Creating Ceramic Art using the Rapid Prototyping Process Article (Studio Potter 2008)

Three-dimensional rapid prototyping is a process by which virtual designs, often rendered with computer assisted design software (CAD), are transformed into actual objects. The Zcorp 400 rapid prototype machine which we have been using to print ceramics since the fall of 2006 looks and acts much like a normal ink jet printer with a similar computer interface. The printer builds the object using the following steps. First, it disperses a thin layer of powder on a ‘build bed’ after which a printer head similar to an inkjet sprays a binder onto the layer of powder. This binder is spread only where it reads an image from the digital file. This process is repeated layer by layer until a three-dimensional object is created from the digital file. The end result is an object that is surrounded by the powder and held together by the binder. When the layers are completed, the ‘build box’ is lifted from the machine and the unbound powder falls away from the object. Zcorp sells various powders and binders to create an object which is a “prototype” that could then be transferred to any material through traditional mold making techniques. The focus of this article is to share our experiences with 3D rapid prototyping using our ceramic recipes as the powder and using our binder in the print head to create the finished product.

In my role as ceramics professor at BGSU, I served on the 2006 MFA thesis committee of Sebastien Dion a graduate student in our digital arts program. He was interested in trying to use ceramics in a 3D rapid prototype machine that at the time was housed in the College of Technology. The idea was intriguing but I was skeptical that clay could be used in this environment. However, once I saw objects coming out of the kiln intact I became more intrigued by the potential combination of this technology with ceramics. We began experimenting but our early results were less than perfect with some objects falling apart as soon as they were touched or else failing during the firing process. We focused Sebastien’s efforts on experimenting with different binders and clay recipes. Eventually, we were able to render objects in the Zcorp machine and fire them to cone ten, but were experiencing shrinkage of nearly fifty percent. Sebastien began working with a fellow student to adjust the binder so that it would hold the clay together to provide sufficient green strength, but not occupy so much space that it would create problems during the firing process. The role of the binder is crucial to the printing process; it must be able to travel through the print head and also act as a glue to hold the particles of clay together. The binder provides the green strength necessary to handle the object while transferring it from the printer to the kiln. The binder is organic and burns out at a low temperature and therefore creates porosity within the strata of the object. Of course this becomes a liability during the firing process.

Meanwhile, I was looking at his results and attempting to incorporate materials into the ceramic powder that would allow for adequate green strength, while also reacting like a normal clay body through the firing processes. As I thought about the ceramic recipes, I worked to introduce ceramic materials that would begin to bind the object together as the organic materials began to burn off yet not result in a pool of glaze as the object was fired to ceramic temperatures. Our current recipes are much like normal stoneware, porcelain and earthenware with relatively small percentages of special ingredients, which help to compensate for the early loss of the organic binder. We now have shrinkage down to around twelve percent with our stoneware recipe.

As Sebastien began to make objects for his MFA thesis it became apparent that our research was unique in many ways from what others had done using this technology. We began to look at the prior art in the field and how ceramics had been used in combination with rapid prototyping and CAD technology, I was surprised that we could find nothing that was quite like our discoveries. In medical and high-tech industries, ceramics is being used with digital technology through a variety of methods but in ways that are uniquely different than what we are doing. Our process essentially uses plastic clay to make an original (not a prototype) object which then could be used or displayed as the final product. It seemed that most of the research in this area was focused on the concept of the “prototype” and the ceramic work that had been done incorporated exotic materials for very specific uses. However, we are using ceramic materials that could be generically applied to the brick, tile or ceramic production industries to create original ceramic art objects.

We were eventually awarded a fifty thousand dollar BGSU Technology Innovation Enhancement Grant (TIE) to extend our research. Neither Sebastien nor I are trained scientists. However, before I became a Professor of Art at BGSU, I worked as a lab technician at a large brick manufacturing company. While there, I learned to accurately assess ceramic samples and measure them in ways that would lead to repeatable results. To do this, I had to maintain tight controls on the important parameters of the various tests and collect accurate data. So as we moved forward with our rapid prototype research, I followed these procedures by developing a testing structure that was comprised of a standard-dimension test bar inscribed with a ten centimeter line and a numbering system. Sebastien took the design and created a digital file of the bar which could then be endlessly and perfectly printed. We could then account for variations of binder and clay recipes and measure critical data such as green shrinkage, bisque shrinkage, glaze shrinkage, porosity/absorption, modulus of rupture, and coefficient of expansion.

The bars also reveal observable data such as the crispness of the rendering and whether the bar warped or distorted. We could also apply glaze to the bars and begin to analyze the interface between the glaze and our recipes. While we have learned a great deal through our methods, we have not yet solved the issue of porosity. Excess porosity is created by two major factors. The first is a result of burning out the organic binder which creates voids in the ceramic wall, and the second is a result of the plastic ceramic material not being compressed by mechanical means. Our research has led to two currently pending patents. The first concerns the recipes themselves, while the second involves innovations on the mechanical steps that the printer employs as it distributes the materials. During the next phase of our research, we hope to work with both mechanical and software engineers to improve the process.

