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So… You Want to Get into CAM

A guide to taking the plunge into computer-aided manufacturing

By Sharon Elaine Thompson

Computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) are so closely aligned that you hear them spoken of in the same breath: CAD/CAM. Many jewelers have made the jump to CAD, but there are those who have not chosen to use the power of CAM in house for many reasons: the added equipment expense; the time needed to learn another machine, process, and/or material; and concerns about casting the photopolymer resins used in many 3-D printers.

Most of those barriers are gone, says Steven Adler of A3DM Technologies in Sarasota, Florida. “Prices for 3-D printers have come down, with some well under $5,000,” he says. 3-D printers have become virtually plug-and-play, with setup programs that walk a new user through what they need to know. Lastly, the materials, says Adler, are “far more castable today than ten years ago.”


Rio and Formslabs

Maybe you’re ready to take the leap but don’t know where to start. Let’s take a look at the benefits of incorporating CAM into your business, the different types of options on the market, and the costs and training that are needed to take the plunge.

Why Get Into CAM?

Whether you’re an experienced CAD user or just starting out, there are several good reasons to bring CAM in-house.

A quick model created on a 3-D printer can aid sales. While CAD renders present an amazing, computer-generated image of what the finished work will look like, some customers need a physical representation of the piece.

“CAD is an interpretive thing,” says Adler. “You don’t get exactly what you see on the screen until you hold the 3-D print.” The ability to produce a model in 15 to 45 minutes (depending on the print-er) “is remarkable,” he says. Customers can watch you do a design in CAD before lunch, come back afterwards and try that design on, almost turning custom design into an impulse purchase.

Being able to show a customer “the 3-D model with the gemstones set in place, along with a CAD rendering that gives them a shiny gold visual almost feels like cheating compared to what I used to go through carving waxes,” says Gary Dawson of Gary Dawson Designs in Eugene, Oregon. “It really lubricates the communication process.” And it can help you expand your business into this exploding and lucrative market.

It’s also a great learning tool. Some jewelers choose to put off learning CAM un-til they have mastered designing in CAD. However, “for a novice going through the CAD learning curve, it can be very helpful to have some sort of CAM available because you get immediate feedback from your design attempts,” says Dawson. You’ll be able to tell immediately if the design is printable, if all the parts are there and connected in the right way, if prongs are correctly dimensioned, or if the design is overburdened with details that don’t show on the physical model. That kind of immediate feedback is “incredibly valuable,” says Dawson, in that it helps you get better at CAD, faster.

Even jewelers well versed in CAD use design validation, says Dawson, because errors of scale and proportion can occur when designing on-screen. “I will often make a bezel in CAD, then before going on with the design, just print the bezel to make sure my gemstone is going to fit.”

Some jewelers leapt into CAM because they weren’t proficient at CAD and didn’t want to pay a service bureau or casting house to produce uncastable models from their CAD files. With the need to make the CAM system pay for itself, they were more willing to try different things and print or mill their designs to see if they worked or looked good without worrying about the cost of the service bureau. This self-imposed pressure freed them creatively, and as a result, their CAD skills increased quickly and significantly.


Rio B9 Formlabs

Other jewelers prefer to produce their own models and cast them in-house be-cause it eliminates the risk of losing control of their proprietary designs when they outsource those services. “That’s the biggest plus to growing your models yourself,” says Tyler Teague, owner of Proto Products and a distributor for Asiga 3-D printers and products in Ashland City, Tennessee. 

In addition, producing models via CAM and casting in-house allows you to “control your destiny,” says Doug Kerns, director, North American jewelry division at EnvisionTEC in Dearborn, Michigan. “When you control your own product from start to finish, you know how your printer will act, and you know what surface quality you are getting when you run that model. It helps reduce the stress because you are controlling the whole process.”

