3D Printing in Clay

This week has been an exciting one here at Pitzer College. I’m currently co-teaching a class on “Mathematics and 3D Printing” with our Ceramics Professor, Tim Berg. Tim is also teaching a class on mold-making that I’ve been auditing when I can. For the benefit of both classes, Tim invited Bryan Czibesz, from SUNY New Paltz, to come lead a workshop in which we built a 3D printer that creates objects out of clay. This is particularly timely; Bryan had just come from the first Clay Fab Lab at the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts conference. An article about this meeting just appeared (featuring Bryan) on the Shapeways blog and a similar one in 3DPrint.com.

Bryan has plans up on Thingiverse for the printer we built. In advance of his visit, I printed some of the components in ABS plastic on our Flashforge Creator, and Tim cut the wood pieces on a CNC router. One of the features of this particular 3d-printer design is that all of the parts are easily made or acquired. Here are some of the parts laid out before assembling:


Bryan did a fantastic job involving the students in the actual construction of the machine.


And here’s the completed machine….

The circular collar you see hanging in the center holds a tube of wet clay that looks like an upside-down ketchup bottle. Inside that tube is a plunger, and the top end is connected to an air compressor. When you turn on the compressor, the air pushes the plunger down, and squeezes clay out of the tip.

Unlike a plastic extrusion printer, once you turn the compressor on it continuously squirts the build material (clay). In my initial experiments, I’ve found that this significantly constrains the geometry of printable designs. Essentially, each horizontal slice of the model being constructed must be a deformed circle. To relax this constraint, Bryan is working on a way to have a computer control an on/off valve for the clay,  but that wasn’t ready to implement with our machine.

With all that said, the machine is still capable of producing some amazing designs. Here are a few images of pieces Bryan had brought with him that were made on a similar machine.

IMG_5507 IMG_5504

You’ll notice in these images that there’s a lot more than just 3D printing involved. Each design is both hand-glazed and kiln-fired. Some of Bryan’s designs are assembled from multiple printed pieces, and some combine printed and hand-built components. Clearly, 3D printing can be a valuable new tool in the arsenal of the traditional ceramic artist, but to produce designs like these, knowledge of traditional techniques is still necessary.

In future posts I will share my own designs made with our new printer (I’ve got a lot of ideas!). In the meantime, here’s a video of our new machine in action.

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