More than 600 miles in any direction from other land masses and smack in the middle of the southwestern Pacific Ocean sits Aotearoa; "the land of the long white cloud."
More commonly known as New Zealand, the island nation is renowned for an almost unimaginable diversity of biological, cultural and historical threads which give the tiny land mass an exotic appeal and a unique flair.
Professor Olaf Diegel and his work are surely a reflection of that sort of wild amalgam of influences.
The 49 year-old Diegel, born in New Zealand, spent most of his life overseas in the United States, Canada and South Africa. Perhaps as a result of his nomadic experience juxtaposed against the remoteness of his homeland, Diegel found his interests balanced between the creative and the technical.
A Professor of Mechatronics (a combination of mechanical, electronic and software engineering) at Massey University in Auckland, Diegel now spends a good portion of his time making beautifully-crafted, 3D-printed guitars which challenge the notion of what a musical instrument can be.
"I've always had an interest in machines, which is why I studied engineering when I went to university," Diegel said. "I've been using 3D printing for nearly 20 years, now, so I understand the process well enough to use it when it gives me creative advantages. The fact that it allows me to make extremely complex shapes – shapes I couldn't make any other way – is a feature I use in all my 3D printed work."
Doing the principal design work for his amazing axes on a laptop, Diegel says he sets up shop "wherever is comfortable, and usually where there are other people."
"I do most of my guitar assembly on the dining room table, which always irritates my wife as I tend to make a mess," he said.
His ODD guitars are personalized, customized instruments which explore the limits of 3D printing technologies and applications. According to Diegel, 3D printing allows his designs to be manufactured and many couldn't be manufactured through traditional means. Diegel builds the bodies of his guitars via Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), and the hardware (pickups, bridges, necks, tuning heads, etc.) are all top quality off-the-shelf hardware and often specified by the customer at the time they're ordered. High end guitar-building is often associated with traditional manufacturing techniques, but Diegel can, using SLS, build something likely to knock your eyes clean out of your head. His Steampunk 3D printed guitar, a sort of tribute to the classic and venerated Fender Telecaster, features a 3D printed body with moving gears and pistons. Perhaps most startling is the fact that the entire body of the instrument – including all of the moving components – is printed as a single component. No assembly required.
Featuring a beautiful Steampunk-inspired paint job by New Zealand airbrush artist Ron van Dam, Diegel's creation is a tour-de-force of additive manufacturing.
The guitar bodies, created on a 3D Systems printer, are built up 0.1 mm layer thickness at a time as a high-powered laser fuses minute particles of plastic, metal, ceramic, or glass powders into the finished object. For the Steampunk Guitar, Diegel employed Duraform nylon material to create the 3D printed parts.
"If (the guitar) was geometrically simple stuff, I'd be better off CNC-ing it in the traditional way, rather than 3D printing it," Diegel says. "For the guitars, they're all about 3D printing, so the entire design process is centered around that. But for my other design stuff, I tend to use 3D printing in a more reasonable way when it gives me real advantage. For example, when I can consolidate a bunch of parts into a single one, or integrate a moving part into the 3D printed part."
The end product is a truly amazing fusion of form and function, but Diegel hesitates to call himself either a luthier or an artist, though he is clearly both of those.
"I'm definitely more on the engineering side of things," Diegel said. "I struggle with design and find I just have to keep iterating until luck swings my way and an iteration turns out looking good. I'm still a long way from considering myself a luthier, as I'm still slowly climbing the steep learning curve of instrument making. But I'm now starting to understand what I'm doing. I think you can definitely give students the tools to be creative but, ultimately, it's up to the students to decide whether or not to use them. But creating a good atmosphere and environment for creativity sure helps."
"I think one of the biggest challenges people face around turning 3D printing into a business is an obsession with 3D printing absolutely everything," Diegel says. "To my mind, 3D printing is just one technology to add to the arsenal of other conventional manufacturing technologies. Look at my guitars. The bodies are 3D printed, but the necks and inner cores are CNC machined. The bridge and tuning heads are cast. My inlay is done with laser engraving and cutting. Some of the plastic bits are injection molded. They use almost every manufacturing technology under the sun. The fact that anything can be 3D printed doesn't mean that it should be 3D printed. There are often better ways of doing it by using conventional technologies, and I think people often overlook this fact. It's a matter of understanding the advantages 3D printing gives, and building products that use those particular advantages, rather than to just 3D print for the sake of 3D printing."
So once he's done, what riffs does he play to test out his axes?
"My favorite guitarist is probably Brian Setzer because I've always been into rockabilly music, though I do listen to just about everything," Diegel said. "I grew up playing classical music, and even studied jazz at university for a year. When I play these days, I play a lot of middle of the road garage band-type stuff, but the most fun is good old four-chord rock and roll stuff."
As to the future of the medium, Diegel has a clear vision of what direction he sees for 3D printing.
"One of the cool things about 3D printing is that almost anyone doing research in the area is constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be done," he said. "But beyond new ways of 3D printing, and new materials, it's the cool new applications that really excite me. The work being done in medical 3D printing (both implants and bio-printing) is the work that has the potential to best benefit society.
I think the big evolution, over the next 5 or 10 years, will be in more materials, including 3D printed electronics, increases in speed and print quality and, hopefully machines that can print metals and plastics in the same machines," Diegel said." I think bio printing will also make huge advances over the next 10 years."
According to Diegel, he's hard at work adding products to the range of his offerings. He said he's currently working on a 3D printed drum-kit, some wind instruments capable of playing chords and is even considering an expansion of his vision into robotic based products that take advantage of the 3D printing technology.
Check out the video below and head over to ODD.org.nz to see Diegel's Steampunk guitar and his other creations.