Finally, CAM can not only save you time but also money. In-house, your castings are the top priority, even if there are only a few. When you send your files out, they may be in a line behind someone else who has a batch of a hundred or more models to run. And in-house, there are no printing, casting, or shipping fees. “I don’t think people quite realize how much money they’re throwing out the window by not doing this in-house,” says Kerns.

The Options

There are two different CAM processes used within the jewelry industry: CNC (computer numerical control) milling and 3-D printing.

Milling

Milling is a subtractive process that uses automated carving bits to cut the model from hard wax, just as waxes are carved by hand. The main advantage of CNC milling is that once the model is milled, it’s ready to sprue and cast using the same procedure you’ve used with hand-carved waxes. Designs are often milled in multiple pieces, and you can fuse them with ordinary wax the way you normally would.

The surface of a milled wax is usually very clean. Michael Campobasso, USA sales director for NS CNC Manufacturing in New York City, believes it’s even cleaner than a hand-carved wax.

“Normally with hand carving, you’d have to polish or flame the surface,” he says. But after milling jewelry designs for his company, Lion Diamonds, he says “you don’t have to touch it. It’s magnificent.”

Though Dawson has been a huge proponent of 3-D printers, he recently in-vested in a used Roland JWX10 mill and says that the Roland’s “resolution is so superior to any resin print I’ve ever seen, I’m blown away.”

However, one of the difficulties with milling, says Dawson, is understanding the software that writes the codes that drive the mill. This tool path—which tells the cutting tools how to move—has to be programmed individually for each piece that is milled. (Training is usually provided when a mill is purchased new from the manufacturer or a supplier; buyers of second-hand machines may likely be on their own.)

CAM mill detail

Mills use automated carving bits to cut models from hard wax. Although the machines require tool path programming and are typically slower than most 3-D printers, the resulting models require very little cleanup and are ready to sprue and cast immediately.

Programming the tool path can take some time. Campobasso estimates, for ex-ample, that it takes 30 minutes to program his mill to machine a Tiffany solitaire with a six-prong head. A more complex design may take more time.

While 3-D printers can print multiple pieces at a time, mills usually cut only one at a time, though they can be programmed to cut several, simple identical models, such as wedding bands or flat objects, from the same piece of wax. However, Teague warns that those pieces will be milled consecutively, not concurrently.

Critics say there are some things—such as hollow forms or pieces with complex undercuts—that can’t be milled.  Campobasso debates that. “Someone who really knows the machine, can do 95 percent of the geometries a 3-D printer can do,” he says. “You can cut up to 150 degrees and do undercuts. You can carve out a lot of hard-to-reach areas.”

Realistically, says Campobasso, if the pieces are designed in multiple parts, the wax can be cut “in the simplest and smoothest way possible.”

Dawson agrees. Even with his older mill model, he says, “You can get almost anything you can with a resin printer. And you don’t have the problems of casting resin.” In addition, the surfaces are very smooth, requiring little clean up. And of course, “if you need to modify [the model], it’s a completely familiar material.”

3-D Printing

3-D printing is an additive process. Most 3-D printers build a model layer by layer by exposing a liquid photopolymer resin or wax/polymer combination to a concentrated beam of light. In addition, there are some systems that print in 100 percent wax.

There are four important aspects to 3-D printing: the orientation of the part on the platform; how the part being printed is supported; the X, Y, and Z resolutions; and the material used for printing.


Rio B9 Formlabs

Resolution is described in microns—the fewer the microns, the finer the layers, and the better the surface quality and detail. Generally (and depending on the specific printer and material used), the faster a model prints, the lower the resolution; the slower it prints, the higher the resolution.

Although there are some printers that print using a wax-based material, the majority of machines geared toward the jewelry industry print using a resin-based material. Models printed in a resin or resin/wax combination require further processing after printing, or post-processing. When a resin model comes off the printer, it’s covered in a sheen of sticky liquid plastic. To remove it, it is bathed in a 99 percent alcohol solution. (Bath times vary depending on manufacturer’s guidelines.) This is followed by time in a UV light chamber. Then it is ready to sprue and cast.

