12th March 2013
A 3D printing technology will be a "shape changer" for the jewellery industry, according to the leading UK supplier of precious metals to the trade.
The technology, called laser sintering, is being employed by Cookson Precious Metals to produce jewellery from computer designs.
Stella Layton, chief executive of the firm, said as a result, high-street shoppers could expect to see more personalised jewellery offered by retailers.
But others say the approach is relatively expensive, and the pieces produced still require significant work before sale.
Inside the highly secure Cookson factory in Birmingham's jewellery quarter many machines hark back to the firm's long heritage.
Large mechanical rollers shape pool-cue sized rods of silver, there's the sound of metal being worked, and the smell of gas in the air.
Laser sintering is different. The machine that Cookson currently use looks like a large piece of office equipment and sounds like a photocopier.
Behind a tinted glass panel 18-carat gold powder, laid down by a robot arm, sparkles as a laser fuses the metal into complex three-dimensional shapes, layer by layer.
Laser sintering has been used in other industries for some time.
Stella Layton says the firm hopes to offer a service producing designs to order, using the machines supplied by German-based manufacturer EOS.
But she also hopes to sell smaller versions of the machine to the jewellery trade.
She sees several advantages to the technology: complex designs can be made rapidly, and can be quickly altered and produced.
Objects which hitherto had to be cast in solid metal can be manufactured as hollow shapes, reducing their weight and the amount of precious metal used.
"It's inevitable that this will become an integral part of our industry - as it has in the other industries it's been implemented in - but it's a shape changer to the industry," she said.
She says the firm has been in talks with major high-street retailers.
"They think it opens doors for customisation, so that you can take a piece and change it just for you," she said.
Cookson believes the sintering process, "puts the power in terms of the computer-aided design rather than the bench skills".
The Goldsmiths Company, which earned its royal charter in 1327, has seen a few changes in the techniques used by jewellers.
While apprentices still learn traditional craft skills, others working at the Goldsmiths centre are using 3D printers to produce jewellery.
Rupert Todd a designer based at the centre prints designs in wax, which are then cast in precious metal.
But Goldsmiths' Robin Kyte says the laser-sintering technique has its drawbacks.
Pieces, once printed, would still require finishing before sale, he said. "The cost of the fashioning is expensive," he explained.
And the process requires a significant amount of gold powder, more gold than might be required initially to make a piece using more traditional methods.
The 'toner' used in the laser sintering process is rather more expensive than that found in a laser printer cartridge. Eighteen-carat gold powder is worth about £18,000 a kilo.
Robin Kyte believes mastering the use of 3D printing and computer aided design, is just the latest addition to the skills jewellers should learn, and it won't, in his view, replace traditional craftsmanship.
"I think the craft skills will still be here, after 700 years they'll still be here," he said.