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The sweet sound of 3D printing

In 2011, The Economist used the cover image of a 3D printed Stradivarius to report on an upcoming revolution of manufacturing Now that future is here.

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It all started with a 3D printed Stradivarius on the cover of The Economist. In 2011, the British financial periodical announced that additive manufacturing was about to expand beyond conventional prototyping and tooling applications to target production. The magazine reinforced this idea with the violin replica—3D printed using EOS SLS technology—explaining that companies were looking to start producing additively. Now, 3D printed music instruments are a lot closer to reality.

A 3D printed Stradivarius was used to report on the upcoming revolution of manufacturing. Now 3D printed music instruments are here At the time, 3D printing was experiencing two key shifts: the idea of serially manufacturing final parts using PBF processes was starting to take off,as was the availability of low-cost 3D printers, which made the concept of 3D printing accessible to the larger public. Now, about a decade later, we know that the 3D printing hype of the early 2010s has leveled out, but the journal’s predictions have come true to an extent: the 3D printing of consumer products, including musical instruments, is a reality.

Getting physical

Historically, the acoustic value of instruments has been limited by manufacturing technologies of the time: instrument makers were unable to craft wood and other musically conductive materials into unrestricted forms that would create unrestricted sounds. However, thanks to technical advancements, accessibility and understanding around AM, this is finally no longer the case.

3D Music and 3D Music Instruments are two startup companies at the forefront of the 3D printed musical instrument revolution.

Concerned with the enormously high prices of traditionally manufactured musical instruments, Matthew Canel, an engineer with a passion for music, developed his first musical instrument in conjunction with luthier Max Morgan. Together they were able to create a quarter-scale 3D printed violin that sounded “pretty much like the wooden thing”. Matthew then partnered with fellow Case Western Reserve University alumnus, Ben Kaufman. With Matthew responsible for design and manufacturing, and Ben responsible for the business side of things, the pair founded 3D Music with the aid of a grant from the Student Project Fund.

“We’re trying to get the sound quality of a $300 to $400 violin and then come in under their price,” Kaufman told WEWS in Cleveland.

3D Music now sells 3D printed, hard plastic violins that take only 48 hours to print (in a color of your choice)  for a mere $200. Through the affordability of their violins, the pair aims to position their company within the educational music industry, providing accessible musical instruments to children that would, otherwise, not be able to afford to buy them.

Another company, 3D Music Instruments, started by Ricardo Simian, is also exploring the potential of 3D printing within the musical instrument industry. 3D Music Instruments creates personalized instruments, such as the slide pipes developed for Jasper Vanpaemel, and completely new instruments, such as the Möbius trumpet developed in collaboration with VW.

A 3D printed Stradivarius was used to report on the upcoming revolution of manufacturing. Now 3D printed music instruments are here

“Why are all inner bores in wind instruments round and/or straight? Why are 90-degree angles to be found everywhere in musical instruments? The answer is very simple: because those are the only shapes one can produce with 17th-century tools and technology,” the company writes.

The company can also morph two instruments together, create lighter and more resistant instruments, create tools for research and other practical uses and, essentially, revolutionize musical instruments as we know them.

The company mainly uses SLS to create its instruments, often in conjunction with traditional elements. For example, 3D Music Instruments concert-sized ‘Dr.Ukulele’ is created by printing one large piece (white) and two smaller pieces (pink) and combining these pieces with traditionally-made metal pegs and standard ukulele strings. Given their nature, 3D printed wind instruments tend to require fewer/no traditionally-made pieces.

“The idea is to free your mind and creativity from the limitations which traditional instruments had”

While my guitar gently prints

The guitar is without a doubt one of the most fascinating instruments and it is also the one that has inspired the most varieties of 3D printed versions so far. Within the AM industry, two people have combined their passion for rock music and their unique abilities with 3D printing to achieve an entirely new level of sound: Ilyam Myrman, Marketing Director at Desktop Metal, and Olaf Diegel, Professor of Additive Manufacturing at the University of Auckland. In recent years, both have lit up a friendly competition to create the most amazing guitars using a variety of 3D printing technologies. They’ve also often collaborated on projects.

Professor Olaf Diegel began with laser sintering and has recently moved on to the impressive multi-color capabilities of Mimaki’s material jetting technology. Myrman has been experimenting with Desktop Metal’s binder jetting and recently produced the amazing wooden Greenaxe electric guitar (designed by Olaf Diegel) using Forust technology for binder jetting of wooden powder (Forust is now part of the Desktop Metal group of companies). His latest projects have seen him put durable photopolymerizable materials from ETEC (EnvisionTEC’s new name after Desktop Metal acquisition) and from Nexa3D to the test.

A 3D printed Stradivarius was used to report on the upcoming revolution of manufacturing. Now 3D printed music instruments are here
The Greenaxe electric guitar, designed by Olaf Diegel using Forust technology for binder jetting of wooden powder.

One of Professor Diegel’s most fascinating projects is the American Graffiti 2.0 full-color 3D printed American Graffiti semi-acoustic guitar, which was inspired by the movie and “all things rock & roll”. Diegel created an original version in 2015 and later decided to exploit the capabilities of full-color 3D printing on this re-make.

Hidden inside the guitar there are several cars and hot rods, including a pink Cadillac, a jukebox, Mel’s Diner, moving dice, microphones, Ray-bans and more. Around the body of the guitar, which has an ultra-kitsch rock & roll leopard skin print, are Neil Young’s lyrics: “My my, hey hey/ Rock and roll is here to stay/ It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. This masterpiece was printed in full color on a Mimaki 3DUJ-553 color 3D printer. It is printed in acrylic using material jetting technology. It is equipped with a Bigsby B70/Schaller STM Tune-o-matic bridge, TV Jones classic pickups, a Warmoth custom neck, Gotoh tuners and, of course, Dice knobs.

