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3D Printing Is Here to Stay!

May 2015

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

The world’s first live concert featuring a band playing 3-D-printed instruments took place in September 2014 at Sweden’s Lund University. The instruments, a drum, keyboard and two guitars, were the brainchild of the University’s Professor of Product Development in the Faculty of Engineering, Olaf Diegel. The Professor, a keen 3-D print technology enthusiast, believes it offers huge potential to break down barriers to innovation and improve product design.

Inspired by the vibrancy and energy of New York,
Olaf Diegel designed the Americana (left). So
far he has printed some 12 electric guitars, including
bass and semi-acoustic versions, a drum-kit
and the casing for a digital piano. He is also
working on a 3-D printed saxophone.
(Photo: Olaf Diegel)

“I started printing musical experiments just as a fun experiment to see if it was possible,” he explains. “After I finished my first one, I was amazed at how well it seemed to work, so started to blog about it on my website. People responded very favorably and asked if they could by them. That spun-out into a little hobby-business.” His company, ODD Guitars (www.odd.org.nz), offers “a range of personalizable, customizable guitars that explore the limits of 3-D printing technologies and applications.”

3-D-printed instruments produce great sound

To date, Olaf Diegel has printed around 12 electric guitars, including bass and semi-acoustic versions. He is very pleased with the results. “They sound every bit as good as conventionally made wooden guitars. The vast majority of the sound is affected by the pickups and electronics and even the age of the strings. Though the material of the body has a very small effect on how the strings vibrate, it doesn’t affect the sound in either a positive or negative way. I was surprised by my first semi-acoustic [guitar], because it has a hollow body chamber, and that does actually amplify the acoustic sound quite nicely. Even fully 3-D printed acoustic guitars sound great! They don’t sound the same a wooden guitar or an Ovation plastic-backed guitar, but somewhere in between.”

He has also printed a drum-kit and casing for a digital piano.

Musicians are usually very conservative when it comes to their instruments, but Olaf Diegel says their response has been good. “At first, they are always a little bit suspicious about a guitar with a 3-D-printed body, but once they try them, they are blown away by how well they play and how good they sound, so it’s not hard to convince them.”

Different 3-D print technologies offer different production options

A range of technologies are used to 3-D print a product (see 3-D Printing and the Future of Stuff). Olaf Diegel uses selective laser sintering (SLS). “It gives me the strongest parts that will not degrade over time, while at the same time allowing me a high level of detail inside the guitars. I have dropped the guitars quite a few times, with no problems at all, except for the occasional scratch to the paint job,” he explains. Designing one of his guitars can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the complexity of the design. It takes 11 hours to print and “between a day and a few weeks depending on how intricate the paint job is” to complete it.

“There are huge differences between home 3-D printers (smaller printers that typically cost under USD5,000) and industrial 3-D printers that can cost hundreds of thousands,” he says. “Both are absolutely fantastic but serve very different purposes. The desktop machines are great for stimulating creativity and testing ideas, but are generally not of a quality that is good enough to produce sellable products.” To do that, he says, requires more expensive industrial machines, such as those which can be accessed through an expanding number of online 3-D printing services, including cubify.com and shapeways.com.

3-D printing is here to stay!

Olaf Diegel is convinced that this new technology represents an enduring change. “3-D printing is absolutely here to stay!” But he emphasizes that it is intended to complement rather than replace conventional manufacturing. “If used for the right reasons, it can offer enormous added value to many products,” he says. “It is really important for us as engineers and designers to understand what the advantages of 3-D printing are, when to use them, and how to design for them to maximize the benefits.” This, he notes, means re-thinking the approach to design. “Engineers and designers need to learn a new design skill when designing for 3-D printing. If you design in the same way you did for conventional manufacturing, the 3-D printing does not offer a huge advantage (except for prototyping).”

Unlike conventional manufacturing, 3-D printing technologies offer “complexity for free” and huge scope for customization. (Photo: Olaf Diegel)

Complexity for free

3-D printing builds up a product layer by layer, offering designers a number of advantages over conventional manufacturing. “The two biggest advantages of 3-D printing are complexity for free – this is what allows me to make incredibly complex shapes inside the body that just would not be possible with conventional manufacturing – and the ability to customize every guitar I make for the musician to give exactly the look and feel they want,” Olaf Diegel explains.

While more and more companies are integrating 3-D print technologies into their manufacturing and marketing processes, one of the main uses to date has been rapid prototyping. Olaf Diegel says this proved useful in developing 3-D-print versions of complex instruments, such as the saxophone. “My first attempt was pretty mediocre, but that prototype gave me enough information for version 2 to hopefully be perfect.” He is also keen to experiment with printing instruments traditionally made of wood. “3-D printing could offer some real advantages. It would, for example, be possible to have the wind flowing though interesting shaped chambers that affect the sound, or split the wind into several chambers and have, say, a flute that plays entire chords.”

Implications for intellectual property

How might 3-D printing affect the way in which companies protect their intellectual property (IP) rights? “It is certainly an issue that companies entering the arena need to think about. Many people are already working on various technical, software and systems solutions. Much as we have overcome the same problems with music, though systems such as iTunes, we will need to find similar mechanisms for protecting 3-D print data in the future.”

Olaf Diegel started 3-D printing instruments in 2012. His small start-up, ODD Guitars, enables him to continue to indulge his passion for innovation and his love of music. He has a soft spot for Rockabilly – “such good fun to play,”– and Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats. Listen out for some new sounds from Lund University’s student bands in the coming years.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.