Design Revolution: the power of CAD-CAM

Internationally-renowned designer, master jeweller and artist, Rex Steele Merten explains everything you need to know about computer-aided design.

It may surprise jewellers to learn that the computer aided design and manufacturing programs (CAD-CAM) relevant to the jewellery industry had their origin in Euclidean geometry.

While he could never have foreseen today’s application of his theories, Euclid of Alexandria, in his 350 BCE treatise on mathematics, The Elements, defined many of the postulates and axioms of the geometry upon which today’s 3D software programs and systems are built.

It may further surprise that CAD-CAM programming as we understand it today, began in the auto factories of Renault and Citroën in France.

In the early 1950s, French design engineers, Pierre Bézier at Renault and Paul de Cateljau at Citroën, came up with a mathematical construct which became the Non-Uniform Rational Basis Spline or NURBS.

Their discovery became the basis for all 3D computer graphics. Remarkably, neither man knew of the other’s research, but because Bézier published his work, he was immortalised in the computer-generated curve known today as the Bézier Curve.

The speedily changing development of this technology has changed our world forever.

Only a decade ago 3D graphics programs were once the exclusive purview of high-end operating systems such as Silicon Graphics; their cost only justified for use by economically viable automobile, shipbuilding and aerospace production, or industrial and architectural design, medical prosthetics and multi-million dollar movies.

Today, the availability and power of the average home computer has made techniques unheard of by engineers of the 1960s accessible to all.

Some individual jewellers and jewellery production companies are embracing these computer programs as an alternative way to design and produce jewellery. Others reject or even fear this technology, viewing it as either irrelevant or worse, the end of the jewellery manufacturing industry as they knew it.

Some glibly dismiss this new-fangled technology with the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ as though to hopefully exorcise the suspected diabolical reality lurking beneath the deceptively simple acronym, CAD-CAM.

‘Garbage in, garbage out’ is true in the sense that a poorly conceived jewellery design, no matter through what CAD-CAM program it is processed, will result in an unsatisfactory piece of jewellery.

However, the efficiency, availability and power of modern CAD-CAM jewellery programming is drawing an increasing number of jewellers to this versatile new tool. Not all have the money, time or inclination to retrain themselves to personally manage the remarkable complexity of these highly specialised 3D computer programs and peripherals, but they certainly want the advantages inherent in the technology.

As a result there are growing numbers of suppliers who are offering this technology as an important, perhaps even vital, adjunct to their existing services.

Critics of this contemporary process forget that most designer and manufacturing jewellers by their very training enjoy a unique vocational tradition which is not commonly shared by the manufacturers of other modern products.

Equally, their clients bring an expectation to acquiring jewellery which they would never bring to purchasing a computer or a television or a car.

Traditionally, the very best jewellery has been individually designed and hand-crafted. This skill has been highly valued for millennia. During the early Egyptian dynasties, jewellers and goldsmiths were honoured as a priestly caste.

In later ages, Renaissance jewellers such as Benvenutto Cellini were held in high regard by their patrons and to this day their work is virtually priceless. Perhaps many of the artisan jewellers of the 17th century were as appalled by the Industrial Revolution, and the way it brought jewellery-making into the factory as today’s critics are of CAD-CAM jewellery processes.

The traditions of jewellery manufacturing combined with the expectations of the buying public will ensure that well-designed, competently made jewellery will always enjoy a market.

Perceptive, educated manufacturers and their clients will continue to appreciate the inherent value and durability of an individually designed and handcrafted piece

The personally designed, unique piece with its never-to-be- repeated details of precious metals and gems carries an emotional freight which can never be under-valued.

We live in a world of almost unimaginable choice compared to earlier generations.

Manufacturing technologies must be flexible enough to offer satisfaction to such a wide demand.

Many jewellery purchasers are reassured by trends. They don’t want a ring or pendant to look too different to what is acceptably popular at the time of purchase. Jewellery chains and buying groups want to offer equivalent stock items across all their stores.

Enter the CAD-CAM jeweller. With current computer programs a ring for example can be drawn in three orientations – plan, side-view and end-view.

Some companies that offer this service supply a formatted page upon which the jeweller can sketch his concept prior to it being loaded into the service provider’s computer.

The computer does the rest, turning the two-dimensional drawings into a 3D rendering on the computer screen where it can be tweaked and further refined to produce a wax model via a highly specialised wax-jet printer.

This stage of the process is where the pejorative ‘garbage in, garbage out’ may unfortunately apply.

If the computer operator doesn’t have a sound background in jewellery designing and manufacturing technique, the result will be unsatisfactory.

Ideally the CAD-CAM jeweller-computer-operator will have this vital background.

Alternatively, the computer operator and the jeweller need to liaise with each other. Lapses in communication between widely separated parties, either technical or geographical, must be avoided.

On the positive side, we are seeing the emergence of a very specific skill-set where there is competence in both computing and jewellery manufacturing.

A young jeweller could establish an alternative and attractively lucrative career path by mastering 3D CAD-CAM modelling programs.

Just as techniques unheard of by engineers of the 1960s are now accessible to all, so will the power of computers increase, making them faster.

The programs too will become more intuitive, allowing for smaller inaccuracies in initial rendering of drawings to be automatically corrected.

