Most of the parts on display at 3D printing trade shows are impressive; they wouldn’t have been paraded out as display pieces if they weren’t show quality. Still, while I can admire a finely crafted aerospace component and respect the craft that went into its manufacture, I can just as easily walk away after taking a few photos and jotting down my notes. Few prints make me sorry to leave them behind. It’s just that reaction that UK-based precious metals company Cooksongold aims for — an emotional connection. The company has been leading the charge in direct 3D printing of fine jewelry, working in partnership with leading manufacturer EOS to not only launch a unique precious metal 3D printer in 2014, but to continue in developing systems and materials to meet the exacting quality demanded in this industry.
“Unlike many pieces here, we’re pulling on emotion,” Fletcher told me as we discussed the intersection of fine jewelry and additive manufacturing.
“Consumers don’t necessarily care about manufacturing — even if this remarkable technology goes into it. There are unique needs here; it needs a fine polish, no porosity. This is where we came from at the beginning [of our work with 3D printing technology].”
Fletcher has noted that the growth seen at formnext, historically large in 2017, is indicative of larger trends of “things definitely heading in the right direction” so far as increased adoption of additive manufacturing technologies goes; “hopefully this explosion continues,” he said, noting possibilities of further advances. Cooksongold, which next year will be celebrating its company centennial, is looking forward to a bright future through embracing and developing new technologies, and working with partners in technology like EOS as well as partners in design like Boltenstern.
Working with the materials they do poses unique challenges to Cooksongold; while metal powders for any additive manufacturing system are far from cheap, many are at least fairly standard. Precious metals have what Fletcher described as a high intrinsic value to the powder itself; losing any of the powder at all during a manufacturing process would represent a not-insubstantial loss of capital. Furthermore, systems working with these high-value powders would require a quick material changeover time and full powder accountability throughout the workflow. Through understanding of these needs, the M 080 came about in 2014 through work with EOS.
“EOS has a triangle of supply, with powder, process, and quality,” Fletcher said. “This supply triangle is important, and we decided with this machine that only Cookson would sell it; there’s just one number to call, it keeps it simple, direct. EOS has learned more about precious metals than they ever needed, just as we have learned more about systems.”
These precious metal additive manufacturing systems utilize a cartridge-based system, rather than powder reservoirs, Fletcher explained, which delivers the material to the build area with a blade for a 20-micron slice. This process “manages metal really well for accountability.” The next target in sight comes into finishing, as for jewelry certainly aesthetics are a primary concern.
Even as Cooksongold embraces the latest in technology, Fletcher was keen to note as well that additive manufacturing is one tool in the jeweler’s toolbox.
“This technology was not born from a desire to replace casting, especially for high-value applications. This is a new tool to do new things,” he said.
One exception to this, though, is work with platinum — a high-value metal that is notoriously difficult to cast. With the 3D printing process, however, platinum performs well — “It’s brilliant,” Fletcher said. Cooksongold introduced a platinum powder last year for 3D printing, and the material is surprisingly well suited for this technology. 3D printing platinum is the “quickest” way to produce impressively dense parts. Put into numbers, 3D printed platinum reaches over 99.9% density — as compared to a good quality casting reaching about a 99.2% density. Platinum, Fletcher said, is the best precious metal for 3D printing, followed by various alloys of gold, followed by silver. While of these, silver is the lowest cost, its reflectivity makes it a difficult material to work with; Cooksongold is at work on expanding its portfolio of silver materials. For its part, while platinum may be “brilliant” to work with, it also of course still has some issues to be worked out, mostly in creating the powder. Developments in platinum 3D printing are continuing around the world as more users begin to see the potential for this high-value material, building on the foundations laid by EOS and Cooksongold.
For the 3D printing of precious metals, Fletcher highlighted a few advantages over traditional casting, which primarily come into play in small-volume builds, in prototyping, and in design lightweighting and working with complex geometries.
“Casting is a five-step process; here, it’s take a CAD file to a part that’s ready to polish in a matter of hours,” Fletcher told me. “There’s a clear advantage to be more agile.”
He pointed to work with Boltenstern, with whom Cooksongold recently launched a new design collection, for some hands-on examples of what’s possible with direct jewelry 3D printing. Insert builds, in which the machine is stopped mid-print for either the insertion of stones or a material replacement, lead to unique designs with enclosed gems or the option for a wearer to showcase either a yellow- or white-gold piece of jewelry.
“2017 has seen a corner turned,” Fletcher said of developments. “High-end jewelers now take it seriously, [as 3D printing] reaches the quality we desire and demand.”
Cooksongold is building toward a stronger future focused on precious metals and is seeking to offer a complete solution — assisting every step of the way. From material supply to product financing to recycling scrap metal, this full integration of services “gives us a clear advantage,” Fletcher said, which is “imperative” to keeping ahead in the business.
“Being careful with raw materials is the only way to ensure profit margins,” he explained, as this area remains of primary importance.
The company has sold machines to a variety of companies with a breadth of end-use applications; “The ones I like,” Fletcher said, “really integrate the systems into their manufacturing supply chains.” 3D printing is, again, not intended to replace traditional techniques, but to augment them with another possible tool targeted toward best-fit applications. Working together, hybrid methodologies, pure printing, and casting, provide a fuller array of options for users.
“EOS is all about integrating into production,” he noted of the big-name partner.
For its part, Cooksongold operates with a variety of options for interested parties, ranging from selling machines and raw materials to running a bureau service. Some customers, Fletcher said, wish to have parts made, while others will use the service option as a vehicle to eventual machine supply once they have tried and tested the method, and seen results for themselves.
“We have been receiving feedback that quality is what customers require, and we have been working on our spectrum of materials. We have 5 developed, and 25 that can be. The full portfolio also includes custom alloys that were developed for a single application. Now, we are looking to more that can only be printed; there are possibly other alloys that have not been imagined today because they are not possible today. Some products could benefit from a complete redesign.”
As additive manufacturing continues to move into high-end, high-quality, highly demanding applications such as fine jewelry, advances in materials and systems will continue to rise to the challenges of an exacting clientele. The pieces seen at formnext merely scratched the surface of what Cooksongold is working to develop — in addition to now topping my in-my-dreams Christmas list (I’m partial to rose gold or platinum, if anyone has some extra money lying around this holiday season).
Discuss formnext 2017, and other 3D printing topics, at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]