3D-Printed Violins Have Me Hopeful for the Future of Classical Music

These Gen-Zers are laser-beam luthiers

Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images

I attribute the majority of my professional success to studying music. Even though I ended up not pursuing the arts professionally, learning an instrument taught me rigor, failure, and the power of deliberate practice. It’s a sentiment echoed by many who intensely pursued a sport or extracurricular activity that required mastery and dedication.

As a French horn player, I started fairly late, at 11 years old. To be successful on an orchestral string instrument, you usually need to start way earlier, which is why violins exist in quarter-size, half-size, and ¾-size models. Between replacement parts, private lessons, and evolving school district budgets, it can be a pursuit peppered with challenges.

That’s where 3D Music, a manufacturing startup out of Cleveland, comes in. Using ultra-precise printing technology, the company can produce quality, resonant violins from a single piece of plastic. I recently connected with founder and engineer Matthew Canel and business development lead Ben Kaufman to learn more about what the technology means for the future of fine arts education.

Musical instruments: A stiff fine arts expense for schools

Arts programs can provide stability in an otherwise unstable upbringing. Venezuela’s El Sistema system, a government-funded nationwide arts program founded in 1975, has seen a mix of success and controversy. The model was repeated in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2008 with a program called OrchKids and has seen a lift from 30 students to 1,600 students participating.

3D Music’s current prototypes don’t come in much cheaper than, say, a quarter-size violin you would find on a big-box retailer’s website, but they do last way longer. They also squeak less, which is good news for new violinists (And their parents’ sanity). Here’s a comparison between two beginner instruments, one of which is wood and the other a 3D Music plastic prototype:

Durability and longevity

“One of our goals is that the industry sees 3D-printed instruments as less of a joke or toy manufacturing, and more like a valid, viable manufacturing capability,” Kaufman says. “The challenge last year (while exhibiting at CES 2020) was that many people only see these as toys, suitable for hobbyists but not an actual manufacturing technology.”

Since the quality is higher, parents are more likely to stick with one instrument until the child is ready to size up from quarter-size to half-size. The founders also have the very fun task of personally trying to destroy their prototypes to test durability.

“I drove over one with my Nissan Rogue, and it still plays,” quips Canel.

3D-printed musical instruments are not a new thing, but most of what’s been available until now has been novelty instruments, not something worthy of powering arts programs. The printing startup wants to change that.

“We work with a local luthier to ensure that we’ve got good accessories with the violins so that you’re able to use it and love it the way that you want to,” says Kaufman.

Oh, and BTW, cheap violins are toxic.

I pressed Kaufman and Canel on why parents would opt for a 3D Music violin, priced around $400 when an entry-level quarter-size violin can often retail at less than half the price.

“Plastic violins are not only more durable; this technology is safer,” Kaufman notes. “Many cheap violins are often made with wood that has formaldehyde or other preservatives. Think about it; cheap instruments are often made with plywood.” 3D Music makes its violins with PLA, one of only a handful of plastics that doesn’t need a Prop 65 toxicity warning in California.

An additional advantage to a plastic instrument over a wooden one is that you can sanitize the former with alcohol swabs all you want without warping wood — a detail that has become very relevant since the arrival of Covid-19.

Another benefit of acoustically resonant plastic? Crazy colors! It’s simple to do custom two-color and three-color designs.

How 3D-printing a violin works

The bodies of 3D Music’s violins are carved from plastic, then outfitted with metal tuners and metal strings. Canel notes that the process takes about two days per 3D printer, and attaching the tuners and strings is a manual-but-quick post-production task.

“There are measurements in the industry you can use to re-bridge a violin, certain ratios and mathematical things you follow, and the bridge goes in those places,” notes Canel. “Luthiers do this by eye and then check for resonance, but since our violins are identical a parent could easily follow some instructions and replace it themselves.”

“The other advantage to our violins is that every one of them is identical,” Kaufman says. This consistency allows the team to etch in other instructional information, such as where a bridge should go if a replacement has to be attached. This is normally a task for a luthier, but since every one of 3D Music’s violins is identical, instructions can be delivered at scale.

“We can also etch in initials, school logos, or crests on any part of the instrument without it impacting the acoustics,” he says.

Another benefit of acoustically resonant plastic? Crazy colors! It’s simple to do custom two-color and three-color designs. As 3D Music’s technology takes off and becomes increasingly mainstream, I see youth orchestra string sections turning into a sea of bright colors, like bags of Legos strewn across a stage.

“The great thing about this approach is that we can use any 3D printer; we just need some time to set up its custom settings, which takes about three days. If we were to receive an order from a school district for 500 units, for example, we can do that,” says Canel.

Looking ahead

3D Music’s next focus is to build prototypes for the other remaining size options for violins and violas.

“I’d love to make a cello personally so that I’d have an instrument I could actually play on a day-to-day basis,” notes Canel. “The challenge at that point is finding (3D printing) machinery big enough to hold the single piece of plastic needed to create the instrument.”

3D printing is a technology that’s been around for years. But hitting the level of acoustic excellence necessary for plastic instruments to become mainstream has been a challenge — until now.

Learn more about 3D Music here.

Contributor @ Entrepreneur, Fast Company. 60+ live TV appearances on NBC, FOX, CBS. Research-minded commentary on tech, behavior, & business. www.nickwolny.com

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