Sunday, June 22, 2014

3D Printed Jewelry

It seems like everyday there is another article on how 3D printing is changing global industries, from food that can be printed on long space journeys (hello replicator?) to medical miracles printing human organs and now to the fashion world where last fall Justin LeBlanc's 3D printed accessories for the finale on Project Runway were nothing short of poetic.  A simple 3D printer is now even cheap enough to purchase for home use.  The future is quite literally here, but where does that leave those of us trained using much more traditional tools? Or those of us who work as artisan jewelers at an "old fashioned" bench?  Well it left me feeling like it was time to learn a little more.  I have visited a few studios to see demos, but admittedly often lost interest when it came time to designing on the computer.  Though I have been exposed to both Rhino and Google Sketch-up (which is free) and agree that they are both easy enough to learn with a little bit of commitment.  Now, though, I knew it was time to start exposing my own students to where many of their design paths may lead them.  I made arrangements for one of my advanced jewelry classes to visit a CAD (computer aided drafting) class where they were exploring 3D printing.

Our first challenge was to rethink how we designed our pieces.  We were paired with students in the CAD class who would walk us through transforming our very simple designs into 3D printed rings.  Rather than sketching out the final form, we needed to focus on the profile view.  Once we decided on that "slice" of the ring, we were walked through drawing that simple profile on the computer.  I will say the interface was user friendly and if you are comfortable using Photoshop or Illustrator, you will likely be comfortable here.  Since we were all doing rings and this was a quick demo, the measurements/proportions had been determined and pre-set to save us some time.  Once we had the flat profile outlined, we simply "revolved" the image and it went from a "slice" of the ring to the entire 3D form.  We could revolve it and check it our from any angle.  Last we scaled the proportions so that they fit our own fingers and sent the file to the printer.

If you have not seen a 3D printer in action (or even just in pictures), MakerBot makes a line of 3D printers and scanners that can be viewed here.  It looks like a large empty box with an arm in it.  The arm begins to move back and forth and spits out two different liquids in the pattern of your design that soon turn to solids.  One is the actual object and one is any hollow areas that will later need to be removed.  Once the printing is finished, the objects are removed and put in a bath that eats out the hollow areas.  We made these very simple rings with hollow interiors, but these printers can handle everything from complex whistles to moveable chains.  Walking us novices through the design process and sending our file to the printer was maybe an hour.  It then took several hours to print and soak the centers out.

Some of my students will go on to design programs where they never sit at a bench again, but design on their tablets and send their work to printers.  This is no less authentic than the digital revolution that photography has experienced over the last two decades.  For myself, my intuition will always lead me back to my bench and my tools, but 3D printing opens up far more possibilities for the accessibility of my work.  While these rings above were printed in a nylon like material, we can now 3D print in everything from ceramic to wax to 14k gold.  I can create prototypes of pieces using traditional techniques and materials that will be 3D scanned to create a CAD file and then sent to any number of companies (such as Shapeways) to be printed in the material of my buyer's choice whether it is silver, bronze or platinum.  There is much potential to reduce the risk and financial investment of having an entire line cast when pieces can then be printed as purchased.  For me, 3D printing goes beyond simply a new digital technique and has much potential to empower artists in a new business model if they are brave enough to explore it.

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