A 3D printed Stradivarius was used to report on the upcoming revolution of manufacturing. Now 3D printed music instruments are here
More incredible designs by Olaf Diegel.

Hard metal

But it doesn’t end here. Other fascinating musical projects have helped to compose the past, present and future of AM. Besides guitars, Diegel has also created fully functional metal 3D printed skeleton microphones. And Sandvik went as far as 3D printing a “smash-proof” guitar made of titanium.

The guitar in question was designed and manufactured for Yngwie Malmsteen, a Swedish musician recognized by Time as one of the best electric guitar players of all time. The project was initiated by lifelong Malmsteen fan Henrik Loikkanen, a machining process developer at Sandvik Coromant who also plays the guitar. He wanted to see whether the company could produce a six-string that was not only fully functional but also totally smash-proof.

“We had to design a guitar that is unsmashable in all the different ways you can smash a guitar,” Loikkanen explained. “The engineering challenge was that critical joint between the neck and the body that usually cracks on a guitar.”

A 3D printed Stradivarius was used to report on the upcoming revolution of manufacturing. Now 3D printed music instruments are here
Sandvik’s 3D printed smash-proof guitar

For the guitar’s body, the engineers had to find a way to create an exceptionally strong structure that was light enough to carry and play. The obvious solution was to 3D print the guitar body, leveraging the technology’s ability to create complex, strong and lightweight geometries. The body of the guitar was ultimately 3D printed using laser powder bed fusion technology and fine titanium powder.

Once the guitar components were milled, 3D printed and assembled, the impressive metal instrument was delivered to Malmsteen for a show in Florida. On stage, the Swedish guitarist played his set before commencing the ritual smashing process. After swinging the metal axe at amps, stage structures and the floor, he successfully destroyed a lot of sound equipment, but the guitar remained completely intact.

Back to the future (2023)

The scene in Back to the Future where Marty plays Johnny be Good and Smashes his guitar in front of a speechless 1950s audience is now permanently written in the collective imagination. It has undoubtedly contributed to the myth of the electric guitar as a timeless instrument.

Fast forward to 2023 and self-described “additive manufacturing fanatic” (and expert) Zach Burhop designed and fully 3D printed an electric guitar for the Essentium AMUG 2023 booth. Even if it was printed on an industrial Essentium HSE system, out of all the guitars seen previously in this article, it is the only one made with filament extrusion technology. So it is also potentially a more cost-effective solution yet highly customized.

Many came to the booth to give it a try and, as you can see from the video at this link, it sounded pretty darn good. It is made using Essentium HTN black filament with colored pieces made with standard Polymaker materials. The colored parts are magnetically attached and can be removed and replaced with other designs. Each one shows a different type of 3D printer infill.

3D printing tomorrow’s orchestra today

More practically, 3D printing is used for the development and prototyping of new, high-quality instruments. Even brass. Traditionally, brass instruments such as the trombone are crafted by hand and made from brass, two factors that lead to the instrument’s relatively high cost. A joint project between LOOP 3D and trombone musician Peter Körner sought to reduce the cost of producing the instrument as well as the lead times by using additive manufacturing. Specifically, they set out to reproduce the screw bell section, which is the flared end of the instrument where the sound finally emerges. When installed on the trombone, the 3D printed bell had a good sound compared to the traditional all-brass instrument.

More recently the drummer for Panic! At The Disco, Dan Pawlovich, turned to Stratasys Direct Manufacturing to 3D print several iterations of his snare drums. Not just a prototype but the actual drums to be used during the band’s tour. Stratasys engineers used both laser sintering of a Nylon GF composite and fused deposition modeling of ABS to produce the snare drums. After a couple of iterations Pawlovich reported that the drums sounded just like or even better than traditional ones. “I was up against two heavy-weights of snare drums,” he said. “At the first show rehearsal, I set up my 3D printed snare, and immediately started getting compliments. Our sound engineer and techs couldn’t see what snare I was playing from their places off stage. They just said how good it sounded.”

In yet another case, Formlabs engineer Brian Chan challenged himself to create a fully-functional acoustic violin to celebrate the release of a new White Resin. He rapidly iterated several models. At the end, the third and final violin consisted of 26 3D printed parts that were printed within five overnight prints on a Form 2. All of the additional hardware, like strings, screws and carbon fiber rods are easily obtained.

“Once the design was finalized and I brought the violin home to write and record the track, I was extremely surprised by the sound,” Rhett said. “This entire project has completely challenged my perspective on what can be successfully created with a 3D printer, and it’s exciting and inspiring to see things like this in my lifetime, and to be involved in the process of creating it!”

But 3D printing doesn’t necessarily have to be the final product, it can also be a means to an end. Recently, the gifted luthier Kevin Baslé teamed up with Autodesk to create a new manufacturing process for electric violins. The resulting method used generative design in Autodesk Fusion 360 and combined the best parts of human craftsmanship and digital manufacturing technology.

Baslé designed and made the GD Violin with the help of engineers at the Autodesk Technology Center in Birmingham, UK. After generating several designs, a favorite one was chosen, and manufacturing began. Storey 3D printed the initial prototype at the Autodesk Technology Center in Birmingham to ensure the selected design functioned perfectly before moving forward. Storey then showed Baslé how the body could be milled from a single block of wood using a CNC mill. From there, it was down to Baslé to add the finishing touches using his skills, tools and artistic eye. The results were a perfect melody of tradition and innovation.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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