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Jewellery and technology
Jewellery and technology
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Tech crunch: jewellery equipment innovations

In today's rollercoaster market, Australian retail and bench jewellers could use some technological verve to give them a competitive edge. Stuart Braun searches out the latest jewellery equipment innovations.
As Australian jewellers search for competitive advantage amidst an influx of discounted product made with cheap labour, new technological innovations might help bench and retail jewellers improve the quality, speed and efficiency of their work and their services levels, ultimately boosting profits. "In Australia, we don't have the sort of cheap labour available in Asian countries, for example, but we can use technology to offset the higher cost of labour," says Selwyn Brandt, managing director of equipment supplier House of Jewellery. "Obviously, however, this sort of equipment and machinery is not available to every jeweller since it's a large investment."
Thus, while innovative new equipment and technology is constantly entering the market, Australian jewellers remain cautious about trying - and investing in - new technology. For those ready to update existing equipment, or experiment with inventive new machinery, what are the options, costs, and measurable benefits? It's safe to assume that jewellers across the board wish to produce quality product using the latest machinery; however, most small jewellers don't have the capital to invest - who can afford their own printing and rapid prototyping equipment, for example?
Instead, such jewellers are turning to bureaus that invest in machinery and technology, forming a link between the trade and the computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) equipment that has become fundamental to the industry.
"As a designer, you create a piece in three dimensions on CAD software, email it the bureau, and they create the model for you," Brandt notes. Sunshine Coast-based Facet RP is one such bureau. "With the knowledge gained from over 10 years of experience running Australia's largest wax printing bureau, we have been able to pass our expertise on to numerous jewellers, training them in all aspects of CAD/CAM and being able to provide the most important thing of all - support," asserts Facet's Craig Long. For designers, Brandt believes the advantages are obvious: "If you have to spend time creating prototypes by hand, it might take hours. If you're able to use 3D-design and send it to the bureau, you save a lot of time."
Brandt recommends Palloys as one of the most-trusted bureaus in the business, specialising in casting and creating wax models. Using such a service can remove some of the burdens of capital investment - wax-printing machines costing upwards of $50,000! CAD software is a fundamental tool for both bench and retail jewellers, and is undergoing constant innovation. Upgrading from the previous standard, JewelCAD, Facet RP has now embraced JewelCAD Pro as the latest generation of jewellery designing and modelling software. Such computer-aided design programs can be used as either a manufacturing tool, or as a sales tool in a retail shop, meaning a salesperson can show customers what designs will look like, or create a fully-rendered design of a ring from scratch. JewelCAD Pro is suitable for jewellery designers who want to create custom jewellery and publish marketing materials over the internet. A database of designs can be created from these 3D drawings, with alterations such as the changing of a collet taking mere minutes. "JewelCAD Pro is specifically designed for jewellery where as some other programs specialise other areas, or are add-ons and plug-ins for architectural programs," Steggall says, adding that the program features a simple, user-friendly interface that can be easily utilised by staff with only a cursory knowledge of design software packages.
At the JAA's Brisbane trade fair in March, jewellery equipment supplier Evolution Jewellers released what director Anthony Nowlan calls "an exciting and innovative new retail CAD system" titled Counter Sketch Studio.
Specifically developed for the jewellery retail industry by printing-equipment supplier Gemvision and the US jewellery manufacturing and supplies giant Stuller, Nowlan believes Counter Sketch Studio is a "very exciting development for creating custom jewellery designs within the retail sector".
"Starting with a large database of jewellery designs, sales staff are able to sit with their client, select a design and alter its parameters easily to create a custom design piece of jewellery specifically for that customer," he explains. The design database is always increasing in size, and updates are free, meaning that any user's virtual inventory increases with it. Furthermore, Nowlan explains, V-Ray software enables the jeweller/designer to create photorealistic renders and then upload those designs to Stuller USA for manufacturing. Retailers can select to receive rough castings, finished castings, or a finished piece that includes setting. "Sales staff can easily learn the intuitive interface and operate the software quickly, showing their customer how a seemingly stock piece of jewellery can be customised to suit their tastes and preferences," he adds. "This gives the customer ownership of the design." Additionally, it reduces physical inventory, saving the retailer from holding dead stock.
There are also some exciting developments in CAD technology for bench jewellers.
"Matrix 3D Jewellery Design software is a state-of-the-art, 3D, jewellery CAD program that is intuitive, and works very similarly to the way that bench jewellers work," Nowlan says. Allowing users to design from scratch, the software is made up of not only core tooling, but also includes specific "builders" designed to aid the jeweller/designer in producing their pieces easily. Using V-Ray rendering software also, Matrix can then output the design to rapid prototyping (RP) machines, regardless of whether they are subtractive or additive RP technologies. The latter includes the Revo 540C Milling System, a subtractive RP milling machine with a unique dual spindle setup that allows cutters to be placed vertically and horizontally, unlike on a single spindle mill. According to Nowlan, this is the next step for jewellers who have purchased Matrix, as the accuracy of the mill and its ease of use enables jewellers to "quickly produce their own models in-house, by-passing service bureaus." In addition to milling, a new range of wax printers is being utilised to create models and casts, further streamlining the manufacturing process and, ultimately, reducing costs. The Solidscape wax printers used by Facet RP, including the T76+ or R66+, help bench jewellers create more elaborate and precise pieces than by hand, while the machines can also be left unattended, thus increasing productivity.