The wax printing process is still evolving.

Wax printing builds up fine lines as the printer lays down the wax of the 3D model.

The coarseness of these lines is automatically governed by pixel settings in the program. The finer the lines, the longer the printing process; 12 to 24 printing hours are not uncommon.

The finer the lines, the less clean up, the less loss of precious metal and bench time.

Eventually we have a wax model.

Here is another pro and con area. Many jewellers are expert at carving jewellery by hand from wax and sending it off to the casting company.

Cast in precious metal, this is a genuinely unique creation. Once cast, it can never be recreated unless a rubber mould is taken from the metal casting.

Many jewellers want this uniquely creative design to be exclusively for their client.

Neither want it duplicated. Half an hour spent with the client to get the design perfect, then another hour or two on the wax. This jeweller’s expertise produces a much smoother wax and in a fraction of the time and cost for the CAD-CAM jeweller to achieve the same result.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that to a man in possession of a good fortune…” cost is an important factor (let alone a wife – to paraphrase Jane Austen).

So what does it all cost? You’ll want a very powerful computer and need to choose Windows, Linux , Unix or Mac OS X operating systems; minimum $4000. A complete computer program will start around $5,000. Lessons may cost another $1,000at least, plus the months spent to develop competence. $60,000.00 should cover the specialised wax printing machine. You may also want to employ an expert computer operator-jeweller – at minimum, another $90,000 a year.

Alternatively some jewellers may prefer to buy and play with the CAD-CAM program themselves, creating the 3D file to their own satisfaction and sending that off to the service supplier and casting company who will have the wherewithal and expertise to turn their digital file into a beautiful piece of jewellery.

These are reasonable figures given start-up costs for most manufacturing ventures.

Piggy-backed onto an existing and well-established service, they become negligible. Efficiency is incontrovertible.

How much more efficient is it to have a program which not only helps design and build your piece of jewellery, but tells you to two decimal points of a gram how much of any particular precious metal at current cost will be used in the final piece – and all that while it is still only a computer file?

There is the added advantage of precise duplication for production runs. Further to these advantages is the degree of extraordinarily fine detail that can be designed into the piece. Complexity for its own sake is not a satisfactory element of design, but fine detail, well wrought and in attractive proportion to the whole is always desirable.

There is however one problem which is neither technological nor computer-related. It is about education and jewellery culture.

Some of the newer providers of CAD-CAM to jewellers have not had the advantage of a long term relationship or sufficient knowledge of the jewellery industry.

Some have come from an industrial engineering background and have hoped to add jewellery to their range of services.

They may have had extensive experience in plastics or non-precious metal components and now seek to expand into compatible areas.

A few of these newer providers lack the inside knowledge of jewellery culture that our longer established companies have understood and accommodated into their business dealings with jewellers

One such website includes the following judgement: “But then jewellers are mostly computer illiterate.  Find a manufacturing jeweller and try to get him to send you a jpeg file by email and you will surely agree with me as you see the blank look on his face.”

True or not, the statement lacks diplomacy and is hardly the best way to win and influence jewellery trade clients.

Those jewellery manufacturing companies and service providers prescient enough to embrace the technology and establish a foothold on the ground of this brave new world will reap the benefit. CAD–CAM jewellery is a way of the future.

The potential for both creativity and efficiency is only just being realised. CAD has opened up a new era of creativity which, far from being inimical, is complementary to the traditions and techniques of competent jewellers.

Like the motorised hand-piece, the air-hammer engraving and setting tools, the water torch, the laser or PUK welder, it is yet another wonderful tool bequeathed by modern technology.

What will the future bring?

Technological change is consistently increasing in speed.

Some changes will progress logically with changes in efficiency due essentially to existing systems becoming better and better due to sustained innovation. But there will also be massive changes, ‘disruptive technologies’ based on completely new paradigms.

In the 1980s Digital and Computervision were leaders in the market. Today neither exists. The legendary Silicon Valley booms and busts were caused by new disruptive technologies upsetting corporate apple carts.

Just as propeller-powered aircraft could not compete with jets, neither will today’s CAD software be able to compete with new products on the immediate horizon.

In just a few years we have seen iPods replace Hi-Fi, and many computers becoming redundant to iPads and iPhones. Change accelerates.

One day in the future a client may choose to visit a jewellery shop, either physically in person or online, and communicate with someone who will be a competent designer, jeweller, and computer operator all rolled into one.

They will tell the jeweller what they want or pick out design components from a 3D high-definition on-screen catalogue.

After some scaling up and down to show the finest detail and digital tweaking for ring size and choice of gems, a quote will be given and if acceptable, it will be produced as a wax model to be cast in metal.

The metal finishing and gem setting will be completed in a separate secure workshop. This may or may not be in Australia. The holding of large, expensive inventories of stock will be a thing of the past as will related security issues. The piece will be complete within the week, perhaps within days.

The only thing lacking will be the magic, but maybe that’s what the new technology will seem like anyway.

* * The author, Rex Steel Merten is an international-renowned designer, master jeweller and artist. Based in Sydney, he has won four Diamonds International awards, a Platinum Guild Inernational awards and six Australian Design awards. Phone Rex on (02) 9580 2808 or email