Olaf Diegel with some of his 3D printed creations. (Images supplied, additional design: Tina Tiller).
Olaf Diegel with some of his 3D printed creations. (Images supplied, additional design: Tina Tiller).

New Zealand MusicMay 11, 2022

‘The future of musical instruments’ could be inside this 3D printing professor’s lab

Olaf Diegel with some of his 3D printed creations. (Images supplied, additional design: Tina Tiller).
Olaf Diegel with some of his 3D printed creations. (Images supplied, additional design: Tina Tiller).

Olaf Diegel makes guitars like you’ve never seen before. Naomii Seah visits his University of Auckland lab to find out how 3D printing could open up whole new worlds of musical possibilities.

The Newmarket campus of Waipapa Taumata Rau – University of Auckland is a formidable building. The former Lion Breweries site looms large just off the busy Khyber Pass Road, its façade all glossy white and silver chrome. It would look more like a Mars base than a place of education if it wasn’t for all the university’s signage. 

But perhaps the building’s futuristic appearance is fitting considering the kind of research activity inside. Inside, past a row of gleaming race cars belonging to the university’s Formula SAE team, there’s a space filled with a whole host of bizarre objects. Through the window, I spy a water feature that looks like a futuristic shower for mice, a life-size human anatomical model, a towering torso shaped from a lattice structure and many other abstract shapes in fantastical colours. 

This is Olaf Diegel’s lab. Its official title is the Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab, and it’s a part of the university’s engineering department. Diegel and his team specialise in 3D printing – most of the items on display have been printed using their in-house printers, which can create designs in a variety of materials including plastic polymers, metals and even food powders. 

Although the lab’s experiments sound like the eccentric creations of some mad scientist type, you wouldn’t guess it by looking at Diegel. Dressed in a blue button-down and jeans, the affable Dunedin-born engineer just seems like your classic lawn-mowing, barbecue-loving dad. He speaks quickly in an accent that’s hard to place, but which I’ll later find out is a mix of New Zealand, Canadian and South African. Evidently passionate about his work, he launches straight into a tour of the lab, showing me all the machines and what the team has created over the years.

On a table by the door, several tiny models of people printed in colour are so precisely detailed that even their skin looks realistic, criss-crossed with red veins and hair-like strokes. On the wall, there are several life-size models of Diegel’s own face – they can trick Samsung and Huawei’s facial-recognition software, he tells me in a conspiratorial tone, but not iPhones. One of the replica faces has eyeballs in it that can move side to side. One of the lab’s other projects involves food printing, where powdered food can be used to create easily-chewable customised meals with specific nutritional values. They’ve also been involved in making models of the city for Auckland Council, anatomical models, and replicas of delicate artefacts. 

Diegel with a 3D printed replica of his face (Image: Supplied)

But the thing we’re really here to see is sitting in the corner, unassuming among the many other fantastical objects. It’s a fuschia-pink, alien-looking 3D printed electric guitar. Well, not this guitar specifically – Diegel has been making 3D printed guitars, drums and other instruments for over 10 years now. He made his first guitar in 2011 and wrote a blog about it. Musicians around the world began contacting him, blown away by the intricate design, and the rest is history. He’s been selling 3D printed instruments under the moniker ODD Guitars ever since, producing more than 80 so far.

“If you’re going to make a plain looking, normal looking instrument, printing is a dumb way to make it,” Diegel tells me over the whirring of the machines around us. “But when you’ve got these incredibly complex shapes, that’s when 3D printing shines.” 

And it’s evident that these guitars would be practically impossible to make without that 3D printing technology. Diegel boasts many designs for his guitars, but they’re all made from one piece of hollow plastic; inside, his designs boast what he refers to as “eye candy”.

“They’re almost like a diorama… the trick is always to make the body so you can see inside.” 

This allows Diegel to create designs such as Americana, “a New York and American themed” guitar with a stars-and-stripes design. Inside the body, Diegel has fashioned landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Street Bridge and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He says themed guitars like this are the most fun to design. 

