We have been fortunate enough to have worked in CAD/CAM for a number of years and continue to work on a variety of machines in different locations that have given us an amazing ability to make things by rapid prototyping, also known as 3D printing.
An amazing revolution in manufacturing technology has brought the 3D printers down to desktop size and makes them a fantastic addition to the jeweler’s studio. We have recently acquired our own in-house 3D printer: the B9 Creator. We are very excited and we are already using it to make new and even more sophisticated designs.
For those unfamiliar with 3D printing and rapid prototyping, the concept is pretty simple. A program file is made by computer with a 3D drawing of an object to make. This file is sent to another computer attached to the printer and converted to a machine language which the printer can understand. The new file “slices” the drawing into ultra-thin layers; each layer becomes a pass of an element that sends a UV light through a tray of liquid. The liquid is formulated to react to UV light and harden slightly where the pattern of the current hits it. By putting hundreds or even thousands of these very thin layers together you get your final shape of the object you are making.
The finished shape is pulled from the liquid as it is being made, but is still somewhat soft. The objects or models are cured using UV light again for an extended period of time to solidify the entire piece rather than a single layer. We are left with a model that we have always called a wax, however is more like a plastic resin substance created to behave and melt like wax. The “waxes” are ultimately to be invested in a flask, burnt out, and replaced with molten metal (the lost wax casting process) and ultimately turned into custom jewelry.
So, 3D printing has changed the manufacturing process completely in one way, yet it remains almost the same in other ways. We have the compatibility to create complex, variable design in computer aided design programs that can be created cost effectively using computer aided milling. The results are amazing and the design range and capability is only limited by the imagination.