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Printing violins

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WORLD Radio - Printing violins

A musical instrument company experiments with 3D-printing entry-level plastic violins


French Junior minister for Digital Economy Axelle Lemaire (L) listens to violinist Laurent Bernadac who gives explanations on the first 3D printed violin created with the Dassault Systemes software Catia, on November 9, 2015, at the Dassault Systemes Campus in Velizy-Villacoublay, near Paris, during the launching of the 3DExperience Lab and the Dassault Systemes Foundation. ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 1st.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Printing musical instruments.

For hundreds of years, luthiers have crafted violins from scratch. A lot of time and expertise goes into those iconic instruments…which means they can be pricey. But what if you didn’t hand-craft each violin out of wood? What if you printed it…with plastic?

Here’s WORLD Associate Correspondent Koryn Koch.

KORYN KOCH, REPORTER: Barrett Kaufman just bought some bright green PLA filament. It’s on big spools feeding into the 3D printer in his basement.

KAUFMAN: A 3d printer kind of works in the same way except the printer. The printhead can go side to side forward and backwards and up and down. And basically at the bottom of the the printhead is a little nozzle that kind of looks like a mini hot glue gun. And it kind of looks like a hot glue. Where there's a big spool of plastic filament that gets fed into it. And the metal tip, the nozzle, gets super, super hot like 200 degrees Celsius hot- so very hot. And as the plastic passes through, it melts the plastic into a very fine line…And then very small layer by layer. It builds the model from the bottom up.

3D printers have come a long way in the past few years. They can create tools, toys, utensils…even musical instruments. This is Kaufman’s biggest project yet: He’s working with a friend to 3D print a functional violin.

KAUFMAN: He thought it'd be fun to print a very small violin for the purpose of you know, giving it to like, you know, grandkids because if it's a 3d printed violin, it's gonna cost you know, 50 bucks, so you're not really worried about it breaking.

For Kaufman, 3D printing an instrument is a fun side project. But for Mary-Elizabeth Brown, it’s a multi-year scientific endeavor.

BROWN: This project started five years ago, when we asked the question, if you can create a portal vein, why can't you print the violin…

Brown is a professional concert violinist and music educator. She’s been working on a design for a 3D printed violin for five years. Her team is from all kinds of different fields.

BROWN: People who work in physics and acoustics, musicians, parents, children who try out instruments, so a number of different people.

Brown’s team started the design by looking at old, iconic violins. They took the measurements of an 18th-century violin made by Antonio Stradivari. They studied the instrument’s acoustics and figured out what shape gives a violin the richest sound.

Then they had to figure out how to get plastic to sound like wood.

BROWN: Plastic and wood just from a pure physics and acoustic standpoint are two completely different materials, even down to down to a molecular level. So when we look at plastic and wood, wood, it's porous and plastic is not and we needed to account for that in the kind of printing that we did.

The solution? Don’t print solid pieces of plastic.

BROWN: We have the capability to put little tiny patterns so for example, a checkerboard or a grid pattern into the thing that we're printing and then have a nice smooth layer on the top. That's what we've done in this instance. So a violin is about three millimeters thick, at the thickest part of its wood, but within that three millimeters, there are tiny little air pockets that are printed in to help to simulate what wood is like.

The team also experimented with different shapes of violins. They fiddled with the curves and slopes, to see how that changed the resonance. But those experiments didn’t always work out.

BROWN: There have been some wonderful flops, things that sounds like tin cans, things that fall over in the printer and end up looking like mounds of pink spaghetti things that so during the early phases, poly lactic acid melts sort of in 120 130 degree range, but deforms at about 60 degrees. So in the early days, we managed to set one on fire as we were trying to try to figure out what dimensions would work best as we were modifying it. And we've just had a wonderful time.

After years of tweaking and experimentation, the design itself is pretty much finished. The printed violin has a few differences from a traditional wood instrument. The biggest one is its sturdiness. Wooden violins are quite delicate, and small pieces can fall over or even break.

BROWN: The sound post which is a tiny little stick that goes on to the inside of the violin and is held up by the tension of the face and the back of the instrument...We've printed in the bridge and the sound post. So that means that any child or any family that has one of these is not going to have to worry about either one of those falling over in a regular traditional wooden violin.

Brown wanted to make a violin that needed fewer repairs.

BROWN: In my early teaching days, I did a lot of teaching in developing countries. You know sometimes in the middle of nowhere, you don't have access to a luthier to make repairs. Or maybe you just don't have the funds to do it. So to be able to print in bridges and sound posts in this mid last chapter. This last iteration really is a step towards making this not only accessible in terms of being able to buy one, but manageable in terms of allowing people to use it in the longer term.

Most beginner violins cost anywhere from $100 to $300 dollars. So how much is one of Brown’s 3D printed instruments?

BROWN: So we've managed to get this down to about seven US dollars.

But the real question is how one of these seven-dollar violins sound.

Most people can’t tell the difference between Brown’s plastic violin and a traditional wooden one. But Brown can. As a professional concert violinist, she plays a violin from the Galliano family.

BROWN: So I play on violin by the Galliano family. It was a violin-making family that was working also in the 18th century, but down the road from Cremona in Naples. So it's a very fine instrument. It's a very valuable instrument and it sounds wonderful. It's a joy to play on. So comparing that to a plastic instrument is probably not a fair comparison for the poor plastic instrument. But compared to most normal entry level instruments, it's on par.

And that’s the goal of the whole project.

BROWN: ​​The goal of this project has never ever been to replace the Strad’s and Galliano’s and Dehl (sic) of the world, it has been very much to provide a price friendly, accessible point to music education, for people all over.

Barrett Kaufman hopes to try printing Mary-Elizabeth Brown’s design when it comes out later this year.

But first, he still has a few weeks of printing left on his green plastic violin…one tiny layer at a time.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Koryn Koch.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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