In the fall of 2007 we received a follow up grant which has allowed us to purchase a new printer from Zcorp (Zprinter 310 plus) and to employ Sebastien as a research assistant to continue our research. Throughout this process, it has become clear to me that this technology will eventually have a significant impact on the field of ceramics in realms of both commercial and fine art. It is also clear to me that not only have we developed a way to make potentially bad ceramic objects but also a way to make objects that can contribute to the development of our medium technically as well as intellectually. As an educator I am interested in how our innovations will positively contribute to both the field of ceramic art and digital art. What has been described above is basically about a tool for interacting with clay that is new. This is a phenomenon that is very rare indeed. Essentially, contemporary ceramic artists manipulate clay in the same way that it has been done throughout history—forming it with the touch of our hands. Over time we eventually employed innovative technologies such as the wheel and plaster molds, both of which rely on hand manipulation of some type. We have learned to incorporate machinery such as highly pressurized extruders that require one thousand horse power electric motors to push clay through dies, and to use robotics to move clay from place to place such as stacking brick onto car kilns. We have incorporated digital technology to control our firings (e.g., digitally controlled electric kilns, remote monitoring of glaze firings via lap top computer, etc.) even potters wheels now come with digital controls.

We have incorporated digital technology to control our firings (e.g., digitally controlled electric kilns, remote monitoring of glaze firings via lap top computer, etc.) even potters wheels now come with digital controls. We can also use digital printing techniques to create imagery on the surfaces of our objects. The process of printing three dimensional objects however is a fundamental change in how we think about creating with clay. This innovation allows the artist to conceive of and create a ceramic object purely from digital information with no physical human contact.

As an Artist I am interested in how the digital printing process can create a meaningful object. I believe in the basic tenet that art is in the service of the mind and that technique and process are the means to an end. However, I realize that technique and process are deeply connected to how we analyze and value ceramic objects both historically and as contemporary art. As our experiments evolved I began to think about what kind of object would have the most potential to demonstrate the process but also to convey the aesthetic and historical implications raised by the research. I settled on the teabowl to create a provocative convergence of both the digital and analogue world. Of all the possible forms we look at as contemporary ceramic artists the teabowl is perhaps the most iconic. It represents the convergence of function, history, technique and aesthetics as well as the relationship between man and nature. I have been studying and trying to make tea bowls for over twenty five years and continue to be fascinated by every facet of what they are and what they mean as objects. For me they represent the quintessential expression of our impulse to manipulate material into an object of higher meaning. As an Artist I am interested in how the digital printing process can create a meaningful object. I believe in the basic tenet that art is in the service of the mind and that technique and process are the means to an end. However, I realize that technique and process are deeply connected to how we analyze and value ceramic objects both historically and as contemporary art. As our experiments evolved I began to think about what kind of object would have the most potential to demonstrate the process but also to convey the aesthetic and historical implications raised by the research.

I settled on the teabowl to create a provocative convergence of both the digital and analogue world. Of all the possible forms we look at as contemporary ceramic artists the teabowl is perhaps the most iconic. It represents the convergence of function, history, technique and aesthetics as well as the relationship between man and nature. I have been studying and trying to make tea bowls for over twenty five years and continue to be fascinated by every facet of what they are and what they mean as objects. For me they represent the quintessential expression of our impulse to manipulate material into an object of higher meaning. Creating a teabowl using the 3D printer is a provocative statement unique to our time in history. It calls into question many aspects of our aesthetic and historical lexicon by juxtaposing the digital age with long established methodologies.

I do not believe that this innovation will suddenly allow someone who has never worked with clay to suddenly create a “good” teabowl, but I do wonder what a master potter, steeped in the history and the making of the teabowl form would be able to create using this technology. The teabowls we study in museums and books are an amalgamation of complex forces, some of which are possessed by the maker and some of which are inherent in the material. The art of these objects concerns the aesthetic balance of these forces. Great teabowls seem to record and at the same time somehow transcend these forces, all within the basic parameters of the utility of the object. Currently, I’m trying to understand the relationship of this new technology with my prior understanding of using clay to make an aesthetic object. We are three dimensionally scanning my original thrown teabowls into a digital files and then printing them using the rapid prototype process. The result is a highbred object that can be argued as both a copy of an original and also an original object. These pieces are then glazed and fired to completion and displayed beside the original.

The ramifications of this technology is a two way street. It has as much potential to influence the digital world as it does ceramics. A major issue for digital theorists concerns the permanence of digital information.

There is inherent degradation in digital information; this can be illustrated by trying to extract files from a floppy disc made ten years ago. Contrast that with the information that exists on the surface of a Grecian urn made three thousand years ago. Suddenly, this technology has the potential to record digital information in a material that will remain unchanged for tens of thousands of years.

Our research is in its infancy but it is clear to me that this technology will be developed and utilized to create ceramic objects in the future. Our current goal is to root out the conceptual implications of the technology while experimenting with its practical potential. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the tile and brick industry as well as design and ceramic art fields. For example it will be possible to create large scale ceramic surfaces through modules such as tile or brick with any conceivable topography or relief without using mold or carving techniques. Designs can originate from any source and then be converted to a file format recognized by the 3D printer. A wall of unlimited dimension composed of individual tiles could be generated from a drawing or from an original relief model, which is then scanned and 3D printed. A digital file can be created using a 3D modeling program and then directly printed. If one of the tiles that compose the larger image fails it would simply be reprinted. This could only be done now by carving every tile by hand. It may be possible to reintroduce ornamental ceramics into architecture; a practice which became nearly extinct during the emergence of modernism. In our current research we have begun to create objects which are impossible to create using existing methods of fabrication, for example undercuts are irrelevant in this process because molds are not used. This process also allows the creation of objects which have unorthodox relationships between inside and outside surfaces. I would like to acknowledge that this research has been possible due to BGSU’s practice of actively supporting and promoting interdisciplinary research and learning as well as Sebastien’s dedication and hard work.