Jan 31, 2016 | By Benedict
Engagement rings can come in all kinds of lavish and luxurious designs, featuring almost any kind of precious stone. Proposers are typically expected to spend at least one month’s salary on the inquisitive hoop, which makes engagement rings some of the most expensive and emotionally significant pieces of metal on the planet. The wedding ring, on the other hand, tends to tone things down a bit. This symbolic item of jewelry, exchanged between spouses during the big event, usually consists of a plain metal band: Beautiful and timeless, or in need of a shakeup?
Charles-Oliver Roy, an industrial engineer, wanted to build a mass customization business around 3D printing. Despite having no experience in jewelry, Roy appreciated the significant prices paid for wedding rings, and wondered if he could make his mark on the jewelry market using a 3D Systems ProJet MJP Series 3D printer.
“I knew nothing about jewelry, but I quickly understood it would be a perfect playground for me,” said Roy. “Most jewelry is bought to express emotion, which brings with it a higher price. And if there is a place ready for a revolution, it’s the jewelry workshop. Lost-wax casting, one of the oldest technologies in metallurgy, hasn’t changed much since ancient Egypt.”
After some careful planning, Roy launched Vowsmith, a wedding ring supplier with a twist. Customers can purchase wedding rings directly from the Vowsmith website, customizing them with fingerprints of their beloved. All they need to do is make an ink print, scan it, and upload it to the website for the company to deal with. Roy is able to accurately reproduce the fingerprint on the outside of a ring using his 3D printer and a paraffin wax filament.
“We provide our customers with total control so they can dictate the design, choose the metal and diamond, and create something unique that fits their budget,” said Roy. “The whole 3D modeling is automated since it’s the customer choices made online that generate the high-resolution STL file for production. The printer is loaded more or less automatically as well.”
According to Roy, the process has been made relatively simple thanks to the 298 x 185 x 203 mm build volume 3D printer used to produce the wax casts of each ring. Roy uses 3D Systems VisiJet M3 Prowax in the ProJet MJP 3D printer, which produces high-definition parts and a smooth surface finish.
“The ProJet MJP Series is the keystone of our manufacturing process,” Roy admitted. “First, it’s a real wax 3D printer. This means that there is no possibility of casting faults due to ashes or a cracked shell due to thermal expansion. Real wax burns out completely at low temperatures and in less time than resin-based systems, so we save on energy and improve yield.”
In addition to these benefits, the support material of each 3D print is easily removed during the post-processing stage, so the delicate features of each ring can be preserved.
“We don’t have to spend a second designing support structures for the 3D printed rings,” Roy explained. “We don’t lose productivity due to an unprinted part caused by badly supported areas. We don’t lose time repairing broken support surfaces.”
Customers may have some reservations about ordering jewelry online, due to time constraints. Although customers aren’t walking straight out of a jewelry shop with a ring in their pocket, Roy can actually produce his 3D printed products in very little time. It currently takes Vowsmith around one week to turn around most orders, but Roy thinks he can go faster still.
“It’s totally doable with today’s technology to receive a ring order in the morning, get it on the printer in the afternoon, cast it the next day, and ship for delivery the following day—72 hours from order to delivery. I could push that further: We could install printers all over the globe and feed them from our server. We could then solve the problem of international shipping for a high value product.”
The engineer-turned-jeweler has similarly grand plans for production volume. With the company expected to sell between 4,000 and 5,000 rings this year, Roy hopes that he could soon be producing closer to 50,000—the maximum number possible based on current resources.
“Eventually we could print the casting tree completely, integrate mass finishing machines and even a CNC diamond and stone setter,” Roy added. “And one promising technology for the future is direct metal printing (DMP); we’ve done some prototyping with DMP and have achieved very good results.”
Roy sees Vowsmith as the spearhead of a jewelry revolution, but also as part of a more general shift in customer values: “The Millennials are sick and tired of being served the same soup every day. They want to have their own product that reflects their own personality. This generation is shaping the future of retail.”
Is wedding jewelry a tradition best left alone, or are Vowsmith’s highly customized, 3D printed designs the future of matrimonial metallurgy? You decide.
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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