AS BLACK SABBATH was giving German rockers a blast from the past in Frankfurt last week, another band was setting up in one of the giant halls of the city’s exhibition centre. This band, however, had never touched their instruments before. This is because they had been made only days earlier with the help of three-dimensional (3D) printers.
The exhibition centre was playing host to Euromold, a world fair for engineers involved in moldmaking, tooling and setting up factories. In the 20 years since it began, Euromold has seen traditional forms of production, such as welding, machining and plastic injection-moulding, joined by an interloper in the form of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. These machines build up materials additively to produce solid objects. As was evident at the exhibition, this can now be done with some 20 different types of technology and can make things in plastics, metals and an increasing range of other materials.
The 3D-printed electric guitars, keyboard and drum kit which David Adu-Appeagyei and his fellow musicians were playing at Euromold are strikingly unusual. They also illustrate two important trends in 3D printing. The first is how the technology can greatly lower the cost of becoming a producer.
Making musical instruments with 3D printers is not new. One person doing so is Olaf Diegel, a guitar-playing professor of mechatronics at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. As his designs improved, he started blogging about them, and then he began getting requests from people wanting to buy them. So Mr Diegel set up a company called ODD Guitars in 2012 to make his instruments on a small scale. As each guitar is different he can easily customise them to buyers’ requirements. Having sold more than 20, he has now handed production to 3D Systems, an American 3D printing company, which also made the drums and the keyboard for the Euromold show.
“By using 3D printing it is possible to get a product to market with almost no capital risk,” Mr Diegel told a conference held during the exhibition by Wohlers Associates, a firm of consultants that tracks the industry. A 3D printer can print a guitar on demand, so there is no need to carry any inventory. And because the process is controlled by software it is easy to make changes without having to expensively re-tool production equipment. For instance, Mr Diegel found some guitar players are convinced you need wood in the body of an electric guitar to make it sound right. So, for them he modifies the design to incorporate wood even though he thinks it makes no acoustical difference.
Using traditional methods alongside 3D printing is the second trend. “Just because you can print something doesn’t mean you should print it,” added Mr Diegel. Hence his guitars—and the drums and keyboard—contain a number of traditionally made parts and electronics (though some 3D printers are starting to be able to print electronics, too). The idea is to use the best process for the job in hand. One of his electric guitars, known as “Steam Punk”, was printed complete with a series of moving cogs inside its case. This highly elaborate structure would be extremely difficult to make with conventional machines.
The merging of 3D printing and traditional processes could be found in other parts of the Euromold exhibition. DMG Mori Seiki, a producer of industrial machine tools based in Germany and Japan, displayed the prototype of an unusual hybrid. This is a machine that can deposit metal powder and weld it into layers with a laser, but also use a multi-axis milling arm to remove material and achieve a highly engineered finish.
But do those 3D printed instruments sound any good? Mr Adu-Appeagyei was suitably impressed. With a few modifications, however, he thinks they could sound very good. Good enough, perhaps, to impress one Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of the Black Sabbath crew.