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Dutch team VormVrij 3D create large 3D clay printer that can print functional ceramics
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By Alec | 3Ders

While 3D printers using plastic are becoming more readily available at affordable prices, 3D printers using ceramic are still very expensive and difficult to use due. All that is about to change in the near future, however, as the Dutch Design duo behind Vormvrij 3D are pioneering an innovative ceramic printer that is easy to use and capable of producing large ceramics. Despite the difficulties that accompany ceramic materials like clay, their printer is capable of producing objects that can be up to 85 cm tall and have a base of some 60 by 80 cm. Their techniques have been tried and tested on a variety of objects and many good examples can be seen on their website, while their first marketable products have already been made available on Etsy.

The team consists of designer duo Yao and Marlieke, who are both graduates from the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Their interests and artistic goals came together in ceramic design, as Marlieke was looking for new ways to produce ceramics, while Yao has more than two years of experience with plastic 3D desktop printing and was looking for ways to speed up the 3D printing process. Fusing their goals and experience, they created a 3D printer capable of printing ceramics efficiently and reliably. While the exact speed of their printer depends on the specific design and the wetness of the clay they use, it's nonetheless much faster than a regular 3D printer. Simple and small designs, like a ceramic bottle standing some 20 cm tall and with a wall thickness of 6 cms, would only take about 15 minutes to complete. Somewhat larger designs, like a vase standing 60 cms tall with a diameter of 30 cm only take about an hour.

The structure of the Vormvrij machine itself has been built with as many standard components as they could find, in order to lower costs and allow plenty of room for improvements and alterations. They've thus effectively sacrificed aesthetics for functionality. It runs with Arduino and Ramps 1.4, has an SD slot and only uses three 2A stepper motors. The exact size of the build platform 55x78x83cm, while the base platform is 75 by 100 cm. That base itself is very heavy, in order to counteract the changes in mass direction caused by the movement of the single Z-arm. That Z arm is some 105 cm high. And attached to that Z arm is the X arm that is spanning the entire build platform. The overall dimensions of the complete machine are 100x90x125cm.

One of the largest obstacles for ceramic printing technology is the weight of the materials. Clay itself is a very heavy material, and when printing larger designs there's always a chance that the creation will collapse under its own weight. Using dryer clay to overcome this issue is an option, but it results in a rough and very outspoken surface and is therefore not suitable for detailed designs. Furthermore, The strain on the machine and the pressure vessel, which could explode – 'the mister bean effect' – also hampers this technology.

But these problems have been overcome with the machine Tao and Marlieke came up with. Their design is slightly different from 3D printers working with plastic. Instead of using a motor to deposit the heavy clay, they use a fine balance between print speed and air pressure to regulate the deposition of materials. As they explained to 3ders.org:

We do not use a motor. We use an 8 litre pressure vessel with an external compression. It has a high precision pressure gauge so we can finely tune the speed at which the clay leaves the head. That in combination with on the go adjustable print speed makes the prints very consistent.

Their pressure vessel can hold about 15 kilos of clay mixture, while a recent innovation of their prototype clay-air separator leaves the final print 98% bubble free. The thickness of the layers they can print is obviously dictated by the clay: 'We can't go less than 0.5mm. The best prints are done with a thickness between 1.5 and 3mm for a printhead of 3 to 6mm wide. The maximum width of the printhead is 10mm.'

While the design and creation of their large single arm ceramic printer took only a couple of weeks, finding the right clay mixture continued to be problematic for Yao and Marlieke. After some months of experimenting, they found the right types of clay and mixtures to suit their machine. They can now print functional ceramics in stoneware, chamotte, terracotta and other regular clays. Right now, their capabilities are only really limited by the size of their oven. 'But that will change as soon as we find a larger oven that can run on regular 230 Volts.' Yao explains.

The advantages of ceramic 3D printing are evident, Marlieke tells us: 'The technology of 3D printing and clay allows us to quickly test and try new designs. Instead of days it now only takes one hour to design and make a series of simple vessels, bottles, cups or vases. If it's not as we expected we can fully recycle the material and start over.'

3D printing obviously leaves its signature on the designs of the duo. They find layered texture a welcome addition to the grain of the material and regard it as part of their creative process. Clay is a natural product and mixing it by hand produces slight variation in consistency. It gives tiny random fluctuations to the speed at which the clay mixture is layered. Those variations lead to products that are all unique. "Even the drying conditions will add to the final shape of a print" Marlieke says. And although they have a small cabinet with a few 'perfect prints' they enjoy the fact that every clay particle may lead to an unexpected result.

But unlike plastic 3D printing, a hands-on artist who knows ceramics is still necessary. 'firing, glazing and re‐firing need time and dedication. In the end every item is inspected and touched by hand. An intensive process not to be forgotten. But the fact that most prints become functional ceramics make it very fulfilling.'

In the near future, this design duo will focus on improving and evolving their ceramic printer, while continually making a steady flow of affordable ceramics for the consumer market. As Yao and Marlieke explain:

We are both designers from the design academy in Eindhoven. To make things is what we do. But we are still improving our printer. And at the same time printing all sorts of bottles, vessels, vases, cups, plates and more. Most of it is functional and can be used as soon as it leaves our oven. We also work together with other artists who make digital designs to print in clay. They deliver STL files to us and we print them, just like you would at 3dhubs.com However, designing for clay remains to be very different and not as simple as plastic. The clay is still malleable and is subject to gravity for some time after it has left the printhead. That is one of the mayor challenges to keep in mind when designing for this machine.

Although they do not expect that ceramic printing will become as successful as plastic 3D printing, they nonetheless feel that there is a market for consumer quality ceramic printers. Yao is therefore considering construction a smaller version of his clay printer. 'It would still be a heavy machine. It needs to be strong and the inertia mass of it adds to the speed at which you can print. A lightweight printer vibrates more which will eventually lead to clay collapse. And because speed is one of the main motives to use 3D printing over slip casting the printer must stay stable even when printing other than nicely curved forms. This way it could be a functional and very interesting addition to any potter's workshop.' he argues.

That market would likely consist of specialized individuals like potters and educational institutes who want to experiment with 3D clay printing but do not have a huge oven to their disposal. 'There are a few small groups scattered around the world developing 3d clay printers. Most of their techniques are open source. But there aren't many digitally skilled potters yet which leads to a slow progress in the field of 3D clay printing.'

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