It may surprise you to learn that 3D printing with clay actually takes longer than a potter spinning pots on a wheel. With the exception of working the wheel, the digital artist must master the same traditional ceramics processing skills as the potter. But you must also master 3D modelling software, 3D printing slicing software, 3D printing machine control software and the complexities of loading, running, cleaning and maintaining a very specialized 3D printer. Its not just pushing a button that says print, it's challenging. The pay-off is having more freedom to express your art. Lets take a quick look a how we do this.
It all starts with software.
While anyone can learn a simple 3D software tool to create basic shapes, freely expressing the art you see in your mind eye can take months or years working with advanced software. These tools offer incredible geometric possibilities but there are limits. When you design your art, you have to remember that wet clay is heavy and gravity is not your friend. You can spend hours watching your work being printed only to see it suddenly collapse into a mound of mud. You need to design printable geometry and learn how to match a specific clay type to specific machines settings and configurations. How thick or thin is your clay? What is the nozzle configuration, room temperature, humidity, etc. Experience will show you how to tame clay to get the desired results.
After you design your art in 3D you have to export it into slicing software that slices your shape layer by coil building layer while translating your 3D model into numerical code (GCODE) that your printer understands. There are literally hundreds of parameters such as speed, precision, surface effects, layer height, nozzle width, wall thickness, etc., to control the printing quality of your art. Once you finalise the parameters you then export the finished GCODE into the computer on your 3D printer. Each time you are going to reload the printer with clay, you have to reassemble the many parts you had cleaned after your last session. You may have to calibrate the printer for each new design and perhaps do a test run without clay to make sure it is following the expected path.
A labour intensive process
We use the same clay as potters and have to wedge (mix) the clay in the same way. For a 3D printer wet clay is a diabolical material to work with and its crucial that the clay is at the right consistency and free of air bubbles. While some 3D printers use compressed air to push clay to the print nozzle, compressed air can be dangerous. We use an airless system that uses a stepper motor system for both safety and a quiet operation. Once you load, prime and start the 3D print, you monitor the printing process while making real time adjustments to speed, clay pressure and extrusion pressure as necessary. Too fast, too slow, too much or too little pressure and the print will fail. The pay-off is when you see the shape you worked on for days slowly appearing before your eyes.
Once your print has finished, you have to remove and cover the wet clay piece to control the humidity to avoid warping and cracking in the coming days. At this “leather hard” stage I use conventional clay tools to trim and hand finish the piece before it dries too much. When the printer is out of clay, its time to disassemble, wash, clean and dry every component exposed to clay. Occasionally I wipe moving parts with alcohol and use lithium grease, silicone grease and sewing machine oil to keep specialized components running smoothly.
Depending on the complexity of the art the work is left to dry for up to three weeks before the first bisque firing in the kiln. Once fired it takes a day for the kiln to cool down and this is followed by more hand finishing. Finally we add several layers of glaze and fire the piece at very high temperatures. This time it takes 2 days for the kiln to cool and by now your getting curious about how the art turned out. The entire labour intensive process process usually takes a month and your work will have shrunk 15% from its original size. But and taking your the finished work out of the kiln is often the most satisfying moment of all.
So in summary... Getting a 3D printer to correctly produce an object from clay is difficult. It’s like eating spaghetti with a stick. But all the extra work that goes into digital ceramics is about creating forms that can be lighter and more complex than traditional ceramics production. Art that is closer to what you can see in your minds eye.
In our upcoming blogs we will look at the young history of 3D printing with ceramics and recognise some of the pioneers. We will also look at where the future can take us. In addition we will tell a bit about our own journey and what led us to this emerging art form.