Design Engineering

PhD student helps turn 3D printing into music for the masses

Devin Jones   

Additive Manufacturing General Additive Manufacturing University of Ottawa

National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge prompts contestants to re-design classical instruments to reduce performance-related injuries.


This 3D-printed clarinet, designed by university of Ottawa PhD in engineering student, Robert Hunter, claimed the National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge’s top prize.

When Robert Hunter saw what kind of contest the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (OSO) was organizing, he immediately thought of high school band class. As a PhD student studying biomedical engineering at the university of Ottawa, he began work on a project that would nab him first place overall.

Titled the National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge, the OSO competition tasked participants with ergonomically improving the design of a classical instrument to reduce performance-related injuries. The contest, and the instruments, are part of OSO’s 3D String Theory project, which aims to utilize emerging technologies in what many view as an aging genre.

Funded through the Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter program, the OSO challenge is a collaborative effort between the OSO, Canadian violin maker, Charline Dequincey, additive manufacturing network Canada Makes, and Winnipeg’s Industrial Technology Centre.

For Hunter, the contest spoke directly to the experience he had in high school playing clarinet. After switching from playing piano, he quickly discovered that, after hours of practise, the tendon in his thumb became incredibly sore from supporting the weight of the hand-held instrument.


“When I read about the competition, I immediately thought of high school and the problems I had with the clarinet,” Hunter says. “At the time I just accepted it as the nature of the instrument, but if I approached the clarinet now with my education, I would have tried to work something out for sure.”

Hunter started with rough sketches, back of the napkin style, followed by a plaster cast based off his own hand and wrist. From there, “it was just a matter of popping the design into Solidworks and work shopping it until I thought I had something.”

As a finished product, the clarinet and brace work in tandem. The brace fits over the arm, attaching to the clarinet via a ball joint, which in turn would support the axial weight of the instrument while still allowing for freedom of movement.



As the winner of the OSO contest, Robert Hunter received the KUN Prize, which includes $5,000 in cash, a fabrication and fitting budget and a 5 minute piece of music commissioned for the instrument.

The first design was good but not great, Hunter admits. He 3D printed it in PLA but found that the clarinet and arm brace weren’t sturdy enough. On top of that, he faced a few interesting design challenges. The first iteration was certainly comfortable, but he found that he had to extend his fingers too far to reach the keys. Then there was the issue of the keys themselves, which are tiny and hold intricate metal pieces inside – something Hunter needed to find a solution for in regards to working with the 3D printer.

When it came time to create a second prototype, Hunter switched to ABS, which allowed for a sturdier build. Hunter also repositioned the brace closer to the clarinet, allowing for more finger control while maintaining the ergonomic factor of the design. It took a lot of what Hunter referred to as “chin-stroking,” to really get the idea to physically work and not just look good theoretically.

During the entire process, Hunter did give thought to creating a wood-polymer hybrid that would rely on 3D plastic parts for ergonomics while maintaining the wood resonance that gives most instruments such a rich sound. Despite not creating a hybrid for the contest specifically, it’s an idea Frank DeFalco, manager of Canada Makes, wholeheartedly supports.

“I think a hybrid instrument made from wood and polymer materials is certainly realistic and would make these instruments more accessible and cheap,” he said. “One of the misconceptions we’re still seeing about 3D printed objects like this is that it’s worse or better than the original material. It’s not worse or better, it’s just different.”

As the winner of the contest Hunter received the KUN Prize, valued at over $35k, which includes a fabrication and fitting budget; a 5 minute piece of music commissioned for the instrument; performance of the instrument at the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra’s 3D StringTheory concert on November 4; and a $5k cash prize.

The concert will also feature the contest’s runners-up and their instruments. Included will be Jared Kozub, an engineer from Winnipeg, who combined an innovative pitch shifting mechanism for the ocarina with ergonomic considerations for improved hand position.

In addition, Victor Martinez, a designer, instructor, and faculty member at Wilson School of Design, Kwantlen Polytechnic University (BC) created an electric violin which includes a new chin rest and shoulder rest system that adapts to the physiology of the performer.

For the future, Hunter believes there are commercial possibilities for his and other 3D printed instrumnets but he doesn’t have any immediate plans.



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