CAD 101 for Jewelers

For many jewelers, getting into computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing is a no-brainer. It’s a cost-effective, efficient way to produce high-quality jewelry designs, whether one-of-kind works or mass-produced products. But, as with most things, the hardest part is getting started.

To help, JCK spoke with two jewelry designers who work with CAD/CAM and who teach automated jewelry design at U.S. universities.

Douglas Bucci is an adjunct professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in the Metals/Jewelry/CAD/CAM department and at the University of Arts, both in Philadelphia. He teaches CAD software processes as well as jewelry, metals, and industrial design.

Kimberlie Tatalick is a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Ga., where she teaches CAD software and rapid prototyping processes and is involved in the department’s annual Student Design Competition at the Atlanta Jewelry Show.

In addition to teaching, both are artists in their own right who specialize in the creation of CAD/CAM jewelry, which can be seen in exhibits and trade shows throughout the country. Both received Master of Fine Arts degrees at Tyler’s Arts Metals/Jewelry/CAD-CAM department, one of the oldest and most respected university programs in the country.

Equipment and costs. First you need to own a personal computer (or Macintosh computer) that’s powerful enough and has the proper accessories (large monitor, printer, etc.) to run the software, Tatalick says. Most CAD software is made for PCs. However, Macs are compatible with Windows operating systems, so there should be little or no trouble using CAD software on Macs. There’s also software for Macs that provides more advanced sharing between the two operating systems. Tatalick estimates that the cost of properly ramping up to run CAD software applications could come in at $2,500.

CAD software is the next consideration. There are several choices, including Rhinoceros, Matrix, 3Design, ArtCAM Jewelsmith, and Monarch. Tatalick notes that there are even advanced CAD software options that have the look and feel of working with clay. A Rhino system starts at about $1,000 (source: www.rhino3d.com/jewelry.htm), but costs can easily escalate with upgrades and plug-ins, which in some cases are designed to be used with other systems. “Rhino has been the affordable entry point for a large number of people,” Bucci says.

For jewelers who get into CAM—the manufacturing side—costs can increase significantly, which leaves two options: Buy the equipment and do the manufacturing in house or outsource production. The two automated manufacturing processes that are most common for small operations are 3D printing technologies and desktop milling machines. As for cost, the Solidscape R66, commonly used in the industry, runs about $30,000 (source: www.solid-scape.com/T76+%20R66+%20Press%20Release.pdf). The Roland JWX-30 jewelry milling machine, also commonly used for small operations, lists at about $18,000 (source: www.rolanddga.com/products/milling/jwx30).

Time investment. Jewelry design in general and automated jewelry design in particular represent a lifelong learning process. CAD software systems are becoming easier to use, but success still depends on the time one is willing to invest in learning the system and a person’s comfort with computers. In addition, technology always leads to breathtaking speed and change. System upgrades or new technologies could make most of what’s being used now suddenly obsolete.

“It’s a lifelong commitment,” says Bucci, who has been working with CAD for about 16 years. “Within a year, someone can be solid on CAD and learn the basics. However, to really do anything substantial you have to put in the time. The more you’re engaged and the more problem-solving scenarios you have to step through, the more competent you become.”

“It varies from student to student,” Tatalick adds, drawing from her experience as an instructor. “The students in our program come in with a variety of computer skills. … Having an understanding of math terminology will help with using the software and the way you interact with the software.” Examples include knowing how to measure the circumference, diameter, and radius of a circle. “It’s basic stuff that you forget, so I’m reminding my students that they know it,” Tatalick says.

Design ability. No matter how knowledgeable you are as a jeweler or how well you work with computers, if you lack design skills or experience you’ll be at a disadvantage. That goes without saying, yet needs to be said. The cost effectiveness, efficiency, and creative potential that comes with automated design means nothing if one lacks the ability to create or an understanding of how to use the materials.

“Design ability—that’s the big thing,” Bucci says. “You need that skill set to really allow you to even break into it. The understanding of tolerance, of how to calculate weight. It takes training and building upon your training. What you have already learned and how it is translated through this medium. To make sure what you’re doing can exist in the real world and be cost effective and have a long life. If quality and function isn’t there, there’s no sense in using the technology.”

Limitless limitations. The only limitation of automated design is that there are no limitations. One can literally draw anything specifying any material. The problem comes with actually producing a piece of jewelry from the drawing.

Tatalick says she likes for her new CAD students to present their initial designs to casting companies just to see if they can be produced. “They really don’t understand the limitations of casting,” she says. “Designing in CAD pushes the casting company.”

Training. The Gemological Institute of America offers a CAD/CAM program. Universities and community colleges in your area may offer CAD jewelry design programs as either part of a curriculum or as adult education courses. There may also be technical schools that offer CAD jewelry instructional programs. In addition, many CAD/CAM software companies offer training and tutorials online, in print, and through seminars. Bucci notes several of these CAD companies host user communities to share information and learn from one another.

Then there’s Ganoksin (www.ganoksin.com/index.htm), which bills itself as “the gem and jewelry world’s foremost resource on the Internet!” The Web site was founded in 1995 by E. Aspler, of Bangkok, Thailand, more commonly known as “Hanuman.” Canadian Charles Lewton-Brain, a master goldsmith, author, and full-time instructor at Alberta College of Art and Design, became a partner a couple of years later. The Web site serves as a library for jewelers, jewelry designers, and metalsmiths. It also includes a daily moderated forum with 5,200 members called The Orchid List, galleries, and other information. It was a social Web site long before social networking was cool. The site offers abundant information on CAD/CAM processes and plenty of people willing to share their knowledge.