Aug 24, 2016 | By Alec

Ceramic has never been hotter within the 3D printing community, but clay 3D printing is sadly limited to just a handful of specialized 3D printers. In that respect, the undisputed benchmark in clay 3D printing is the LUTUM 3D printer series by Dutch pioneers VormVrij 3D, who just unveiled their second generation hardware. But as it turns out, ceramic can be brought to DIY open source 3D printing too, as artist and Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Appalachian State University Taekyeom Lee just proved. He has built his very own ceramic delta 3D printer, based on RepRap principles, and is creating gorgeous typographic art with it.

As Lee reveals to 3ders.org, this remarkable project grew out of his academic research interests. Fascinated by unconventional methods to create 3D type, he is exploring the development of digital fabrication and typographic practices in the post-digital age with the goal of realizing new, tangible 3D production methods. As part of those studies, 3D printing quickly appeared and about a year ago, he set out to combine typography, ceramic and 3D printing. “Especially, desktop 3D printing drew my attention because I do not need a space and equipment for a clay studio. I can make more intricate and variety of modular designs with the new tool,” he explains.

The great thing about this approach is that Lee is not grounded in ceramics, as the same principles can be applied to other materials as well – even sugar icing. “My creative practice is not close to traditional ceramics. I made my own new tools to make something I was not able to make with my own hands and blur the boundaries between different areas,” he says. “Also, I have printed different types of clay bodies: white clay, stoneware, earthenware, porcelain, and even Precious Metal Clay, copper clay.”

But building a 3D printer is by no means an easy task. About a year ago, Lee first purchased a DIY 3D printer kit and started playing with open source delta possibilities. While fascinated by the RepRap ability to replicate itself, this obviously doesn’t work in clay so Lee had to take matters in his own hands. “Simply put, I made my own tools to make something I was not able to make with my own hands,” he says.

This was eventually followed by a scaled-up RepRap-inspired 3D printer than can print small and medium objects (up to 300mm tall with a diameter of 300mm), made from numerous off-the-shelf parts, laser cut plexiglass and an Arduino. This was followed by the arduous task of teaching himself how to calibrate the 3D printer. “I tested more than 40 different firmwares. It was a tedious job to test many different configurations. On Sunday, October 25, 2015, I solved the problem and my printer began working properly. I tested calibration with a pen and paper. The first word I wrote with my printer was ‘HI’,” he recalls. Earlier this summer, he also developed a new extruder that required him to test 56 different screws and 8 housings over a three week period.

As Lee found out, a lack of engineering and material knowledge really slowed down the project. “It was not easy to teach myself how to build my own 3D printer and clay extruder. However, I am a natural-born maker. I begin with an ambitious idea and am willing to deal with endless troubleshooting. I learn something from every failure and success,” he says.

This is perfectly illustrated by his struggles with clay, which needs perfect viscosity properties to 3D print. Too solid, and it becomes lumpy; too soft, and the print won’t hold. This required testing numerous water/clay combinations for simple 3D prints, and some hands-on ingenuity. “My temporary solution for the problem was using a heat gun to let the wet clay dry faster. Recently, I installed three 120mm fans to the printer and blow winds to the printing bed. It is not the ultimate solution, but it helps,” the artist says. “Even now, I appreciate the collapsed prints and misprints since they leave some comments on the promise of digital fabrication. [It can create] some interesting shapes – I call it collaboration with gravity – since nonlinear behavior of clay could be a form of art.”

But as Lee found out, the 3D printing methods for white clay, stoneware, earthenware, porcelain, Precious Metal Clay (PMC) and copper clay are largely similar – with only the shrinkage rates creating serious differences. “After the successful prints, two basic firing steps follow; bisque and glaze firing. During each firing, the clay reaches certain temperatures to ensure that the clay bodies mature into ceramic. Different clay bodies should be fired at the different temperature to mature the clay body,” he explains. “These days I am using mid-range porcelain (cone 5-6. 2167 – 2232F).” Only PMC requires a slightly different approach, as it needs to be dried before undergoing two firing processes.

Aside from those steps, the 3D printing process is completely familiar. Lee usually draws up 3D models in Rhino, and slices the finished STL files in Repetier Host Mac. 3D printing time obviously depends on the model, but it can take quite a long time to dry and fire the objects.

But the results are definitely worth the effort, as the objects visible above illustrate. Lee himself is particularly happy with the different 3D typographic creations, which are completely different from the 2D conventions that graphic design professionals and type designers rely. “Those practices are somewhat influenced the ‘glass box’ that limits type creation in the high contrast between type and background. However, 3D type letters do not lie on the static space of a page. These letters thus acquire new characteristics such as texture, structure, volume, and even interactivity,” he says. “As an artistic and typographic practice, 3D type is convergent as artistic expression, construction technique, and materiality each have a role to play to create letters in the three-dimensional space.” 3D printing, he adds, could become a fantastic tool for unconventional typographic practices.

So what’s next? Lee is currently planning to share his work through conferences and exhibitions, before returning to the workshop for more creations. “I’m planning to apply for some research grants to build a bigger printer and larger clay extruder. With the new 3D printer, I want to print human-scale 3D typographic sculptures with clay and/or concrete,” he tells us. 3D printing is clearly reinventing the artistic potential of ceramic.

Updated on October 10, 2016:

Taekyeom received some advice on his clay extruder and an engineer said, PVC pipe is not a safe material because PVC can crack, or even shatter. Cooper or stainless steel will be good material. DO NOT use PVC piping system for use in compressed air.

 

 

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