sintering technology and incorporating stone settings into the lasered design, and a tray of 100 pendants, each different to the next but created side-by-side in one go, as jeweller Lionel Dean dared to do, with stunning results.
It works by building up a design on a platform. An arm rubs a layer of fine precious metal powder over the surface while a laser fires at it, building about 50 layers per millimetre and resulting in a smart, clean finish that in most cases requires just a simple polish.
David Fletcher, European product manager at Cookson Precious Metals, has been overseeing the technology, and Cooksons has just launched a smaller, bureau version of the machine for jewellery manufacturers to purchase at a cost of about £140,000.
He says that, while the final surface finish might be little rougher than a cast piece, what laser sintering can produce far outshines the possibilities of wax casting.
“If you can design it using CAD software, we can build it,” he explains. “What the challenge is now is for jewellery designers to lose the shackles and produce whatever they want. The only thing is, whatever they design, they must be able to polish within it, especially if it’s intricate.”
While German manufacturer EOS oversees the development of the technology, Cooksons has been focused on the development of the powder. To date, only 18ct yellow gold powder is available but Fletcher says 18ct white and rose gold will soon follow, with platinum, palladium and silver powder available in early 2013.
Within the next three months Cooksons E-Manufacturing, a dedicated division of Cooksons, will develop a website and soon jewellers will be able to upload design files, get a preview of how it might look and then send the design off to be made. “The interest has been phenomenal,” Fletcher says. “The key message is that it’s fast – a whole platform of cufflinks takes six hours to build.”
Jewellery made using the system can be entirely bespoke or each design tweaked to personalise it, which would be very difficult to cast in a traditional way as each piece would have to be cast separately. “Finally, the real benefit is you can take weight out of product, you can produce a hollow wedding ring or take weight out the shoulders of a big heavy signet ring,” Fletcher explains.
And for an example of a finished piece of jewellery made using the technology look no further than the cover of Professional Jeweller’s November issue, which features a design imagined by Lionel Dent and printed out by Cooksons.
This article was taken from the November 2012 issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.