When the first inkjet printer was introduced in 1976, its inventors could scarcely imagine just how important and influential this technology would become. By the early 1980s, a number of innovators had begun experimenting with 3D printing methods that replaced traditional ink with a special photopolymer that allowed printers to produce three-dimensional forms. Instead of simply printing documents and pictures on a 2D sheet of paper, 3D printers deposit successive layers of laser-hardened material to create a physical object from a digital file.
Spearheaded by 3D Systems cofounder Charles Hull, early 3D printing technology (or stereolithography) was used to produce prototypes that enabled manufactures to test a specific model or design before investing in more comprehensive and expensive modes of production. It was only a matter of time, however, before this exciting new technology was adapted to meet other commercial demands in a wide array of industries and business sectors. Companies currently capitalizing on the exciting and far-reaching potential of 3D printing range from automotive and aerospace companies (who have used the technology to create individual parts as well as entire vehicles) to large healthcare providers (who have printed surgical implants and functional organs that are coated with a patient’s individual cells).
3D printing has been a particular interest to leaders in the jewelry industry. In 2011, the company i.materialise became the first 3D printing service in the world to offer sterling silver and 14-karat gold as printing materials, introducing a new manufacturing option for jewelry designers. Although, this innovative method of jewelry production has yet to find widespread commercial acceptance, it has the potential to create pieces more rapidly and less expensively than ever before.
The majority of today’s jewelry manufacturers use 3D printers to produce wax or resin molds that are then infused with precious metal through a casting process. In addition to its improved speed and convenience, the advantages of this process include the ability to create stronger and more intricate jewelry that is formed from one continuous piece of metal instead of separate components that must soldered together.
Regardless of their reasons for adopting this new technology, jewelry manufacturers are turning to 3D printing in droves. A 2015 article by Forbes Magazine estimates that 3D printing in international jewelry markets will reach $11 billion by the year 2020.