Sep 10, 2014 | By Alec

Image credit: Shapeways

3D printing enthusiasts will have already known this for a while, but printing designs in silver can produce some very beautiful results. For many of them, creations found on Dutch 3D printing marketplace and community Shapeways will come to mind, where gorgeous pieces gorgeous pieces of 3D printed jewellery – silver and other materials – can easily be found.

But now it seems the traditional silver industry is also waking up to its potential. Recently, The Silver Institute, which seeks to act as a voice for the international silver industry and provides statistics and other information concerning it, drew attention to this phenomenon in a newsletter.

Jeffrey Ellis, their senior technological consultant, wrote a short but insightful piece about how 3D printing is currently applied in the production of silver objects, and called for greater awareness for its possibilities. He explained that there are currently two 3D printing processes available that revolve around silver – and both can be used by the industry.

One is the equivalent of casting silver into a 3-D printed mold such as those made of plaster-fortified wax. Casting silver in a preprinted mold is almost exactly the same as standard casting of silver. A wax or polymeric mold is made and treated with plaster. Silver is then poured into the plaster-lined mold. After cooling, the plaster mold is removed, leaving the silver object, which usually needs to be polished or sanded to remove rough areas.

While this does not quite involve printing in silver, it can nonetheless be used to give designers more options and greater freedom, especially in the manufacturing process for delicate products and designs. Laceworks, flowers and similar patterns come to mind. This is exactly the application currently used by many Shapeways creators.

Just a few of the many beautiful pieces of jewellery printed in silver. Found at Shapeways.

The second type of printing is direct laser sintering, a process of forming a solid with heat that does not reach the melting point. The formation of 3-D printed objects directly with silver is a relatively new technique that has yet to be widely adopted. It is under consideration from designers, silversmiths, and manufacturers of jewellery and silverware.

This technique obviously has far more potential, but also more drawbacks. Ellis continues by explaining that the high reflectivity inherent to silver makes it ill-suited for SLS printing. 'so little of the light is absorbed to accomplish the fusing.' This, he goes on to explain, can be overcome by 'reformulating' the silver to diminish its reflective properties. ' This currently is done by Cookson Precious Metals Ltd (UK) and by artisan-developed compositions of silver within a binder. A masking technology and new alloys may also be used.'

While speculation, this technique holds a lot of potential for the silver industry, and could lead to some very original applications of silver. Although its initial applications are decorative – tableware, jewellery and so on – Ellis goes on to state that it could also be used for the production of coins, medals and a variety of electrical components.

For now, we'll have to wait and see what this means for the future of 3D silver printing. Neither Ellis nor the Institute speculate further about the impact it could have on the silver prices or industry. Perhaps various silver giants will look into more efficient silver printing techniques?

Nonetheless, the fact that the 'established' manufacturing industries are becoming more and more aware of 3D printing technology is very interesting. It could mean that this technology is becoming more and more economically viable for investment, and could in the long run result in technological, artistic and financial change. We'll have to wait and see what happens.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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