3-D printed models by Envisiontec

3-D printers build models layer by layer using either a photopolymer resin or wax-based material. Most printers have the ability to produce multiple models at a time, although resin models will require post-processing cleaning and UV curing before they can be cast. 

As mentioned earlier, 3-D printers can produce multiple unique pieces at a time, which is why they have become the choice for production for both high- and low-volume jewelers. Another advantage to 3-D printing is that it can produce a prototype model very quickly—in as little as 15 to 20 minutes, exclusive of post-processing. Because a photopolymer model printed so quickly is usually low in resolution, most jewelers don’t use them to cast the final product. They are used to validate the CAD design or to show a physical sample of a design to a customer. They then print a second, higher resolution model for casting.

Because 3-D printers build up a surface in layers, they can, depending on the fineness of the resolution, be covered with striations that have to be removed in the model, before casting, or in the metal, after casting.

“We haven’t totally eliminated grow lines in 3-D printers,” says Scott Bradford, who is part of the Jewelry Tech Team at Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico, though the technology has gotten much better. However, he says, you have to be conscious of the design and aware of where there will be hard-to-reach areas. You can sometimes remedy grow lines in the growing process by changing the printing orientation in the way you print it. You can always print in multiple pieces, clean up the metal after casting and assemble then, or clean up the resin before casting. “Always be conscious of how much clean-up will be needed after the fact,” says Bradford.

Most printers offer resolutions of 25 to 50 microns; most jewelers find that printing at 25 to 38 microns saves time but still allows them to produce a high-quality print that results in a high-quality casting.

As most 3-D printers work, they have to lay down each layer on a previous layer. If there is a void in the design, then there must be a support under it. You can think of supports a bit like arches and piles that hold up a bridge roadway.

Designing the support system for a resin model is one of the “black arts” of jewelry making, much like spruing, says Alban D’Halluin, CEO of Prodways Tech, a French producer of industrial 3-D printers and resins, and the parent company of Solidscape. “You want enough supports for accuracy and the minimum you need in order to leave as few marks on the piece as possible,” he explains. You’ll also want as few as possible simply to reduce the time needed to remove them before preparing the model for casting.

The CAM software of many printers now makes supporting decisions for the user, though users can override those decisions on some equipment and make their own decisions about supports.

There are some printers on the market that solve the support issue in a different way. Solidscape machines build a piece layer by layer with two complementary waxes simultaneously determined by its CAM software. The model itself is printed in a castable wax; the surrounding support material is printed in a dissolvable wax with a lower melting point.


Rio B9 Formlabs

“This process of using a dissolve support structure eliminates the need for jewelers having to do it themselves manually and have to think about unnecessary steps in production,” says Owen Burke, director of America’s and APAC regions for Solidscape in Merrimack, New Hampshire. “After the piece is de-waxed it would then be dried, sprued, and cast.”

Buying a CAM System

When considering a CAM system, do your research. Look critically at your process and how the CAM equipment will integrate into your existing procedures.

One of the first things to consider is how the models you produce will be cast. Casting a milled wax or a 3-D printed wax is no different from casting any other wax model. It’s when casting resins that jewelers sometimes run into kinks in the process. That’s why, in addition to speed and resolution, it’s important to discuss the castability of 3-D printed resin models with the printer manufacturers.

“Castability is crucial,” says Bradford. “You can print all sorts of pretty stuff, but if you can’t cast it... And resin is a tricky thing to cast.”

If you’ve settled on getting a 3-D printer to meet your needs, know the average maximum size and number of components you’d like to print at one time as this will determine the size of the build platform you need. Look at how workable the resin or resin/wax combination is.

“I tell people, if they’re thinking of buying a 3-D printer, always get samples and see the finished piece for yourself,” says Bradford. Most manufacturers have sample files they’ll print and send you. Better yet, ask them to print one of your average files. “If you’re looking for castable resins, do test castings. Be sure you can cast effectively going in so you’re not disappointed.” 

