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MACHINE OVER MAN(HKTDC Jewellery, Vol 01,1999)

Vol.1 1999



JEWELLERS have always prided themselves on the human craftsmanship that goes into their creations. Increasingly though, modern technology is playing a role in the industry’s age-old manufacturing processes. Computers, lasers and other advanced technologies now in use are revolutionising the art of jewellery-making in Hong Kong.

Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture (CAD/CAM) training programmes at the Hong Kong Jewellery Industry Technology Centre (HKJITC), which organises seminars and courses in new jewellery manufacturing technologies, have been the most popular among the new wave of technological developments.

Hong Kong’s large domestic and Asian export trade in 24K gold (chuk kam) jewellery has made electroforming another key area. The process involves using an electric current to deposit a layer of gold as thin as 100 microns onto a wax model, allowing large, hollow gold objects to be made. Electroforming has recently been adapted for gold jewellery and ornaments, and will soon be available for platinum.

“We have had over 200 people take courses. The CAD/CAM and electroforming courses have been especially well attended,” says William Chan, senior consultant at the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC). The HKJITC, which opened in March 1997, is jointly managed by the HKPC and the Hong Kong Jewelry Mfrs Assn (HKJMA).

Other technologies employed in Hong Kong include rapid prototyping (RP), a system that produces an epoxy or wax model from CAD/CAM instructions, and the use of lasers for welding, marking (such as inscriptions) and scanning.

In addition, more companies are taking advantage of the exposure the Internet can give them. The HKJMA has developed a Web site for its members. However, BK Chow, general manager of the 216-member association, says buyers still prefer to see jewellery first-hand. “We don’t see it as a sales tool. It’s a supplementary way of delivering our message to let people see our products and know more about our industry,” Chow says.

One of Hong Kong’s most aggressive hi-tech jewellery firms is Hang Fung Jewellery Co Ltd. Since the early 1990s, the company has invested more than HK$100m in computers and advanced technology that help in the design and production of jewellery.

Its “3D Gold” process utilises lasers to scan the facial features of a living subject and CAD technology to generate a prototype. The finished product is a 24K gold statuette.

Two of Hang Fung’s innovations — gold card ornaments encased in plastic and the reproduction of items such as university degrees and congratulatory messages in gold relief — also rely on the use of lasers.

Lam Sai-wing, who established Hang Fung in 1979, says: “We do not want to be a follower. We want to create new ideas and lead the market. Technology helps us do that.” Hang Fung boasts an annual output of 40-50 tonnes of gold and silver jewellery products.

Among other companies that have installed new technologies are Chow Sang Sang Mfy Ltd, KTL Jewellery Mfr Ltd and Myer Jewelry Mfr Ltd.

Myer’s CAD/CAM system includes an imaging processing unit. Patrick Chun, general manager for production, says: “We use a digital camera and scanner to capture images and then we use those images —taken from an actual object or a photo from a magazine — to input the information into our imaging library.”

As one of Hong Kong’s major jewellery exporters, Myer produces more than one million pieces of jewellery per year. Diamond jewellery alone accounts for more than half of its sales.

All of its jewellery designs are created using CAD/CAM. Models are no longer produced by hand — the traditional way — but by an RP machine. “It’s very fast. We can produce an epoxy model in eight hours. To make it by hand would take 10 days,” Chun says. “And since the data are already in the computer, we can make changes very easily.”

The benefits of technology extend beyond saving time, he adds. “We have been able to reduce our model-making costs by 20-30% and improve the quality of our moulds. Before we had 70 model-makers, now we have three. We can make our jewellery much lighter than before and our assembly is more accurate.”

Myer’s laser welding machine has also resulted in faster, more precise work. “The machine can do many things, such as assembly or welding different metal colours together. Before, we had to use a hand [blow] torch,” says Chun.

The HKJMA’s Chow estimates that about 10% of Hong Kong’s jewellery manufacturers have invested in hi-tech equipment. He feels more companies will follow once the price of equipment comes down. “Hong Kong firms are very practical. They weigh the costs against the results,” Chow says.

A basic CAD/CAM system can start at about HK$50,000 and run to more than HK$300,000 for more sophisticated software and a computer workstation. An RP machine can cost HK$450,000 or more and an electroforming set-up from HK$800,000 to HK$1m.

Some companies have elected to use certain technologies over others. Instead of an RP machine and its three-dimensional renderings, Chow Sang Sang has substituted a computer numerical control (CNC) unit for model-making. Manager Dominic Wong says: “CNC is like a drill. By making the drill move we can get two-dimensional and 2.5-dimensional surfaces, which we use for stamping and electroforming.”

Rough areas on RP-produced models, which must be smoothed out by hand, are one reason the company prefers a CNC unit. But Wong says when the technology improves, Chow Sang Sang will take another look at RP.

While the ultimate goal of new technology is to keep Hong Kong in the forefront of the world marketplace, it has so far not led to lower jewellery prices. Victor Kei, founder and managing director of KTL Jewellery, says: “With CAD/CAM and an RP machine we can easily double the number of models we make. This gives us more of a chance to get orders. But it hasn’t brought down prices. We can just make ourselves more competitive by making a greater variety of products at the same cost.” The nine-year-old firm specialises in jewellery priced from US$10 to US$100 FOB Hong Kong.

Over the past decade, many Hong Kong jewellery companies have focused a great deal of energy on relocating their production facilities to mainland China, where labour and land costs are cheaper. Having accomplished that, they have recently begun upgrading their factories to handle new technologies.

The HKPC’s Chan says: “In terms of accessibility, we have design software, we have electroforming, we have rapid prototyping. In terms of popularity, maybe this kind of manufacturing is more popular in the US or Europe. But we have it, it’s available. The barriers are people. A lot of companies will go out and acquire technology if they think it can help them out. But some companies are still quite conservative.”

The HKJMA hopes to make its own contribution to the progress being made on Hong Kong’s technology front. With funding from a HK$1.6m government grant, the association plans to develop a CAD software library for its members. Chow at the HKJMA says: “There’s no well-developed software for jewellery design. We want to organise courses to educate companies about jewellery design software, and develop our own and sell it for just a few thousand dollars. Once our software is ready, we think it will double or triple CAD use in the industry.”

Written by Andrea Pawlyna

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