3D printed guitars are the object du jour – from Auckland to Invercargill.
This is a familiar story: budding guitarist toiling in a bedroom or garage somewhere to nail down every lick and solo of their favourite songs. Odds are that Metallica features in their repertoire; it’s a rite of passage for beginners, really, starting with 'Fade to Black’ and ‘Enter Sandman’ and going on to the likes of ‘Orion’ or ‘Blackened’.
So it’s fitting, perhaps, that it was the masters of mainstream metal who spurred Derek Manson to come up with the idea of creating a 3D printed guitar. It all started about four years ago, he says, while he was watching a DVD of the band and, in particular, a sequence featuring a plastic fluid-filled guitar in the hands of guitarist Kirk Hammett.
“I looked at it and went, ‘Wait a minute, it’s all made out of plastic?’ It was always my presumption that it had to be wood,” he says. “The old penny dropped that we can get away with this.”
Manson – the director of Invercargill’s One.61, a product design and prototyping consultancy – went to work and started mulling over putting the inhouse 3D printer to use to a similar effect. And his vision of a 3D-printed guitar is finally hitting the market, with each instrument – at least for now – produced to order.
Manson says the company has the largest rapid prototyping machine in the country that enables it to build the bodies in one piece. One.61’s guitars will be priced at around US$3,500, depending on hardware configurations. Customers can specify their preferred pickup arrangement and manufacturer, for example. And of course, their nature means the instruments can be highly customised as well in terms of look and decoration.
“When we started we did try making the entire thing out of plastic. We moved away from that.”
The current incarnation features a wooden core (below the pickups) and bolt-on neck – with the rest of the body fabricated from polymer. Tonally, he says, it’s “very, very good” thanks to the quality of parts used.
Manson is a drummer himself and one of the company designers is a guitarist.
“We don’t just put cheap components in. We make sure we have good high-quality gear in it.”
Up at the other end of the country, Auckland company ODD (Olaf Diegel Design) is also bringing out a line of guitars manufactured in the same way. Diegel, a Massey University mechatronics professor, has struck a deal with 3D Systems in the US, the world’s biggest name in 3D printing, to fabricate his Les Paul-style design (known as the Atom) as a means of marketing the capabilities of their machines.
His compact, triangular Spider and Scarab models are made here in New Zealand at AUT (on its laser sintering machine), where he was previously director of the Creative Industries Research Institute and worked on everything from engineering to artistic projects, including a lot of medical products.
Diegel first began tossing around a few concepts in November.
“The project started as ‘let’s see if it can be done’. I had no idea if the technology would be able to do it. It worked so well, I thought, there’s got to be a business here.”
He reached the conclusion that a solid plastic body lacked the bright twang of the real thing, and opted for a wooden core (buyers can choose different woods to achieve different sound qualities – maple for a Fender Strat, mahogany for a Les Paul). That result is more or less identical to traditional electric guitars.
There are three standard options – low-end, middle-end, and high-end, as well as an entirely custom option. Bodies are printed three at a time, and assembly takes two to three days in total.
“The nice thing with the technology is that it doesn’t cost anything to have every one different. There’s no advantage to making 10 the same – you might as well make 10 different ones.”
But will punters actually embrace these guitars, or dismiss them as a gimmick?
Manson says early feedback threw up some resistance to the concept of a plastic instrument, so they introduced the wood core to alleviate that.
“We see two markets for it,” he says. “There will be actual musicians obviously and probably more the rock sort of musicians – guys who can appreciate a bit of change and a bit of innovation.
“The other market we see is that there’s more and more of a market for 3D printed products. There’s a growing appreciation out there for products that are made this way.”
Diegel’s smaller Spider and Scarab will retail for between US$2,000-3,000, which isn’t all that much for a pro musician to spend on quality gear.
A guitarist from way back, he doesn’t have much time to play these days. His side project is going viral – he’s had to fend off a wave of pre-orders – and has racked up more than 10,000 hits organically. He’s keen to further develop his website and envisions a portal where customers can log on and design their own guitars by means of a simple drag-and-drop tool.
The American National Guitar Museum has even caught wind of ODD, and asked for one of his instruments to display – first on its current Guitar: The instrument that rocked the world tour, then as a permanent exhibit.