Many jewelry products for sale in the United States are manufactured abroad, mainly because American production became costly. Thus custom jewelry seems to be another example in a long list of items (cars, microchips, apparel and consumer electronics) fabricated overseas so as to take advantage of lower production costs.
The resulting higher profits for corporations and businesses and lower prices enjoyed by consumers, though, should be weighed against the loss of millions of stable, well-paying manufacturing jobs.
But now 3-D printing technology is radically disrupting the jewelry industry and helping the United States regain some of its competitive footing. Over the past few years this technology has gained more acceptance for jewelry making.
To gain a sense of how 3-D printing is radically disrupting the jewelry industry and bringing manufacturing to domestic shores, consider the notions of labor efficiency and virtual inventory.
Labor efficiency gains. In customizing high-end jewelry, after a piece is designed according to a buyer’s specifications, the manufacturing typically involves a highly laborious process. Jewelry craftsmen build each individual piece by spending many hours hand-carving and meticulously welding together off-the-shelf parts. In many cases, these original parts were initially painstakingly sculpted in wax by hand.
But now manufacturers can use computer-aided design (CAD) software to render a three-dimensional digital file of a custom jewelry piece. Then a 3-D printer creates a thermoplastic wax mold, the metal is poured into the mold and the gems are added. What used to take weeks now is achieved in days.
This rapid prototyping processing (whose concepts can be applied to many other industries) lets jewelry retailers offer customized pieces with reduced turnaround time, enabling domestic manufacturers to offer finished–product delivery dates at prices that companies overseas can't compete with. Thanks to the disruptive presence of 3-D printing technology, the need for cheap labor (and the rationale for making jewelry abroad) is completely negated.
The benefits of virtual inventory. The costs for almost every type of manufacturing are affected by the trading of commodities on the global markets. This adds volatility and financial risk to holding onto physical inventory. In the jewelry business, shifts in the precious metal and gem markets are critical.
The adoption of a virtual inventory system for custom-jewelry making means that rather than retailers having to buy merchandise in bulk from overseas and store it, they can now show catalogs of potential items. Then it's possible to display different variations, with virtual 3-D jewelry shown on-screen, so a customer can select a design for a customized piece. The imaging lets the client see options before committing and then the manufacturing can take place in the United States.
With this workflow, retailers need not purchase and keep inventory with multiple copies of same thing (a buffer inventory). So retailers can be even more competitive on price and can offer a great deal of variety.
And 3-D printing is not just disrupting the jewelry industry. Multitudes of consumer and industrial products can adopt 3-D printing technology and bring manufacturing job to the States. Even if the per-unit production costs associated with manufacturing in America are higher, they may be offset by eliminating the need for overseas cargo shipping.
As 3-D printing technology gains more traction, the advantages in mass production overseas for achieving efficiencies in scale will lose power.
In the end, consumers can look forward to unlimited online choices and customization possibilities, reduced prices and completed products shipped to doorstep through the magic of 3-D printing and computer-aided manufacturing.