In an ironic turn of events, technology advancements are helping jewellers to continue an age-old tradition. EMILY MOBBS reports on the starring role that casting plays in this scenario.
CAD/CAM and 3D printing are jewellery manufacturing technologies that have dominated headlines for helping to spearhead the resurgence of custom-made jewellery but this is not a story about CAD/CAM and 3D printing, albeit they will play a supporting role. This is a story about another pivotal area of the jewellery making process: casting.
Developments in the casting sector are running full steam ahead with casting service providers investing heavily into technologies that can assist jewellers in achieving efficient, cost-effective and high-quality product.
Chemgold director Larry Sher says his business is continuously searching for ways to improve casting. Chemgold has been operating in Australia since 1986 and Sher explains that major advancements introduced in the past two years relate to precious metal chemistry and the development of new alloys.
“We have been able to improve existing alloys and bring new alloys to the market that have a smaller grain structure,” Sher explains. “We introduced a new platinum alloy one year ago called Platinum G that contains gold. Platinum G is like no other platinum alloy as it’s the hardest, brightest and most durable casting alloy in the Australian market.”
Sher states that Chemgold has had “extremely good growth” in platinum casting sales since Platinum G’s release but the developments don’t stop there. Other recently-launched alloys include 18WPP, said to be the whitest 18-carat white gold alloy ever manufactured in Australia, and AGPD, which is a 925 sterling silver alloy containing palladium.
Andrew Cochineas, CEO of Pallion, which is the parent company of custom jewellery manufacturing business Palloys, among others, says the group has made several technology advancements in recent years; however, there are two standouts – wax and resin printers and investing equipment.
“We have conducted extensive research into wax and resin 3D printing technology,” he explains. “This involved sending our team to the US and Europe to train with the world’s leading 3D printing manufacturers to ensure that our clients had access to the most up-to date technology.”
Cochineas states that his company’s “fleet” of wax and resin printers continues to expand, adding, “Our latest printers achieve even smoother quality print in waxes and resin in even shorter time. This directly transfers into more efficient delivery for our customers.”
In addition, Pallion has recently installed a closed-investment delivery system that provides, according to Cochineas, a more efficient process in that the machine reduces wastage when preparing investment and also produces a finer investment that substantially lessens porosity and non-fills.
Advancements in processes are a focus for Rapid Casting as well.
“The main change casting technology wise is that we have slowly introduced induction-melt pressure casting into our manufacture process,” Rapid Casting production manager Ben Farago explains. “We are now doing less torch-melt vacuum casting to achieve more consistent results.”
Farago also says that with the steady development of resin 3D printers and increasing customer demand for smoother parts, Rapid Casting has added resin printing and casting as a service to its bureau.
According to Pure Casting director Craig Long, the casting house has a long-standing and ongoing passion for the traditional jewellery industry and advancing technology.
“Pure Casting founders, with partners Facet Rapid Prototyping, were the first in Australia to predict the transformation that 3D printing technologies would have on the jewellery industry worldwide,” Long states. “We were the first to import the original Solidscape rapid prototyping machine to Australia in 1999 and always stay on the ‘bleeding edge’ of technological advancement in rapid prototyping for the industry.”
Long adds that the supplier recently invested in the EnvisionTec Perfactory Mini 3D printer, which he states is the highest-resolution printer currently available.
“We have spent long hours in research and development and can now confidently offer this service to our customers,” he says. “Our addition of the best quality wax and resin printers on the market means smoother prints and less time needed for the jeweller in clean up.”
Casting forced into focus
The increasing use of CAD/CAM among jewellers has had a significant impact on the need for casting services.
Farago says Rapid Casting has experienced a slow but steady rise in demand for casting in the past few years.
“The main reason for this is even though the unsteady economy of the past few years has adversely affected the jewellery trade in general, it has somewhat pushed the development and prevalence of CAD/CAM as a more economical method of production/manufacture for jewellers,” he explains.
Farago comments that one noticeable market change is how CAD/CAM is developing into a manufacturing tool as opposed to just being used for the production of one-off complex designs.
“As CAD/CAM use becomes more prevalent in the jewellery trade, we are seeing more jewellers using it for the manufacture of everyday stock as opposed to the old master and rubber system,” he says.
According to Sher, demand for Chemgold’s casting services has increased largely due to 3D printing and CAD.
“An increasing number of jewellers and retailers have invested in CAD software as they realise how technology can help their business grow,” Sher explains. “They can send a file and receive the casting back from us in two days. As a result, they can be confident we have the print and casting capacity to meet their deadlines.”
Chris Hood, jeweller and owner of Metal Urges Fine Jewellery in Hobart, says that custom jewellery isn’t really a “side” to his business any more but rather his “whole business”.
“Every piece we make is to order,” he states. “We would like to make some nice stock pieces but the workload is keeping us from this. The combination of CAD, printing and casting has been invaluable.”
