After a year of experimenting with many approaches to 3D Printing in clay, now is a good time to begin sharing some of the ideas, thoughts, failures, and the occasional success we have come across. I also hope to use this space spotlight a number of remarkable projects and and the individuals behind them. In becoming familiar with the processes of clay printing I've benefited tremendously from the shared insights and efforts of a large and growing group of artists, tinkerers, engineers, designers, students, teachers. These individuals are interested in combining fairly new 3D Printing technology, which has been around for about 30 years, with the less new processes of shaping clay into sculpture, which has been going on for about 30,000 years.
Personally, I've been interested in 3D Printing (aka "Rapid Prototyping" or "Additive Manufacturing") from the moment I first learned about the process during a lecture by the artist Tony Hepburn in 1999. It would be 9 more years before I would actually have a chance to print something of my own, but in those intervening years I was able to learn the practice of 3D modeling with open source tools like Blender, and the powerful freeform modeling software Rhino. In 2013 I finally gained hands-on access to a 3D printer when my employer, Penn State University's School of Visual Arts, purchased a MakerBot Replicator 2. After a year of constantly repairing the MakerBot I built my first 3D printer, following (and altering) the excellent Prusa i3 design, in 2014. After printing hundreds of plastic objects and becoming increasingly excited about the potential for the 3D Printer as an artist's tool I became more and more interested in moving away from plastic as a printing medium. I was ready to start attempting to print with clay in the summer of 2015. As an artist with no training in Engineering, I was remarkably fortunate to cross paths with Dr. Timothy Simpson, Co-Director of Penn State's Center for Innovative Material Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D). Dr. Simpson connected me with the College of Engineering's Learning Factory capstone design program. Through the capstone project program I have been able to work on various approaches to clay printing with more than a dozen undergraduate students from the areas of Mechanical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, and Material Science over the past 12 months.
Before I began experimenting with clay printing my interest in the process was nudged along in 2014, when British Potter Jonathan Keep started an internet forum titled, simply enough, "Make Your Own Ceramic 3D Printer". The site began as a place for Jonathan to post and disseminate instructions, technical advice, and tips for anyone interested in building the clay extruding printer he had designed in the previous year or a bit earlier. I followed this forum closely then, as I do now, gradually shifting from onlooker to active participant.
It turns out clay extrusion printing predates Jonathan's work as well. Unfold Studio of Antwerp Belgium began developing compelling projects via clay extrusion as a 3D printing method in 2009, using an early modified "Rapman" printer. Dries Verbruggen of Unfold points out in an article he authored that the RepRap open source 3D printing project began with a syringe type extruder way back in March of 2005.
The work of Dries and Jonathan, which builds upon the RepRap project begun by Adrian Bowyer, are all examples of Open Source designs. Information is shared freely, interested individuals around the world build their own versions of these designs, make changes, and share those changes. Other approaches to clay printing and research dissemination exist as well, in which research is directed toward a patent possibly leading to a commercial enterprise. However, in this space I am going to preference open source projects and development for a number of reasons. The most important reason is that all of the underlying processes are accessible, able to be studied, duplicated, and even altered.
So the purpose of this space is to share insights into why 3D Printing in clay has become a personal obsession for me rather than to focus on how the process works. I hope to share much more insight into everything and everyone I mentioned in this brief post. I'm curious whether 3D Printing in clay is destined to be a niche activity which might appeal to just a few eccentric artists and designers, or if it is something we might see as a very widespread activity throughout schools, workshops, and studios. I could make a case that clay is an all-around better material for 3D printing than the plastic used in nearly all consumer and hobbyist printers - and for a number of reasons. More on that, and everything else, later . . .