Last year when we pulled together the TCT Expert Advisory Board to help us fairly judge the TCT Awardswe always had in the back of our minds that these eminent minds would help with our coverage going forward. Throughout the year we'll be selecting an expert relevant to selected key vertical markets and pick their brains as to how additive or its surrounding technologies has shifted the manufacturing process.

First up, it's Senior Lecturer in Jewellery Manufacturing Technology and Manager of the Centre for Digital Design and Manufacturing at the School of Jewellery, Frank Cooper. Frank has been in the jewellery industry for most of his life, and his pioneering work has seen a clamour for his knowledge leading to speaking engagements across the globe. He's a born and bred Birmingham man and he lives and breathes the jewellery quarter.

TCT: In your time in the industry how have additive technologies evolved for jewellery manufacture?

Frank Cooper (FC): The standard printer of the jewellery industry, the Solidscape, has over the last ten years or so become a robust and reliable piece of kit that is widely used across the global jewellery industry. When I first started in the industry, in the jewellery equivalent of the Bronze Age, the Solidscape had a reputation for unreliability of the jets.

Following the expiration of a number of patents we're seeing huge amounts of 'new kids on the block' try to promote their wares to the jewellery industry. There are two keys to their successful uptake; the first and obvious one is affordability, the less obvious is how well the output from the printer casts when used in the primary manufacturing process of the industry, lost wax investment casting.

Either wax-based systems or photopolymeric castable resins are widely accepted and used these days. The less the caster has to change his standard processes to accommodate the waxes and resins the more accepted they become within the industry.

There is a place in the industry, generally amongst the volume manufacturers, for the bigger, more expensive technologies but there is also a niche for the smaller less costly printers too. So long as the output is of a reasonable resolution and will happily go through the casting process, then the industry is happy to pick its way through the many options now available. Particularly popular at the moment is the Formlabs Form 2 system about which I only seem to hear good things, easy to set up, simple to use, good results and excellent customer support.

TCT: In your opinion what area of the manufacturing process could jewellers most benefit from applying the current technologies?

Speed of reaction to special requests from customers, especially for bespoke items or changes in fashion styles, can both be dealt with quickly and cost effectively when using the right combinations of CAD and 3D printing.

If used properly these two areas of technology can also reduce the amount of work in progress or inventory rattling around a jewellery manufacturer, remembering one kilo of 18-carat gold could set you back in the region of £35,000 or more.

These technologies can also speed up the creation of master patterns, again a long established and traditional part of the jewellery manufacturing industry. Master patterns are used to make moulds into which wax is injected for use in the casting process for large volume production runs and, of course, using the more ‘traditional’ function of 3D printed ‘prototypes’ can vastly speed up the design iteration process from concept to final pattern.

Also and again of more interest to the volume jewellery manufacturer once, let us say a ring, has been designed and agreed as ready for production it is so much simpler to use the functionality of the right CAD software to create a range of master patterns across any number of different finger sizes.

TCT: What skills are jewellers asking for from graduates now and how has that changed?

FC: Our graduates pass out into the industry with a broad range of skills taught on a number of degree level courses and many of these are still the traditional jewellery design and especially the craft skills you would expect to find.

In the jewellery industry these are known as bench skills; the ability to turn a piece of precious metal and perhaps few precious or semi-precious stones into a beautifully crafted piece of jewellery by the use of hammers, files, saws, hand tools, polishing lathes etc. However, there is also a steadily growing demand for a large number of our graduates to have a pretty good understanding in the use of CAD in particular and at least a working knowledge of the various printing options available to the industry.

They need to be able to design jewellery in CAD that can be manufactured, so they need that grounding and understanding of the various jewellery manufacturing techniques and options to design in CAD manufacturable jewellery items. A point I often labour to visitors to my Technology Hub in the School is that none of my wonderfully clever printing technologies, and I have quite a few, makes or prints finished jewellery, it takes a suitably skilled and trained person to convert that output into beautiful jewellery. Similarly none of the clever CAD softwares and their even cleverer algorithms in my CAD training suit design beautiful, buildable, jewellery, it is the well trained person in charge of the software who carries out the real design work.

TCT: Can you briefly outline what the value propositions and constraints of sintering precious metals are?

FC: Undoubtedly the sintering of precious metals has potential to offer the jewellery industry some interesting and novel new routes to market especially in the spheres of personalised, customised and individualised jewellery and things with a batch size of one.

There is also some exciting work being done to explore further the geometric complexity potential for jewellery items manufactured this way along with some fascinating new methods of polishing those hard to access points that come with the geometric complexity.

We here at The School of Jewellery have also recently undertaken some interesting research into stopping part way through the build and adding or embedding additional items like semi-precious stones or pearls

TCT: What is the technology that most excites you for the jewellery industry?

The continued democratisation of accessibility to the various 3D printing options now becoming available to the jeweller is steadily gaining momentum and traction around the industry and can only be a good thing for the industry going forward. If you want me to give you one to keep an eye on then the ever-growing list of affordable, bench top, metal printers is an area I am keeping a very close eye on and looking out for the possible adoptions of these into the printing of precious metals. Blue sky off the wall, then I can’t help but admire the possibility and potential of the XJet system and could watch their promotional video for hours and think ‘what if?’

Source:TCT Magazine