3-D printed models by Envisiontec

When reviewing the 3-D printers on the market and comparing price points, don’t forget to consider the costs beyond just the machine, such as consumables. Cartridges of resin material can run anywhere from $100 to upwards of $800 per kilogram.

Consider how quickly you need to produce models. Speed of printing is often used as a selling point for 3-D printers. If you opt for one, ask about how quickly a machine will print in the resolution quality you want, and how that fits into your casting cycle.

Mills are slower than most 3-D printers but produce waxes that can be sprued and cast immediately versus printed models that require curing and clean-up.

Determine how much time you’re willing to put into learning and practicing with the equipment and how tech savvy you are. If you want something that is largely plug-and-play, then 3-D printing is probably your best choice. Consider whether or not you have the staff or want to hire the staff to run the equipment.

If you want only to validate your design or show a customer a 3-D representation of your CAD design, you may be able to get by with an inexpensive machine. If you want to commit to handling the whole process in-house, evaluate what types of jewelry you make, and decide if you would be best working with a mill or 3-D printer. If you want to continue working with 100 percent wax, your choices are a mill or a system that prints in wax. If you are willing to learn the idiosyncrasies of casting resin models, your options open further.

A not insignificant question is how long it will take for the equipment to earn out. So look at how many pieces you can or will make using the equipment and determine how it will affect your business, such as increasing your ability to do custom work or help you create a house brand. Figure out the cost of the consumables, such as resin or wax, as well as parts, such as resin trays or drivers, that will have to be replaced at intervals.

Finally, talk to more than one mill or printer manufacturer. Visit their booths at trade shows. Watch their videos and tutorials online. You can ask them for a list of their customers to speak with about their experiences with the technology. In addition, check out online CAD/CAM user groups and talk to others about the CAM option they chose and why.

What Will It Cost?

Costs for CAM systems can vary widely.

Mills run from $4,000 to $25,000, though Dawson also found a used mill for about $2,000, so buying used is an option if you’re on a budget or unsure you want to commit. Beware if buying a used mill, however, as technical support may not be available from the manufacturer.

Prices for 3-D printers geared for use in the industry run the gamut, from as low as around $3,500 to upwards of $55,000. You can get a simple resin-based 3-D printer for as little as $400, says Dawson, if you just want to try the process out and don’t plan on casting the resulting models.

That said, Kerns warns against a “race to the bottom” regarding 3-D printer costs.

“There are some good and inexpensive systems out there,” he says. “But most people want plug-and-play, and you don’t get that with some of the less expensive ma-chines.” Less expensive machines may or may not allow you to work with the higher wax content resins that are easier to cast.

When reviewing the CAM systems on the market and comparing price points, don’t forget to consider the costs of all of the additional materials needed beyond just the up-front cost of the printer or mill.

For 3-D printers, check into the price of the printing material. Cartridges of resin can run anywhere from $100 to upwards of $800 per kilogram, depending on the material. The resin trays themselves must also be replaced regularly; depending on the volume of printing, many users should expect to replace them a couple of times a year. Trays for printers geared for the jewelry industry can run from around $150 to as much as $2,500.

As you factor in the costs, also consider the materials that can be used with specific machines. Some 3-D printers are open systems, which means that users aren’t limited to a specific type of resin material. If a printer is open, review the costs of other resin materials from different manufacturers, as you may find one that offers the benefits you’re looking for at a price that better fits your budget.

When it comes to mills, the consumable costs are pretty low. “I can buy 25 pounds of wax for $500,” says Campobasso. “It’s no more than $500 to $600 a year for consumables and maintenance for one machine.”

Mills also have driver heads that will need to be replaced. Though it depends on the specific mill and how much usage it sees, Campobasso estimates that users can expect to replace driver heads every 8 to 10 years at a cost of around $150 per driver.

