Rick Antona, owner of Houston-based jewelry Uptown Diamond, saw the potential of 3-D printing technology for his business two years ago. After doing some research, he bought a $90,000 3-D printer that prints in wax.
The printer prints as many as a hundred wax rings at once in less than 12 hours, compared with five when he used the traditional carving method. It drastically cut the time he needs to fulfill his orders.
“I can get an order done in a month’s time while my competitors spend months,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
3-D printing technology, or additive manufacturing, has become a game-changer for the jewelry industry, as it slashes development time and costs, without sacrificing the customization factor necessary in this multi-billion retail business.
In addition to the increase in production, Antona is also able to make extra money by providing wax printing services for other smaller jewelers who cannot afford to buy their own printers. He estimated the printer earns Uptown Diamond some 20 thousand dollars a month.
“It has been a huge, huge help,” he said. “It changes the whole game for the jewelry business.”
3-D printing has been around since the 1980s, but it was not until the recent five years that the printers became better and more available, breaking a new ground in many fields of manufacturing, said Melba Kurman, a technology analyst at Triple Helix Innovation and the co-author of “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.”
“For traditional jewelers, 3-D printer is speeding up a century-old process,” Kurman said. “It is a very successful hybrid model.”
However, like any other new technology, there are barriers associated with 3-D printing. Industrial-level printers, ranging from $15,000 to $200,000 or more, are still too expensive for smaller enterprises, and the technical skills required to design a 3-D object is not intuitive.
Michael Regan, the owner of Little King Jewelry in New York City, said he still hand carve most of his wax molds. Outsourcing every design to printing services is not time-saving nor cost-effective for him, he said.
“It can take up to two hours to put the design into the computer,” Regan said, “and it takes the printer several hours to print it, no matter how simple the design is. In the same time, I can get 15 rings done by hand.”
Despite pride in his 40-year craftsmanship, Regan admitted that printing could be useful when it comes to complex designs that might take him days to carve.
The price for printing a ring offered by prototyping companies can go from $10 to more than $100, depending on the design. Some offer same-day delivery and some will even do the design for their clients, usually individual jewelry shops.
“They send us a sketch or sometimes they just give us an idea,” said Jamie Merchan, manager of 3D Waxes Inc in New York City, “and we will create it as a 3-D CAD version on the computer.”
Printing is now a fast-growing part of her family’s business since the 35-year-old wax carving company bought their printer three years ago, she said.
“For people like us that were used to doing it by hand, we all have to learn to use the program,” she said.
While accelerating the manufacturing process, the advancement in 3-D printing also simplify the production process, by enabling the printers to produce not just rough prototypes, but refined end-use products.
End product manufacturing would be one of the fastest-growing segments in the 3-D printing market, according to the Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that publishes annual reports on additive manufacturing. In 2013, about 35 percent of the total revenue involved the direct manufacturing of end products. The number was less than 4 percent ten years ago.
In a studio in Boston, Jessica Rosenkrantz, one of the founders of Nervous System, creates intricate 3-D printed accessories. The MIT-graduate developed her own software to design complex, vein and rhizome-like bracelets and rings that are directed produced by 3-D printers that can print in metal.
“I can design complex geometry that might not be possible to mold,” Rosenkrantz said. “We have a new collection where each piece has hundreds of interlocking parts. You can’t really make something like that by any other methods, except perhaps hand labor, which would make it much more expensive.”
In this year’s report published this month, the Wohlers Associates estimated that the global market for additive manufacturing, including 3-D printer sales, products and services, has reached $3.1 billion and is expected to double in just three years. Both ways of 3-D printing application – prototyping and end-product manufacturing – are a boost to the market.
“It’s a little too early to determine which of the two techniques will be more successful in the future than the other,” said Tim Caffery, a senior consultant at the Wohlers Associates, “but the trend toward 3-D printing is definite.”