Making the Jump to Digital Manufacturing: Advice from an Expert

Digital production means more design options, quicker turnaround and seasonal scalability. Scott Bradford of the Jewelry Tech Team discusses factors to consider.

Last edited: 5/5/2020

Jewelry manufacturers everywhere are revolutionizing their workflows by investing in digital technology and finding that reduced labor hours, improved efficiencies and decreased error rates aren’t the only benefits to be had. With more advanced, easy-to-use software and high-speed, high-resolution 3D printers, designers are challenging the limitations of traditional casting with more complex designs. How are they doing it? What steps did they take? Scott Bradford, a member of Rio Grande's Jewelry Tech Team, offers you advice on what steps to take when making the jump to a digital workflow.

Many jewelry makers who are just starting to dip their toes into this area of the industry are overwhelmed by the choices out there. How would you recommend getting started?

I always recommend talking to other jewelers in the industry, colleagues who are already using these methods, and gathering information from them. Talk first-hand about the learning curves, integrating traditional jewelry-making methods with digital manufacturing, and how to make the two mutually beneficial.

I would also highly recommend reading "Future Trends in Digital Design and Additive Manufacturing" by Kevin Abernathy. In this 2016 Santa Fe Symposium® presentation, Kevin explains how advances in cloud-based computing, interactive design systems, digitization, and emerging additive manufacturing technologies will impact how products are conceived and manufactured moving forward. And, of course, reach out to Rio Grande's Jewelry Tech Team; email or call us at 800.545-6566 with any questions you may have. We’re happy to talk to you about your processes, your production and your business needs.

3DESIGN CAD Software for Jewelry Creation
3DESIGN CAD Software for Jewelry Creation

If I don’t have any experience with CAD, what’s the best place to get started?

The best way to get started is to dive in—and be persistent. There are training facilities teaching a number of different programs for jewelry-making around the country. Each CAD program is good in its own ways, and each will accomplish the same goal. The most prominent CAD programs in the industry currently are Rhino/Matrix and 3DESIGN. Here at Rio, we use 3DESIGN CAD Software for Jewelry Creation and, in my experience, it’s the most user-friendly software on the market. The programming is very intuitive and is the tools are tailored to meet jewelers' needs in their own language. Most users are up and running rather quickly.

What questions should I be asking when considering investing in a 3D printer?

Great question right there! Here are a few:

  • How easy is it to set up and run the printer?
  • Does it need calibration or special maintenance?
  • What is the resolution in the X and Y axes, and in the Z axis? —this is most commonly measured in microns.
  • What types of resin can it use, and are any of those castable?
  • What consumables does the printer need?
  • How much do the accessories or consumables that I'll need cost and how long do they last?
  • How many pieces can be made from one bottle of resin?

As a custom jeweler yourself, how do you use digital manufacturing technology in your own work? What do you do differently?

Being able to rapidly produce prototypes to review with my customers has revolutionized the process. I can make design tweaks and build a new model for approval all in one afternoon. This allows me to have quicker turnaround between custom jobs and ultimately more sales. As every jeweler knows, time is money—and being able to make on-demand changes allows me to move quickly from design to production. I also have much more versatility with my designs. In the 3D printing industry, there’s a saying: “Complexity is free.” Because of the complexity of the pieces digital manufacturing allows me to create, I’m now more open to jobs that could never be accomplished using a CNC mill or carving wax. I can make these pieces efficiently and quickly without adding cost to the customer.

As an old-school bench jeweler, how have tools like CAD and 3D printers changed the way you work? What has not changed?

Highly complex designs used to take much longer since the wax carving is more difficult and time-consuming, and, for some, I had to make the piece in separate parts and assemble them later, whether that be in metal or wax. By cutting model-making and assembly time down, I can produce the same complexity in less time, producing a high-quality product at a lower price point. It also allows for more creativity since possibilities have become almost endless.

The thing that has not changed is the importance of jewelry-making know-how and the general process of creating a custom piece of jewelry. I’m still using the same casting and bench practices of traditional jewelry-making. Traditional jewelry-making knowledge is critical to digital manufacturing because the bench jeweler has experience knowing what works for the practicality and longevity of the custom piece. No matter how experienced a CAD designer you are, if you don’t consider the prong size, setting type, polishing accessibility or wall thickness, you're going to find yourself having to make expensive revisions that waste valuable time.

