This is a guest blog on printing in ceramics by Taekyeom Lee, an interdisciplinary artist. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. His latest research explores unconventional methods of creating three-dimensional type. This includes working with materials and techniques unique to type design — like ceramics and various analog and digital craft techniques. As a part of his research, he built a 3D printer and designed his own paste extruder to produce intricate 3D ceramic type and objects.
3D Printing in Ceramics
Since the Summer of 2015, I’ve been interested in combining 3D printing and ceramics to create complex fonts and other objects. Desktop 3D printing is especially appealing because it requires much less space and equipment than a typical clay studio. By using a delta printer and custom auger extruder, I’m able to print small and medium scale ceramic objects with a width and height of up to 300mm.
My ceramic printer began as a RepRap kit. RepRap, meaning rapid replication, is one of the most popular open source projects in 3D printing. It allows you to quickly and cost-effectively print many of the frame parts required to build another 3D printer. It also enables you to customize your machine for your needs. By starting with a RepRap, I customized the printer to use ceramics as a material.
Initially, I tried to make a clay extruder by using glue dispensers but those didn’t work well. I decided to fabricate my own using PVC pipe (Note: PVC pipe can be dangerous when working with high PSI. Other materials such as steel, copper, or aluminum are more advisable to avoid injury). An air compressor forces the ceramic through the PVC pipe where it is eventually extruded through the nozzle. It took several trials to find the optimal air pressure and slicing configuration for effective printing.
Building My Own Printer
After building my first kit, I wanted to design my own printer, specifically optimized for printing large ceramic parts. With my first machine, I printed many of the components required for a larger printer. There were many technical and mechanical challenges because Delta printers can be especially difficult to calibrate. After many months and 40 different firmwares tested, I was able to get my custom ceramic printer running properly.
Clay is an especially challenging material to work with because you need to get just the right viscosity for printing – making sure it’s not too thin nor viscous. I started with low fire white clay and have printed different clay bodies. I added extra water to soften it a bit. Small models were relatively easy to print but for bigger and more complex layers, I ran into an issue of layers collapsing. I started off by using a heat gun to make the layers dry faster and recently installed three, 120mm fans to dry the part. One of the advantages of working with clay is you can reuse the material from failed prints.
Creating a custom clay extruder
The first versions of my extruder worked purely by pneumatically forcing clay through PVC piping but I wanted to make a new version that would allow me to print more complex shapes. I designed an extruder using an auger system to more precisely extrude the clay. I tested over 60 different auger screws and 10 different housings. Using this custom extruder, I’ve designed several different Delta printers. One of which is travel sized and I brought to a workshop at universities, such as College for Creative Studies in Detroit, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and San Diego State University. I’ll be bringing it to more workshops.
Most of my 3D Models are designed in Rhinocerous 5 though for more organic shapes, I use a program called Sculptris. I also use a Microsoft Kinect and the Skanect software when I want to get scans of human figures or objects. The Gcode for the printer is created in a program many of you may be familiar with, Repetier Host.
The general process for printing in clay is as follows.
- Create your design using the CAD tool of your preference
- Generate an STL or OBJ file for your design
- Slice the model and create the Gcode using Repetier Host
- Load the clay into your extruder
- Wait for your print to complete and allow it to dry for a few hours
- Use the firing process for your material to create a fully ceramic part
I have built a five ft tall giant printer and plan to build a six ft tall printer to print other paste-like materials such as cement and concrete. I’m always looking to improve my extruder design and print in more materials. Paste extruders can print in a variety of different materials beyond ceramics. Nutella is the material of choice in the video below. I’m also excited to try out the Ceramic Resin being developed by Formlabs.
Nervous system tea cups printed in Formlabs Ceramic Resin
Thank you for reading. I am always looking for opportunities and venues to show my research. Please contact me if you are interested in a workshop, a presentation and/or an exhibition.