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Jewellery-making is one of the earliest adopting industries of 3D printing as an end-to-end manufacturing technique, which is why TCT Magazine has taken an interest in the Precious project.
Co-funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the UK's innovation agency, the TSB Precious project's inaugural Q1 meeting took place at Cookson Precious Metals in Birmingham's thriving Jewellery Quarter in mid-January. Project Chairman Chris Lewis Jones of Delcam opened the meeting, which was just the second gathering of its kind since the initial 'kick-off' in September 2013.
Important work is taking place at the Jewellery Industry Innovation Centre (JIIC) focusing on business transformation based on additive manufacturing technologies, with the goal of capitalising on these developments for jewellery and developing a viable and efficient supply chain.
In order to succeed to these ends, an assessment of the most recent, cutting-edge software and hardware was necessary in order to set a workable benchmark. The Jewellery Quarter-based JIIC has, therefore, been working to gather data through distributing a questionnaire to known jewellery manufacturers, designers and sellers.
More than 340 completed questionnaires had been returned by the time of the Q1 meeting, with feedback being presented by Senior Lecturer and Technical Manager at the JIIC Frank Cooper.
In an exclusive with TCT Magazine last year, Cooper said: "There are a lot of people who consider jewellery manufacturing to be an old fashioned technique, but there's plenty new and modern manufacturing technologies put to use." Cooper - like his peers - believes additive manufacturing is a complementary manufacturing technique in jewellery-making, where traditional bench skills are used alongside the latest technology both on screen and in terms of hardware to produce the best products efficiently and cost-effectively without compromising on quality.
His expertise in CAD, rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing at the JIIC, coupled by the data from the questionnaires, provided a valuable insight into the current position of additive manufacturing in jewellery-making, identifying gaps and opportunities to progress additive manufacturing within the UK jewellery industry. The questionnaire is still open and is available here.
Central to the Precious project is Cookson Precious Metals and Tony Staniorski, Technical Director, gave attendees a tour of their facilities, as well as a demonstration of manufacturing with the organisation's top-of-the-range gold laser sintering machines, which are being utilised as part of the Precious project.
Delcam's Kelvin Hamilton then discussed the initial practical results achieved that are working towards efficient manufacturing and post-processing. The work is focused on high quality finished products and establishing the best and most appropriate surface finishing and polishing techniques - which are particularly essential when it comes to the jewellery industry, where aesthetics are vital.
As such, Finishing Techniques' Richard Ainsworth began a discussion on the level of surface finish that can be achieved by machine polishing, who brought with him several finished gold sintered pieces. The Precious project aims to minimise the amount of hand finishing required, while further testing is needed in order to establish optimal parameters.
Jewellery designer Lionel T Dean, who specialises in designing for additive manufacturing and is a project partner, identifies three categories for his own designs: individualisation, personalisation and full customisation. Within the Precious project Dean is designing three test pieces in each category to demonstrate them. He said that individualisation allows for minimal client input, while full customisation enables completely unique pieces to be created though one-to-one discussions between the designer and manufacturer.
Lewis Jones' summary continued that the Precious project is currently in a phase of understanding with some initial results already forming the fundament for the planned development activities.
The Precious project is being undertaken by a consortium of five organisations, Delcam, Cookson Precious Metals, Lionel T Dean/Future Factories, the Jewellery Industry Innovation Centre (JIIC) and Finishing Techniques.
The project is receiving a £212,000 support booster from the TSB and is aimed at rapidly bringing to full commercial maturity the process of additive manufacturing of precious metal jewellery items that is currently at varying stages of partial readiness at a small number of UK companies.
When it was launched, Project Manager Jan Willem Gunnink from Delcam said: "[The Precious Project] is intended to offer a viable alternative manufacturing option to those who supply jewellery at the middle to higher end of the bespoke and personalised jewellery market. New online business models that exploit additive manufacturing are expected to be created and should add innovative design driven impetuous to the more traditional high street retailing sectors."