His favourite is his Beatlemania bass: “It’s Paul McCartney’s violin-shaped [Hofner] bass, and inside of it there’s the yellow submarine, the Abbey Road – all iconic scenes from the Beatles era.” He kept the original Beatles bass for himself, but has since sold another one to a customer in the States – those are the only two in existence. 

A close-up of Diegel’s ‘Beatlemania’ design. (Image supplied, additional design: Tina Tiller).

Diegel has been 3D printing since the 90s, when he worked in product development for lighting companies. Back then, 3D printing was almost exclusively used for prototyping. But in the past decade or so, that technology has finally gotten good enough to become a viable manufacturing tool.

Not that the process is easy by any means. Diegel shows me two triceratops figurines rendered in metal. One is smoothly polished and finely detailed, and the other is almost completely covered by thin metal supports. These struts are important for structural integrity as the figures are assembled, says Diegel, and so many of the 3D printed models undergo lengthy and laborious post-processing. 

“One of the guitars [I’ve made] is printed in aluminium. My hands were bleeding by the end of that one from removing all the supports inside! It took me four days to remove all these points. You have to break it off with dentist’s tools.” 

The plastic-powder based instruments are comparatively easy to produce, though they do take a lot of work to paint and decorate. But Diegel can’t make them in his lab on campus – he has to outsource the job as the instrument bodies are too big for the university’s machines. Another issue is the cost: the machines use a lot of energy and materials, with designs taking hours to print. We’re talking in the ballpark of $150 per hour to run, says Diegel, and depending on the design and the speed of the machine products can take close to a day to complete, meaning costs stack up fast.

A close-up of Diegel’s ‘American Graffiti’ guitar. (Image supplied, additional design: Tina Tiller).

In addition to his many guitars made from plastic, metal, and his most recent design of compacted sawdust, Diegel has also 3D printed saxophones, drums and keyboards. He says he’s pretty content making string and percussion instruments, but in his opinion the most interesting design possibilities are actually in wind instruments.

“You can have all these weird cavities inside the instrument that modulate the air going through in certain ways. You could produce completely unique sounds that would be impossible to make any other way.”

Diegel brings out a replica of a taonga pūoro, namely a large pūtātara, or shell trumpet. It’s been printed in plastic, and he blows into it, producing a resonant call. “There’s no way to manufacture this,” says Diegel, referring to the complex spirals and hollows inside the shell. “Nature has done it in a million years, but with 3D printing, suddenly, you can [replicate] that. Now you could even go a step further and start to change the way the air circulates through the shell.”

“I think that’s where the future of musical instruments is: making unique new instruments, new sounds. I think that’s where the fun is going to be.” 

In the meantime, Diegel’s next project will be redesigning the 3D printed saxophone. His first attempt leaked air, and he believes his mistake was trying to emulate traditional saxophones too closely. “I’ve already been thinking of maybe using magnets as a spring,” he tells me, eyes gleaming with the possibilities.

Diegel with a set of 3D printed instruments. (Image: Supplied)

But one big question still remains: how do these 3D printed instruments actually sound? The short answer: “they sound good,” says Diegel. Sure, he might be biased, but he does note that his instruments are basically “a wooden guitar with a small body that has a clip-on 3D printed shell”. The pick-ups do all the work, says Diegel, so the interesting body designs are purely aesthetic. 

For the truly curious, Diegel is putting on a musical showcase at Devonport’s Depot Artspace to coincide with both New Zealand Music Month and Techweek. The exhibition will run for the whole of May, and at the opening (this Friday May 13 from 5-7pm) a band will play on an entirely 3D printed set of musical instruments, including a 3D printed guitar, keyboard, bass, drums and microphone. Instruments on display will include Diegel’s hand-destroying aluminium guitar and his prized Beatles bass. 

“It’ll be the first time there’s a live 3D-printed band playing in New Zealand,” says Diegel. He doesn’t know what they’re going to play yet, but says he’s looking forward to the surprise.

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