Both the T76+ and the R66+ employ Solidscape's new proprietary Smooth Curvature Printing (SCPTM) Technology, which allows for more uniform printed lines by eliminating surface artefacts. The R66+ is targeted at the custom retail jeweller who, in addition to purchasing and marketing jewellery and related services, produces individual pieces or custom lines.
The Palloys Group is another service bureau and jewellery manufacturer offering the latest innovations in CAD/CAM technology - wax printing machines that produce the smoothest wax prints available in the market, according to Palloys director Andrew Cochineas.
Supplementing the existing Palloys fleet of Solidscape wax printers, the SuperSmooth wax printer was launched in May 2010 and is available at no other casting house in the southern hemisphere. It promises to reduce cleaning time when preparing casts for sale compared to traditional CAD/CAM wax and resin prints.
Not to be outdone, equipment distributer and manufacturer Chemgold is releasing its own state-of-the-art technology for precious metal castings known as Stereo Wax. Using Stereolithography (SL), its core function is to assist in developing master patterns for jewellers, and wax for precious metal casting. Stereo Wax technology also allows customers to inspect 3D drawings for market and functional testing.
According to Chemgold production director Larry Sher, Stereo Wax creates a perfect 3D-representation of any jewellery piece. " Stereo Wax helps both retail and bench jewellers who currently use CAD/CAM because it alleviates time-consuming issues with cleaning and polishing of the lined waxes," he says. "The surface of Stereo Wax is superior to any current 3D printer being used in the market place," Sher continues. "This is beneficial to jewellers because when they receive their flawless casting they can go straight to emery and polishing with a significant reduction in material waste."
Stereo Wax technology is also extremely durable, which means there is less risk when transporting the wax to the jewellers who wish to view their design before casting.
Bench jewellers searching for quality and precision in their work view laser welders as essential tools, irrespective of their considerable cost. Neil Penman of Adelaide-based M2 Lasers, a leading supplier to professional engraving and welding contract services, trumpets the recent M2 release of the new SL20 bench-top laser welder. "It has all the functions of the more expensive larger lasers," Penman explains, "but at a lower cost and in a more compact housing to fit into the smallest of workshops."
Programmed with common jeweller tasks, the SL20 allows the user to select the correct program on the laser - fixing hollow jewellery, for example - and execute the weld via a foot pedal and a precise, 15x-magnified microscope.
What is the particular advantage for retail or bench jewellers?
"Jewellers marvel at how quickly and easily the lasers can re-tip prongs on an opal ring with the opal still in place, for example," Penman says. Being able to cleanly fill porosity in seconds with no heat damage to the surrounding area is another advantage, in addition to welding metals including platinum and white gold with no solders, and therefore no visible joins. "This is all done in a fraction of a second, to give the highest quality weld achievable," Penman adds.
Made by LaserStar in the US, and SiroLasertec in Germany, Penman believes the SL20 is the best laser available. "The accuracy, control and speed of a laser gives a jeweller the confidence to take on more jobs, and also produce new designs that maybe they wouldn't have attempted before."
Are Australian jewellers sometimes reluctant to try such innovations?
"Any reluctance jewellers have in purchasing a laser welder is always centred around price; however, they now do more high dollar value jobs," Penman claims. This kind of competitive advantage is vital for independent jewellers, and long-term investment in time-saving equipment may be the ticket.
An alternative to the laser welder is the PUK welder, sold exclusively by House of Jewellery, and which uses less expensive micro-welding technology. "We're now in the process of launching a brand new version," Brandt says, "which costs about one quarter of the price of laser, and is custom-designed for jewellers."
Designed to bond metal without the use of solder, the PUK welder "can bond metals that are unrelated - a piece of silver onto yellow gold, for example," notes Brandt. As it uses argon gas, the PUK absorbs any carbon created by the heat, meaning there is no burn mark, or oxidisation of metal, but the jury is still out on whether the technology can be compared to laser welding, due in the first instance to significant price and technological differences.
So what are the caveats when investing in new technology? Nowlan is concerned that many jewellers make such investments "based solely on price", and fail to consider "ease of use, support and upgrades, costs for training and maintenance, or compatibility with your business model, staff etc."
He recommends jewellers ignore price to some respect and research heavily. "The old adage ‘you reap what you sow' has never been more apt. Make your software work for you, otherwise it will become nothing more than the most expensive icon on your desktop."
Technology may be a big investment; however new CAD/CAM tools are now increasingly customised and refined for the jewellery industry, which should help to give jewellers a competitive edge. As Penman notes in relation to clients utilising laser technology, "They keep their current clients and gain new ones, as they can offer more than any of their competitors can."
And that's one tool worth having.
Stuart Braun
Contributor •

Stuart writes for magazines, produces documentaries for ABC radio, once wrote a Ph.D, was a writer in Tokyo for a few years, and hankers to one day write his own stuff.

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