The future is now
By Chris Botha
Is CAD/CAM a good investment for jewellers, or just another white elephant? CAD/CAM expert Chris Botha outlines how Computer Aided Design can help your business.
No doubt you have come across the CAD/CAM acronyms many times in the past few years; the technological phenomenon that may eventually put jewellery manufacturing in the layman’s hands. This is a typical sales pitch presented by CAD/CAM vendors and may not accurately represent any of the good, or bad, decisions of investing in this exciting new development.
CAD stands for computer aided design, while CAM is an abbreviation for computer aided/assisted manufacturing. You may have discussed these technology options with your staff, your bench jewellers or your accountant, and heard some good reasons why NOT to jump in. The prohibitive cost, concerns about training and then the loss of those trained staff, the fear of industrial mechanisation of an artisan trade, and of course ignorance of the tool itself.
Before you take the plunge into what can be a very expensive or foolish investment, jewellers should consider a number of questions. What is CAD? Is it for you? Is it for your business? Is it for your staff? Does your business model support it? Is it only a manufacturing tool? Is it a design tool? Is it a sales tool? Is your investment secure? Which CAD should you get, which CAM?
In its most basic form, CAD is a design tool only – a design tool with the happy side effect that the design can be produced by means of various CAM methods into a piece of actual jewellery – a carbon copy of the drawing on the screen – and herein lies its greatest benefit and downfall. There is little loss in translation between the design presented to the client and the final product; what you see is what you get. Effectively you reduce the time, errors and money spent in the ‘best-guess’ business of converting a pencil sketch into a piece of jewellery. Reading a client’s mind is never an easy business. Assuming they can read yours, or interpret your sketches is an even bigger problem.
The design down side is a rather large one. What you see is what you get. So, if you design a bad piece, mechanically speaking you will get a bad piece. This is no different from asking a jeweller to make a bad design – typically, however, a jeweller will secretly make corrections for sales people’s awry sketches and bad design principals. CAD is smart, but also dumb. The oldest computing adage applies: GIGO – garbage in, garbage out.
A second, and less known, benefit of CAD as a design tool is the ability it gives a business to hold an infinite array of virtual inventory. Each piece has an exact manufacturing cost, material and stone weight correctly assigned to it.
The idea of virtual inventory goes beyond the domain of online vendors and into the realm of the sales floor. Marrying the actual stock with a design inventory allows you to utilise the parametric nature of CAD to hold a limitless array of design iterations. Present a client with an actual piece to examine and hold a dozen design variations in a booklet, all produced and rendered with no outlay other than the time spent designing using CAD. A virtual stock hold worth millions, for the price of a single CAD installation.
This stock hold can be also used as a very effective advertising medium. The lines between this type of advertising and the crossover to virtual inventory have started to blend. Some companies can pre-sell an entire range before ever having had a single model produced.
This parametric nature of CAD also helps reduce redesign time significantly; allowing your designer and jeweller to produce far more in less time, with the added benefit that ‘no go’ designs for one client may very well be useful for another, or simply to add to your virtual inventory.
CAD sales tools
CAD as a sales tool has been limited to large scale manufacturing plants until now, yet it has been a very effective one. The advent of new smarter and slimmer technology allows the sales team to take devices like iPads or TabletPCs onto the sales floor. Younger (and increasingly older) buyers are aware of CAD because of the massive surge in online vendors who use it to finalise designs prior to manufacturing.
Almost everyone nowadays has some form of smartphone or mobile computing device, so bringing technology onto the sales floor is no longer taboo. A quick tally finds five CAD drawing applications for iPhone/iPad and a dozen or so ‘CAD viewers’ (that will allow you to view CAD files but not create them) for industries from cabinet making to house design and automotive design, and almost every new luxury item you have bought, from the Bentley to the yacht has had its roots in CAD or CAM.
Jewellery manufacturing or sales cannot escape this logical evolution. Programs like Gemvision’s CounterSketch can soon be brought onto the sales floor on a tablet-sized PC and the process of designing an entire ring can be done by the client, with no knowledge of CAD required. Drag a slider here, make the ring bigger, drag a slider there, make the centre stone bigger, click a button and swap the metal from 9ct to 18ct.
This will without a doubt change the way we sell custom-made jewellery. CAD will free sales people from having to consult a manufacturing jeweller to find out if the item is practical to produce and what the item will cost. In fact, the sale is actually made by the client. If the client doesn’t like the price they are free to drag the shank thinner themselves, sparing a few dollars in weight but enabling them to see the big impact it has on the overall design. The piece is produced, set and finished and delivered back to you in two weeks. No headaches.
The downside to this sales application of CAD is that there are no local servicers at present, which means it must be serviced abroad and your hard earned Australian dollar leaves the country. Hopefully this will change and more users will be able to be serviced locally in future.
This subject is a massive one to tackle and will not be resolved fully for at least another 10 years – by which time all manufacturers will be using this technology.
The biggest factor to consider when implementing CAD as a manufacturing tool in your workshop is surprisingly, the human factor. Consider that most older bench jewellers who saw the quartz movement kill watchmaking will view any new technology on the bench with a wary eye.
Allaying this fear is the primary goal or your entire installation will suffer – because it is exactly these jewellers who are required to make the system work properly, make sure no one inputs bad design principals.
The ‘GIGO’ effect
CAD is a tool – only a tool – and as such its output is dependent on the jeweller or designer’s input. Give two jewellers the same saw frame and you will get two different results.
CAD is no different. And herein lies CAD’s biggest advantage and also its biggest downfall. People with no natural or learnt ability on the bench are able to use CAD to produce jewellery – even fantastically complicated pieces – but the question remains, will that piece be practical or durable. Unfortunately the answer, most of the time, is no.
The majority of people who are actively learning CAD now have no experience with what constitutes a viable piece of jewellery. This has resulted in the proliferation of cheap, light and poorly conceived models hitting the retail market. Jewellery that is so iffy, that even whispering the word ultrasonic anywhere near it makes three stones fall out.
There is currently a recruitment drive by larger manufacturers to employ classically trained bench jewellers to write engineering standards for their CAD departments to overcome this problem.
The simple and undeniable fact is that bench jewellers actually make the best CAD artists and they tend to ramp up the learning curve much faster. Jewellers need to invest in their staff because CAD will not replace them, it will merely augment what they do. The marriage of CAD to a good bench jeweller is a remarkable thing to witness, allowing that jeweller to produce more - better and faster than he could have ever imagined.
If you do not have access to a manufacturing jeweller it may be worth your while to invest in a short course on jewellery manufacturing to give you a few basic ideas about casting and setting requirements – this will pay off far more than repetitive CAD lessons from different providers.
Simply put, CAD is a reality in the here and now – not in some distant future. It has arrived and jewellers need to know how to make it work for them, to produce the sweet sound of ka-ching! in the till.
Know your customer
Posted September 06, 2011