Training Options

Most professional level CAM manufacturers offer some kind of free, online training. They also offer support for questions that arise after you begin working with the equipment. Some will even connect you with mentors in the industry.

According to Bradford, the Formlabs 3-D printers, available from Rio Grande, practically train you themselves. The first time you use a Formlabs 3-D printer, “it walks you through the set-up of the machine, telling you how to install the trays, the resin cartridge, and the platforms,” he says. “When you install the software, it does the same thing—it takes you on a tour of the software showing you what to click and telling you why you’re clicking it. And it will load up, on its own, something for you to print for the first time.”

Solidscape offers training through videos and online chats. “Training takes a few hours the first day to get familiar with the ins and outs of the machine,” says Burke. Users run the machine overnight to print a few sample pieces, then return to training the next day for about an hour, he says, to review the de-waxing process, refresh the training from the day before, and ask any questions they still have.

“After that, the customer can reach back out to our highly trained and experienced service team members,” says Burke. “The nice thing about the jewelry industry is that there are people willing to help each other. With thousands of printers in the field being used every day there is a healthy network of Solidscape users willing to help others.” There are also a number of online forums that will provide more information.


Rio B9 Formlabs
 

Sometimes training options and costs depend on the specific machines.

For example, EnvisionTEC offers no-cost training for its D4K line of printers “via video or white papers.” Techs can also connect with customers via video conference. For the company’s cDLM machines, users can opt to do a virtual, no-cost training, or use a fee-based, onsite training, either at EnvisionTEC ($1,000/day) or in their own place of business ($1,500/day).

Generally speaking, the learning curve for many CAM systems isn’t too steep, especially for those who are experienced in CAD. According to Dani Mason, vice president of marketing at B9Creations in Rapid City, South Dakota, the B9Creations equipment is “pretty intuitive because you already understand objects in three dimensions, and design and layout.” She says most users are running the equipment confidently within a week; some come back for some additional training on adding supports.

Mason says that because the company has an “extensive customer base,” they’ve been able to create a mentoring system that connects new users with more experienced users who can give them practical advice. She notes that the company also offers free lifetime customer support.

“The only thing that makes us successful is if the customer is using the technology,” says Mason. And the only way customers will use it, is if they are comfortable with it.

Mills have a longer training period and take longer to become proficient because it takes time to master the ability to program the tool path. NS CNC has more than 40 free videos on how programming and coding of the mill is done, says Campobasso. That training will provide the information a user needs to learn the ins and outs of the machine, but, he says, it will take another three months of working with the machine four to six hours a day to begin to get command of it.

“If you’re a good student, and you put in the work, the machine has very few limitations,” he says. “The limitations are only those the user brings to it.”

Durability

Given the time and money you’re going to invest in a CAM system, it’s normal to consider how long the technology will last. Despite complex software, many moving parts, liquid resins, and wax particles, one thing manufacturers say customers should not worry about is the durability of their CAM systems. “Users expect 3-D printers to be as reliable as their smartphones,” says D’Halluin.

Of the Formlabs printers, “They last years and years,” says Bradford. “They’re still going strong out in the field after seven or eight years.”

Campobasso calls the two mills he uses in his shop workhorses.

“They are going 20 to 23 hours a day, and often 45 to 75 hours non-stop,” he says. “And they’ve been doing that for five years.”

“There is nothing that will do everything all the time,” says Dawson, “your first mill or printer may not be your last one.” In fact, once you get into CAM you may find you need more than one type of system. Even if you have a wax printer, you might want a less expensive 3-D resin printer for quick prototyping. If you do most of your work with 3-D printers, you may find there are times that you need a mill.

“CAD and CAM printers have been a major transformation for the industry,” says D’Halluin. “You cannot fight it. Our work is to be sure that the tools we’re creating and the work environment we’re creating is seamless and helping the customer. The customer should be able to focus on the work and forget the system.”

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