Hood explains that casting quality has made great strides in recent years, which has helped his business meet increased demand for his one-off jewellery pieces.
“Casting seems to have come a long way in quality with virtually zero miscasts for us over the past year or two,” he says. “I’m glad the days of sending a five-hour hand-carved wax away and getting an apologetic phone call when it only half filled are over. All these things have helped with growing demands and really mean no difference in quality from handmade if used in the right way.”
The director and head jeweller of Gold Coast-based Anson Jewellers, James Anson, says his casting work has doubled in the past two years as a result of introducing CAD.
Anson, who has been a jeweller for 17 years, points to smoother finish and greater efficiency as some of the casting improvements aiding him in meeting customer demand.
“We now use CAD and have a quicker turnaround in the casting,” he says, adding that the relationship between casting house and retailer is important. “The casting company also needs to know and understand our product and particular standards. This allows them to make the necessary adjustments to their product to complement ours.”
Long also touches on the value of supplier and retailer working together.
“Demand for our precious metal casting services has increased year-on-year as we partner with our customers to provide a ‘bespoke’ casting service for all size businesses,” he says.
“In the same way our customers provide custom design services for the end-consumer, we can adapt what we do to meet their business needs.”
Long offers the ability to adjust production cycles as an example of this, which means faster delivery as well as better-quality products.
“We pay individual attention to each piece put through our factory and can offer quick burn-outs – this means same-day investing and casting rather than a two-day process – for clients who need jobs urgently,” he adds.
The rise of 3D printing
The advancement of 3D printing technology is having a substantial impact on manufacturing efficiencies too and has become a stable in casting service companies across the country.
Printer prices have dramatically reduced, resulting in an increasing number of jewellers introducing in-house 3D printers. The accessibility and ease of use means there are various impacts on the industry.
For jewellers such as Juan Steenkamp, who operates Jeanco Jewellers near Auckland, having an onsite 3D printer has decreased the need to outsource casting work.
“We are now able to cast our resin 3D-printed models with no less quality results than when casting burn-out wax,” Steenkamp explains.
On the contrary, many other retailers are not equipped to conduct their own casting but will still profit from having an in-house 3D printer.
Sher says 3D technology offers jewellers a fantastic opportunity to create prototypes for their customers but the upkeep of the machines can be time-consuming.
“We are finding that the majority of customers will still prefer to send the file to print and cast due to the current prices for print fees and the fact that casting is very capital intensive,” he explains.
Cochineas acknowledges the wide range of 3D printers available in the market but says many aren’t suitable for the fine and intricate detail that jewellery printing requires.
“There are several benefits to dealing with a large company with state-of-the-art technology like 3D printing,” Cochineas says. “The first is that we take full responsibility to ensure that the result is perfect. That means if the print fails, we will re-print until we get the best quality print possible. Secondly, we are cheaper as there is always an inherent cost of doing it yourself – the time, the trial and error and maintenance costs.”
According to Farago, the increased accessibility of 3D printers has meant that casting houses must deal with various resin materials.
“The main impact of low-cost, personal 3D printers upon the casting industry is that we are getting customers sending us more resin parts as opposed to carved, milled or injected waxes,” he explains, adding, “As more customers are doing their own printing in-house, and as most low-cost machines are open source for materials, we find we get a lot of random, untested resin that can be a bit hit and miss to cast without any previous testing.”
When asked about the future of casting, Farago again points to the proliferation of different resins.
“The main thing that has the ability to change the casting industry in the near future is customer resin printing,” he says. “There is an increased call for casting companies to cast customer resin as more jewellers are printing in-house. The growing number of casting resins in the marketplace and the unlimited variables introduced by these resins means the casting process will slowly have to change so as to produce consistently good parts from unknown customer resins.”
Long predicts that every jeweller will have their own 3D printer in the next five years and says he welcomes the opportunity to support retailers.
“While 3D printing is becoming more accessible and affordable for everyone, casting is still an area that requires a lot of equipment and knowledge to do reliably,” Long explains, adding, “As a casting house, we need to adapt to the change. For us, this means constant research and development on casting the vast array of print materials that are coming on to the market and educating our clients on materials that are not suitable for investment casting.”
Cochineas states that his team expects to see an increase in demand for casting as technology improves and the quality of casting advances.
“We are also watching, with great interest, the development of metal sintering [printing direct in metal as opposed to other materials]. We hope to be one of the first to take up the technology when it reaches commercial viability,” he adds.
Sher too expects the casting sector to carry along the path of evolution in the coming years. “The casting process will continue to develop with further advances in education and technology,” he says. “Chemgold has many initiatives in the pipeline, as we are forever finding new ways to assist jewellers.”
With so many advancements in casting, the future of this sector and thus the businesses of retailers using casting is anything but dull.