3D Printing Ceramics With a Self-Built 3D Printer and Clay Extruder

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Taekyeom's ceramics printers come in three sizes.

Taekyeom’s ceramics printers come in three sizes.

Interdisciplinary artist Taekyeom Lee shares his quest to build a better ceramic printer.

Since the summer of 2015, I have been interested in the possibility of combining typography, ceramic and 3D printing. Especially, desktop 3D printing drew my attention because it does not need a space and equipment for a clay studio.

My self-built ceramic 3D printer was based on a Delta style 3D printer. There are several different types of 3D printers and RepRap is one of the famous open source projects. RepRap is able to produce its own parts – not everything, but it is able to print some parts – and make it self-replicative.

Because many can build their own RepRap machines at low-cost, they are one of the most affordable 3D printers for designers, artists, and makers. For me, the most exciting feature of these DIY 3D printers is that I can build my own tools and customise them to make something.

The 3D printers were designed on Mac computers.

The 3D printers were designed on Mac computers.

Although I had all the parts, I had been struggling to make my printer run properly. It had a problem with calibration and I did not know how to fix it. As I was not an expert, I had to find information on Google on how to use a right firmware. Definitely, it took time for me to learn how to build my own 3D printer. However, I began with an ambitious idea and was willing to deal with endless troubleshooting.

I built these are 3D printers to print ceramic type and objects. The left one is the medium scale printer (print volume: 300mm diameter and 300mm height) and the small one in the middle is made for workshops and demos (print volume: 160mm diameter and 260mm height). The taller one is the latest one I built to print bigger ceramic type and objects (print volume: 320mm diameter and 1050mm height).

The clay extruders were produced through a series of trials and errors.

The clay extruders were produced successfully after many rounds of troubleshooting.

 

Different materials were used to create an extruder that could extrude clay.

Different materials were used to create an extruder that could extrude clay.

Building my own clay extruder

After building and calibrating the first DIY Delta style 3D printer, I created my own clay extruder. I tried to use glue dispensers, but it was not a good idea because it could not really extrude clay well. Also, using a higher PSI to extrude clay raised some safety issues. I fabricated my own clay extruder/container with PVC pipe that can extrude clay. A couple of prototypes were made using PVC pipe.

I was advised that PVC pipe is not a safe material for use with compressed air because it could shatter. Other materials such as steel, copper, aluminum would be advisable, to avoid possible injury. Although I made a clay extruder, it was not still easy to print clay. It required several test prints to find right psi and slicing configurations. Early works were simple geometric shapes and had some issues, but I was very excited to print new ceramic objects.

In the summer of 2016, I needed to make a new extruder because I could not print more complex shapes with my pneumatic clay extruder. According to my research, a few glue dispensing companies and some people are using the auger valve to control the paste extrusion.

Again, I took advantage of 3D printing technology to make my own tools, including the design of auger screws and housings on Rhino for printing. The screw and housing was printed with PLA. Since there was a leak on the extruder, several tests were needed to solve the problem. My auger extruder showed some pretty impressive results. I plan to develop it even more. In all, I have designed and tested over 60 different screws and 10 housings.

Type design on a Macintosh computer.

Type design on a Macintosh computer.

Some shapes were designed in Illustrator and imported into the Rhino software.

Some shapes were designed in Illustrator and imported into the Rhino software.

Software used

As a graphic designer, I have used Macintosh computers for a long time. So, I am using Rhinoceros 5 for Mac to design the 3D models. When I need to design some organic shape, I also use Sculptris. Repetier host for Mac is controlling the 3D printers. When a 3D type or a complex design is needed, some shapes are designed in Adobe Illustrator and the files are imported into Rhino. For 3D scans, I am using an MS Kinect and Skanect to scan human figures or objects.

3D printing inclay

Clay is a fascinating and sensitive material. The key to 3d printing in clay is finding the right viscosity to print it. It should not be too soft and solid. If the clay is too solid, it cannot be extruded smoothly and if it is too soft, it is more likely to collapse during printing. I started with low fire white clay because it had less grog and was soft enough to be extruded. Since the normal clay is not soft enough, it should be wedged with extra water. I had to add extra water to make it softer, but it collapsed during printing.

To print clay successfully, one has to maintain a correct viscosity for it.

To print clay successfully, one has to maintain a correct viscosity for it.

3D type takes shape with the correct pairing of clay and extruder.

3D type takes shape with the correct pairing of clay and extruder.

These are the steps I followed for the entire design and printing process:

Step 01: Produce a 3D model using Computer-Aided Design (I am using Rhino).

Step 02: Convert CAD drawing into STereoLithography file (STL).

Step 03: Slice the 3D model and create G-code (I am using Repetier Host Mac).

Step 04: Set up machine and load clay into DIY clay extruder.

Step 05: Let the 3D printer do its job. Printing time may vary depending on the complexity and size of the object.

Step 06: Remove the printed object from the machine and let it dry completely.

Step 07: For ceramics, bisque firing and glaze firing. (PMC also needs two step firing processes)

After firing in an oven, the ceramic object is beautiful enough to wear.

After firing in an oven, the ceramic object is beautiful enough to wear.

What’s next?

I would like to share my work with creative people through conferences and exhibitions. Students will be able to take my class that covers 2D/3D design and digital fabrication. I have tested what I can make with this new technology and will make and test more. To build a bigger printer and larger clay extruder, I plan to apply for some research grants. With the new printer, I intend to print human-scale 3D typographic sculptures with clay, concrete and other paste-like materials.

 

Editor’s Note:

Taekyeom is always looking for opportunities and venues to showcase his research. Please contact him if you are interested in a workshop, a presentation and/or an exhibition.

You can view his latest works on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/taekyeom

Portfolio website: http://portfolio.taekyeom.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Taekyeom

 

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