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Olaf Diegel
Olaf Diegel, Professor of Additive Manufacturing at the University of Auckland

People of 3D Printing: Olaf Diegel

Who is Olaf Diegel?

Olaf Diegel is both an educator and a practitioner of additive manufacturing and product development who loves developing innovative solutions to engineering problems. He is currently a professor of additive manufacturing and product development, in the faculty of engineering at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand. He is also one of the authors of the annual Wohlers Report, and his main area of research expertise is in Design for AM. 

Over the past three decades, he has developed over 100 commercialized new products including innovative new theatre lighting products, security, marine, and several home health monitoring products.

When did you start to use 3D printing?

I started using 3D printing in the mid-90s purely as a rapid prototyping tool. We would design new products, and then use 3D printing to prototype and test our ideas before taking them to production. But as I saw the technologies improving year by year I became more and more interested in 3D printing as an actual production technology to produce real parts to sell directly to the customer. I started to realize that, if you want to use 3D printing for real production, you need to design for it quite differently than if you are designing for conventional manufacturing. Otherwise, it can just become a slower and more expensive way of making things than with traditional manufacturing.

Over the last 20 years, I have become a passionate follower of 3D printing. I believe it is one of the technologies that has been a real godsend to innovation as it allows designers and inventors to instantly test out ideas to see if they work. It also removes the traditional manufacturing constraints that have become a barrier to creativity and allows us to get real products to market without the normally high costs that can become a barrier to innovation. 

In 2012, I started manufacturing a range of 3D printed guitars and basses that has developed into a successful little side-business.

What kind of 3D printing projects do you like working on?

To me, the projects I enjoy doing the most are those where we greatly reduce the weight of parts. This is because weight reduction adds all sorts of value to parts. From the shipping cost reductions to the sustainability of using less material, and down to the simple logic that, the less material you use in your design, the less material the 3D printing system has to process, so the faster it prints and the cheaper the part becomes.

We have done some amazing manifolds, for example, where we reduce the weight of the products by over 95%. And not only do they weigh less, but they also perform better as we can reduce the pressure drop caused by 90-degree corners by replacing them with gently curving channels.


And, of course, just form a pure fun point of view, the 3D printed guitars I make allow my imagination to run a bit wild and push the limits of what you can do with 3D printing. At the moment I am making guitar number 84, so although far from a mass-production product, it still shows how low-volume high-value products can be made with 3D printing.

olaf diegel guitar

What is your advice for someone about to get started with 3D printing?

The biggest advice I can give to someone getting started with 3D printing is not to just treat it as a direct replacement technology for conventional manufacturing. It isn’t, and probably never will be. It is a technology that you should only use if it can add enough value to your product to overcome the high cost and slow speed restrictions of the technology. And, to maximize the benefits of the technologies, you really have to learn how to design for them the right way.

And the other advice I would give is never just to print for the sake of printing. Always think about the easiest way to achieve the functionality you need, in the context you need to produce it in, and use the best technology to achieve that.

In general, why do you think 3D printing is a game-changing technology?

To me, the best thing about 3D printing is that it makes you think differently! And, because anything that makes you think differently is a great tool to stimulate innovation, 3D printing is a winner; It removes many of the restrictions of conventional manufacturing, it allows you to realize things that would be impossible if you only restrict yourself to conventional manufacturing.

What is your point of view on the evolution of additive manufacturing over the years and how do you see the future of 3D printing?

The evolution of 3D printing over the last 30 years has been incredible. The quality kept getting better and better, and about a dozen years ago some of the technologies started getting good enough for production parts. To me, the next push needs to be speed, speed, and more speed. At the moment, all technologies are still relatively slow, which is one of the things that makes them expensive or impractical for a larger production. 

As speeds get better, industry adoption will increase exponentially, I think. We also need more materials, particularly soft materials. One of the areas that excite me most, in the future, will be the ability to print electronics as an integral part of the product, as this will truly change the way we develop products.

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