It’s a point the entire additive manufacturing industry is constantly striving to drive home – “this isn’t new”, “AM has been around for decades”, “Industries have been using this for years”, etc. As one of the earliest adopters of 3D technology, it is especially relevant in the jewellery industry and even more so at the Birmingham School of Jewellery where innovators in this sector met to not only talk about 3D printing but more specifically a recent project that’s set to change the goalposts all over again – 3D printing in gold.
The PRECIOUS project is an initiative supported by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK. It’s mission? “To demonstrate the viability of precious metal additive manufacturing within the UK Jewellery industry from design and manufacturing through to finishing, polishing and retail.”
Speakers from all corners of the consortium including jewellery design, production, software, additive manufacturing and finishing took to the floor to explain how they’re pushing the technology forward at various points in the supply chain.
Robin Wilson, Lead Technologist for High Value Manufacturing at Innovate UK, opened by explaining how Innovate UK has awarded £7million in funding for projects that are ‘Inspiring design freedoms in additive manufacturing’. Robin explained how the jewellery industry is the perfect fit as it’s about a whole new way of making.
“If you have a new way of making something, chances are you can design it differently and offer more to the customer,” Robin commented. “One of the tricks of this new technology is to use the power of design.”
This idea of not simply ‘cloning’ what we’ve seen and done before is reflected in the designs this groundbreaking project has produced. These are not typical pieces of jewellery, some are intricate complex structures and others are simply quirky. Lionel T. Dean of Future Factories told how 3D printing is empowering the jewellery industry’s interest in customisation. Though AM might not be the most efficient way of making, there are varying levels of customisation which make it very appealing to customers from individualisation, to online co-creation and collaborative customisation.
Getting it right
In order to get the best results with AM you have to ask “how do you build a part?”. PartBuilder, the latest piece of software from Delcam, can repair problematic CAD models, position the part for optimum orientation and determine where parts need fixtures. As Kevin Hamilton, Delcam puts it, “software is the centrepiece” and we’re presented with some rather intriguing objects showing tree-like support structures that have been generated with this sophisticated piece of technology.
Then there’s the actual production part in which Tony Staniorski, Technical Director at Cooksongold openly states, “Additive manufacturing will never replace casting, it’s too easy. The AM process brings a whole range of capabilities to your designs.” It’s a welcome and realistic take on the technology and one that’s echoed by the informed questions from a clearly educated audience about speeds, costs and finishing. It’s great for custom pieces, even better for otherwise-impossible pieces but as far as being a complete, replaceable production method, it’s not quite there yet - thankfully, nobody here is proposing it will be. As for people implementing this technology now, Tony explained, “The reason won’t be cost, it will be application.”
The PRECIOUS M 080, developed in conjunction with EOS and Cooksongold, is a purpose built machine for precious metal laser sintering and was recently installed at the Birmingham School of Jewellery. With a build envelope of 80mm X 95mm, the machine is capable of producing various designs together in the same print job. As Frank explained: “A batch of one is fine, a batch of 10 ‘ones’ is even better.”
In fact the physical manufacturing element is probably the most straightforward part of the entire process. Labelled as one of AM’s ‘dirty secrets’, post processing is one of the most time-consuming and costly areas of the technology. In order to produce successful prints, you’ve got to think about how they will be finished and Richard Ainsworth from Finishing Techniques reveals how the company has been researching cost effective polishing solutions for laser sintered jewellery products.
All that glitters?
These complex gold parts show real promise for the jewellery industry though it’s still very much in the early stages of development. As Tony commented: “You can’t adapt research into your business, you need to have plug and play processes,” and that’s an opinion I find increasingly common as I talk to old school jewellery makers and retailers. As the School of Jewellery celebrates 125 years with the introduction of a new Masters course in Innovative Metal Manufacturing next year, perhaps a new generation of talent and minds will take the helm, unfazed by constraints of the past and do things we would have never imagined.
Hear from Frank Cooper and Lionel T. Dean in the TCT Show + Personalize Conference on 1st October at the NEC, Birmingham. REGISTER FOR FREE.