Rise of the Machines

Consider these guidelines before purchasing a 3-D printer

The Star Trek–esque promise of conjuring objects out of thin air in some distant future remains, sadly, out of reach. But 3-D printing, when executed at its highest levels, harnesses at least a smidgen of that sci-fi magic.

And for jewelry retailers, the technology of so-called additive manufacturing offers opportunities galore: from creating an in-house collection to adding a custom design studio to the business.

“The 3-D printers are changing the way a consumer can interact with ­jewelry,” says Bill Letwin, manager for 3-D printer brand EnvisionTEC’s ­jewelry division. “And you can be a little guy in Nome, Alaska, and make international designs at a caliber that would compete with any major [brand].”

If you’re thinking of investing in a 3-D printer, know that prices are dropping as machine makers are meeting the demand from manufacturers and the general public. But if you’re making jewelry, look for a commercial-grade model. Here are a few more tips for choosing and purchasing your very own magic machine:

Don’t Skimp on Quality

“Not all 3-D printers are the same,” says retailer and manufacturer Tony Davis, who’s spent from $80,000 to $150,000 on six printers over the years for his online business, Jewlr.com. “It’s not like, ‘I’m buying a 3-D printer, and this one is $100,000 and this one is $30,000 and they’re the same.’?” The $3,000 printers you’re seeing on the market? “Those are toys,” he insists.

Different printers “grow” models in different ways. High-end commercial-grade models from companies including 3D Systems and EnvisionTEC take longer to print because they are adding more layers, more precisely, onto an object—instead of spitting out polymers rather bluntly from a jet, which is what many inexpensive printers do.

“If you’re doing really fine filigree and micro-pavé, you want something at a resolution that isn’t going to leave you a lot of finishing and metal time on the other side,” Letwin says. A good rule of thumb: A printer priced less than roughly $16,000 will probably put you in the “toy” division; Letwin says he’d be wary of dipping below that threshold.

Consider Your Materials

The material you print with is as important as a printer’s resolution, says Davis. “You absolutely need to buy a 3-D printer from someone who makes resins and that is for the jewelry industry—don’t go with someone who says their machine can also work for jewelry,” he says. Manufacturer-grade photo polymers that create flexible but rigid molds are the current industry standard. And if the company doesn’t provide ongoing support on the polymer side, Davis says, keep shopping.

Ask for a Sample

It’s also critical that you see, firsthand, how your object will look once printed on any machine you’re considering. You should send your own file and have them cast it, Letwin says. And note the design’s measurements before sending the file, so you know its geometry. “On the lower end of 3-D printing, they talk about rapid prototyping,” says Letwin. “But if you truly want to direct cast an object and make finished pieces, you should be taking a design all the way through the process when making your decision.”

(Photo: Peopleimages.com/iStock)

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