Mar 14, 2016 | By Kira

German design student Steffen Hartwig has created a series of beautifully organic and functional 3D printed ceramics using a self-designed ceramic 3D printer, extruder, and software system. While many advances in ceramic 3D printing today are focused on creating stronger, more technically precise objects than what was previously possible to make by hand, Hartwig’s work stands apart. Though functional and machine-made, the 3D printed pieces are imbued with intentional imperfections, resulting in ambiguous yet alluring artifacts that carry the trace of ceramic’s handcrafted roots.

To create them, Hartwig began with parametric design—an algorithmic process most often used in the meticulous fields of architecture or mechanical engineering. Yet rather than trying to ‘optimize’ ceramic to industrial standards, he embraces its organic material properties and labor-intensive workflow. These seemingly opposing aspects bring a sense of ‘digital unpredictability’ to functional ceramic 3D printing. The resulting vases, bowls, mugs, candleholders and sculptures are captivating, and reveal new possibilities in 3D printing as an artisanal tool. spoke with Hartwig to learn how he used ceramic 3D printing as the topic of his BA thesis to explore the boundaries between man and machine, and to bring traditional craftsmanship ethics into digital 3D fabrication. Please tell us a bit about yourself—where did you go to school, and how did you get into visual arts and 3D printing?

Steffen Hartwig: My name is Steffen, I grew up in the countryside of Western Germany. I have always been fascinated by the beautiful things that can emerge from technology, yet I felt that serious engineering is too constrained by its own rules, so I went for design instead. I studied Communication Design at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. I started with generative programming and moved from the screen to physical drawing machines. By adding a third dimension I ended up with 3D printing ceramics in my bachelor project.

Is there a recurring theme in your artwork?

Most of my projects are somewhere at the intersection of the digital and physical world. I'm fascinated by the secret life of machines, especially parametric and generative systems. But instead of working just for the screen I try to bring these virtual concepts to domains that seem to be reserved for manual human work.

Aesthetically, I am driven by the beauty and new things that emerge from imperfections, errors or randomness.

Why did you choose ceramic 3D printing as the focus for your BA project?

I started to buy vintage ceramics from flea markets some years ago and that grew to a kind of an obsession. Furthermore, ceramics are one of the oldest materials used by mankind and today pottery still embodies traditional craftsmanship and is often positioned far away from modern technology. I really like the idea of a machine doing studio pottery and creating unique objects in a slow and imperfect manner.

With no prior knowledge and no experience with the traditional tools and processes, I tried to create artifacts that naturally emerge from the properties of the material and the printer.

Tell us about the Keramikfreund 3D printer you created for his project.

The name "Keramikfreund" is a compound of "ceramics" and "friend" and can be read as "a friend of ceramics" or "a ceramic friend".

The hardware is self-designed, but inspired by the many DIY delta printers that already exist. The construction is quite simple, based on widely available components and easily machinable materials. The printer doesn't provide great precision but is optimized for other requirements I had to conquer: a huge printing area of 30 x 30 x 50 cm, strong motors and sturdy construction for moving and accelerating the heavy extruder filled with clay. All the electronics are on the top and far away from the mess on the bed.

The electronics are based on an Arduino Mega with a RAMPS board. The firmware is a custom mash-up and mostly based on Marlin and Repetier with additional features for controlling the valves and compensating the fill level via dynamic valve switching timings to achieve clean starting and stopping of the extrusion.

The extruder itself is powered by pressurized air and was designed from scratch. I closely cooperated with my friend Daniel Wilkens, who experimented with 3D printing cakes at that time. Since extruding dough and extruding clay is quite similar, we faced the same problems and shared our experiences and ideas. So we helped each other to develop the custom extruders.

Can you walk us through the design, 3D printing and post-processing of a finished ceramic piece?

Most of the objects were parametrically constructed in OpenSCAD or Grasshopper. For generating the G-code I began with a modified version of Slic3er, but it's quite hard to achieve things like extruding in one point for a while or printing unsupported, free falling material there, so I started to generate the G-code directly in grasshopper.

The ceramic material, be it porcelain or stoneware, comes as a solid material and is diluted with water to get the right consistency. The harder the clay, the more pressure is needed to extrude it through the nozzle, but I tend to stay under 2-bar pressure. At this point I can print reasonably large objects, but the clay is still soft enough to move in an organic manner.

A simple mug is done in 10 to 15 minutes, a bigger bowl can take up to an hour. More complex sculptures can take even longer and critical parts may be stabilized with a heat gun in the printing process.

After 3D printing the objects are treated as any handmade pottery. They dry for a few days then get bisque fired in the electric kiln. After that they are glazed by hand and fired a second time at up to 1250°C. As you can see, this 3D printer is a tool still deeply embedded in traditional workflow and far away from optimizing, accelerating of industrializing the whole process.

Can you describe some of the functional 3D printed ceramics you have created?

The inspiration for the shapes comes from things I see in daily life: be it technical objects or brutalist architecture. But the final shape always emerges from a dialogue with the material and the printer.

Conventional round bowls tend to deform or collapse; a cylinder is way more stable. Since I have no support material and still wanted to print hemispherical bowls, I had to design a shape that would support itself. The results are objects that boldly show off their construction. […] While these shapes prevent the material from falling uncontrollably, other pieces especially emphasize this erratic behavior.

The looped vases are perfectly waterproof and functional, but are decorated with printing errors. Freely falling material formed the loops on the outside and hence every vase and every loop is different.


Currently, Hartwig is completing his Master's in Visual Communication in Berlin, and we look forward to seeing what this genre-bending 3D print artist will come up with next.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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