B9 Core Series 530 3D Printer
B9 Core Series 530 3D Printer

For most of us, this technology is a big investment. As a custom jeweler, how do you know when it’s time to invest in your own set-up vs. outsourcing to a casting house or mill?

When you outsource your model-making or casting to another company, the time and cost of that outsourcing is transferred to your customer. You also need to have complete oversight of the quality that the other companies are producing—this is your design and your name, and you want to ensure it's up to your standards. By producing your own models and casting in-house, you direct, first-hand oversight over the final product, are able to make changes quickly, and have more control over the entire process. I recommend reading "Designing Bench-Friendly CAD Models" by Jerry Taylor. Jerry presented this topic at the 2017 Santa Fe Symposium® and in it he explores behind why many jewelry CAD people still design as if they are preparing models by hand, and then shows a better way that will save money in materials and increase the quality and speed of finishing jewelry at the bench.

What are the most common questions you hear from customers who are considering investing in this area? What are the most common hesitations?

The customers I’ve talked to want to know how well the machines will integrate into their processes, and how steep the learning curve associated with using the machines will be.

How quickly can customers be up and running once the printer or CNC mill arrives?

For the B9 printer and the Nomad mill, set-up can be completed (including downloading and installing software) in about one hour.

Carbide 3D Nomad 883 Pro CNC Mill
Cast-In-One™ High-Temp Casting Machine

You guys use the B9 3D printer and the Nomad CNC mill in your work here at Rio. What do you like about each of them?

As a jeweler, I’ve used a variety of 3D printers and CNC mills, and the best thing about the B9 Core Series and the Nomad 883 Pro CNC Mill is their ease of use. My favorite features in the B9 are that no calibration is needed and the interface and software is simple and easy to figure out—it truly is plug-and-play.

The Nomad is versatile and allows you to quickly cut a rough sample of your design before moving into the high-resolution final model—it will even produce a 3D model, which is innovative for a compact desktop mill. It’s also easy to use with a lot of options in terms of materials that can be used. Integrating multiple materials in jewelry pieces can open new avenues to design and creativity.

What is the cost of consumables for the B9 printer, and how long do they last?

B9 resin costs around $180 per kg. Trays last up to 600 prints and cost around $995. The Nomad cutters have to be replaced if they get dull or broken, but can be easily replaced. The wasteboard also has to be replaced if the cutter is cutting into it on a regular basis.

Cast-In-One™ High-Temp Casting Machine
Carbide 3D Nomad 883 Pro CNC Mill

What about the Neutec J-2R Casting Machine? What sets it apart?

What sets the Neutec J-2R Casting Machine apart from other casting machines is the ease of use and repeatability to cast large trees with very high quality. Being able to cast flasks up to 4”x 9”H, this machine can be used for production casting purposes. The metal and flask are enclosed in an inert-gas environment resulting in oxidation-free castings. Because the temperature sensor is located inside the crucible, melting temperatures are achieved much more accurately so the metal doesn’t overheat.

Do you offer training on these machines?

Yes, when you buy a machine from Rio Grande, we offer training in-house at our facility in Albuquerque, or a member from Rio’s Jewelry Tech Team can walk you through any process over the phone.

Scott Bradford of the Rio Grande Jewelry Tech Team

Scott Bradford is a member of Rio’s Jewelry Tech Team and has over eleven years experience in the jewelry industry. He specializes in casting, rapid-prototyping, CAD design; general bench, fabrication and repair practices. In his time working with rapid prototyping machines, Scott Bradford has been able to complete extensive research in successfully casting with 3D-printed resins. Since joining Rio's Jewelry Tech Team, he's enjoyed being able to work with such a diverse community of jewelers. "Whether they are a beginner or a veteran of the industry, we share a common passion and it's a great opportunity to learn from one another," he says. "It's been an amazing experience to be a part of such a talented and knowledgeable team from so many different backgrounds."