Has This 3D Genius Reinvented The Guitar?

I catch up with Olaf Diegel, a design engineer and professor of mechtronics with a passion for 3D printing – a revolutionary new technology being used to make beautifully detailed guitars...
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I catch up with Olaf Diegel, a design engineer and professor of mechtronics with a passion for 3D printing – a revolutionary new technology being used to make beautifully detailed guitars...

For our readers who may not have heard of ODD guitars – or indeed 3D printing – can you explain what they are?

3D printing covers a whole range of technologies that allow you to manufacture things in a new way. They take your 3D computer model, slice it thinly and print your model with one slice on top of the previous slice until the model is complete.

Older manufacturing technologies created products by carving blocks of material – which is why they are called subtractive manufacturing. 3D printing starts with nothing and builds your model one layer at a time, where each layer is ‘printed’ on top of the previous one  – which is why the technical term for 3D printing is Additive Manufacturing.

The many different 3D printing technologies basically just differ by what particular material they use, and how they print each layer. One of the many advantages of 3D printing is that it allows the manufacture of shapes that would be impossible with conventional manufacturing.

ODD Guitars is a company that manufactures guitars, using 3D printing. This allows us to make guitar bodies with incredible shapes that just couldn’t be made any other way.

Where did the idea for ODD Guitars come from? And what is your background in 3D printing?

I did quite a few stints in various bands in my younger days, so have always had an interest in music. I have played in classical music orchestras, quite a few rock and roll bands, and even in a medieval music group.

As an engineer, I have been developing all sorts of products for the last 15 years. I have developed theatre lighting products, home health monitoring products, marine products ... For all of these I have always been a big fan of 3D printing, as it allowed me to test my ideas at a relatively low cost, before committing resources to produce the products. I have been using 3D printing since the mid-90s and watched it grow from being technology that was only capable of prototyping ideas, to a type of technology that can now be used to manufacture fully functional products ready for customers.

How do your instruments differ from traditional guitars? Are they better? If so, how?

The most obvious way in which my guitars differ from traditional ones is aesthetically. 3D printing allows me to create shapes that would be completely impossible for traditional instruments. I have demonstrated 3D guitars at music venues and audiences have invariably been blown away both by how they look, and by how they sound.
In our current design, we now use a hybrid system, in which we have a slab of wood running from the neck to the pickup, which allows us to use different woods in the guitars to colour their tone.

However, it can be controversial, with some diehard guitar fans arguing that the type and quality of wood has a great influence on the tone of the guitar. Conversely, others believe that the majority of the sound is determined by electronics and the amplification system, rather than on the sound itself.

I decided to insert a wooden core into the nylon body, to join the neck of the guitar to the bridge. I tested this and found it to work extremely well, and actually improved the sustain of the guitar. As a result, 3D guitars are now offered with a choice of different woods that can be used for the inner core of the instrument.

The other thing that gives 3D guitars an advantage over conventional ones is the ability to customise them. We allow customers to choose the pickups and hardware they want, but we can also easily customise the shape of the body. We have just created a guitar for a customer who bought it as a wedding present for his fiancée, so we personalised it by 3D printing her name into the back of the guitar.

What other possibilities does 3D printing and similar manufacturing technologies hold for musicians and the music industry?

Again, the obvious possibilities are aesthetic, and related to the ability to very easily customize the instruments in a big way. We could, for example, laser scan the musicians face, and then print it in 3D as part of the guitar. But, on the acoustic front, there are also some interesting things that would be worth trying. In particular, there are now some high-tech 3D printing plastics – like PEEK, Polyether ether ketone – that have similar properties to wood, that could be used to print little separate acoustic chambers for each string to make the resonate differently.

But possibly the biggest applications areas might be for new forms of wind instruments. The possibility of doing impossible geometries, would allow us to manufacture wind instruments with all sorts of inner chambers for the wind to go through, or over, to produce interesting acoustic effects.

Outside of music, what else can 3D printing be used for?

That’s what makes 3D printing such an exciting area to be working in, because it can be used to make almost anything. But what it is particularly suited for is high-value really low volume stuff, and things were customers want the products they buy to be completely unique or customized to suit their exact needs. And this is where I think we will see the biggest growth in the upcoming years.

It’s already being used for everything from jewellery to fashion and textiles, to aircraft and car parts, to architecture, to medical implants, to toys …. There are so many things that are made using 3D printing it’s almost impossible to count. But one thing that characterizes most of them is that they are shapes that would be difficult to make using traditional manufacturing methods.

What is the future of 3D printing? What lies beyond it?

I believe that we will begin to see the establishment of local 3D printing shops in which anyone can go with their 3D models on a memory stick, to have their products printed, much like local printing and photocopying shops, but in 3D. I think we will start to see this in the next 5 to 10 years. Within the next decade, I think we’ll start to see 3D printers appear in ordinary homes.

It is already happening at a techie level – I have a 3D printer at home – but it is still a few years before they are at a level where everybody can use them, not to mention the advances we still need to make in 3D modelling software for that to happen.

3D printing is developing in all kinds of areas, something that we’ll see in more detail at the 3D Print Show. We’re already able to 3D print organs, and some are even doing research on 3D printing food.

The big challenge is less in the technology, and more in the new business practices we will have to form around this. If we are eventually able to print most of the products we need ourselves, our entire supply chains will have to change.

What you will be exhibiting at the 3D Print Show?

At the 3D Print Show, I will be exhibiting my guitars alongside 3D Systems, one of the leading manufacturers of 3D printing systems. I will also be showcasing two new bass designs at the show. One is a similar design to the Atom guitar, to create a family of instruments, and the other has a hexagon shaped pattern with bees on the inside, tentatively named the Hive.

Buy tickets to the 3D Print Show here.

Follow Gary on Twitter: @GazEvans

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