Saturday, January 25, 2014

Just Be Patient... 3D Printing Will Eventually Make it Possible

Apparently, I'm a hoarder when it comes to email messages because I continually run up against the size limits imposed on my account.  Hitting the upper limit once again, I decided to seriously downsize and get rid of some emails.  As I poured through the emails to see which ones I was willing to send off to oblivion, I ran across this one to Evan Malone, one of the pioneers of personal desktop 3D printing and a founder of the Fab@home project.

I actually  didn't realize just how early in the game that I became interested in personal 3D printing.  As it turns out, the first beta of the Fab@home design was released in December of 2006,  the same month as my first correspondence with Evan.

2006 - First Exploration of the Potential for Ceramic 3D Printing

Here is my email to him...

From: ****
Sent: Monday, December 11, 2006 3:16 PM
To: ***.****
Subject: Fascinated by the Fab@home project for artwork.

A friend referred me to your web site regarding the Fab@Home project.  What is really exciting about this particular project is that you actively encourage experimenting with different materials.  I'm wondering if anyone has experimented with ceramic 'slip' or if it's even possible to use. 
I'm guessing that build time would require relatively long delays between layers to let the slip dry a bit; but, since Native American Pottery uses a coiled technique, the potential might be interesting.  Here are some samples of my daughter's artwork that spurred my interest in this regard.  They are handbuilt and then carved.
The concept of being able to more quickly build ceramic items with undercuts impossible for traditional molding techniques is very intriquing.  What do you think?
  Tom Meeks
 And, his reply...
From: "Evan Malone" <****>
To: <***>
Subject: RE: Fascinated by the Fab@home project for artwork.
Date: Tue, 12 Dec 2006 04:46:01 +0000

Hi Tom,
Your daughter’s ceramics are beautiful – I throw a bit myself when I can find the time.  I think Fab@Home would be able to make some great artwork with ceramics – you’d probably need to work with a thick slip, but certainly there is no reason you couldn’t use the machine for that.  I doubt you’d need to wait much between layers either, assuming you had your slip consistency just right.  Achieving horizontal cutouts as in your would probably require some support material – wax or something similar which would support the overhangs until they dry enough to support themselves/be fired.
I’d be thrilled to see what could be done!
Evan Malone
Computational Synthesis Laboratory
B60 Rhodes Hall (physical)
138 Upson Hall (mail/shipping)
Cornell University
Ithaca NY 14853 USA

Early Pioneers - Unfold

It's been seven years since that first interchange.  Along the way various pioneers have designed 3D printers that could print in clay.  Unfold used a RapMan printer from Bits from Bytes (Now part of 3D Systems) to create their syringe-based deposition system clay printer.  It did a very nice job.   But, it was a hobbyist machine that required users go through what was know as "the build experience" to own one.  Unfold appears to have been primarily interested in using their printer to realize their own designs rather than creating a clay printing 3D printer for the wider artisan market.

You can follow the evolution of the Unfold attempts to create an open-source clay printing machine on the Unfold Fab Blog.

While the "build experience" is not my favorite way to enjoy the benefits of 3D printing,  I certainly have a great deal of respect for the Fab@home and Unfold pioneers for their contributions to show that ceramic printing was posssible.

Early Pioneers - Figulo

Pioneer Figulo  has had even more influence and impact on where we are today in the state of ceramic 3D printing.  Like Unfold, they sought a way to print ceramic art; but, took a completely different route to do so.  Instead of using a syringe approach, they began their development with a powder based system.  While there is not a great deal of information on the process, we can see it in some stage of its development this image.

Figulo Ceramic Printing Process
This difference in technique has enormous implications for design freedom. With a syringe system support materials are solids that must be removed, limiting design options unless one wants the deal with the supports.  The technology that Figulo chose as the basis for their ceramic printing technique lays down a material and then "prints' a binder.  The powder material that is not solidified acts as the support and is simple shaken or blown off after the print is completed.  Figulo took an existing 3D Systems technology and created the materials and binder for creating ceramics designs.

While little is known about the actual specifications of the CeraJet printer or the materials, we do know that the technology that is used in the CeraJet is called "ColorJet printing (CJP)".  While this technique can be used to create full color objects, I do not know whether that is the case for the CeraJet, which may rely on the glazing step for final coloring.

What IS important about that technology is that it allows radically new designs to be created by ceramics artists.

The Benefit of Figulo's Experience

By the time that 3D Systems acquired Figulo, the company had been delivering ceramic prints for long enough to have some serious experience in creating materials and techniques.  A year ago, they released a video showing some samples of what they printed on their pre-CeraJet printer.  Now, remember, these are NOT CeraJet samples.  They simply reflect the experience of the new 3D Systems' ceramic print team.

Seven Years Was Worth the Wait!

Who would have dreamed, just seven years ago, that one of the largest manufacturers of high end 3D printers would be today's biggest champion of consumer 3D printing?  The day that 3D Systems bought Desktop Factory, I truly thought that was the end of a dream.

I knew that there would be 3D printers in the hands of a few hobbyists; but, I thought the dream of seeing a true consumer "ready-to-print" device was a long, long way off.

The dream was revived with that first announcement by 3D Systems of the Cube 3D printer.  It was too good to be true, so I immediately set up a meeting to check it out for myself.  When they set it down in front of me, I immediately knew this was what I had waited for all that time.  While it may sound overly dramatic now, all I could do was look over every inch of the machine while repeating "This is it.  This is it.  It's exactly what I had been dreaming about."

Little did I know that day, that less than two years would pass before my REAL dream would see reality!

With this year's CES, the dream that sparked that letter to Evan Malone came to fruition.  At last, with the CeraJet, ceramic artisans have a way to create entirely new designs without having to build their own printing platform or tinker with messy syringes.

I am very, very happy with 3D Systems' decision to purchase Figulo and develop a ceramics printer that promises to do so much at such an obtainable cost. 

Sometimes, the answers to dreams, long set aside, come not only unexpectedly; but, with dazzling new dreams!

What is YOUR dream?

What is your dream?  Is it the ability to print a flying drone with both structural and electrical parts all in one printing?   Is it the ability to print objects with both soft and rigid parts all in one printing?  Whatever it is, just be patient.  3D Printing... and most likely 3D Systems... will eventually make it possible.


  1. Hi Tom, do you know what the build volume will be for the CeraJet? For my interests, I'm particularly interested in the longest horizontal dimension. I have been designing and making flutes (musical instruments), and their pitch scales with their length. I don't like following the recorder "assemble three pieces approach" for various reasons, and have been hoping for (1) large build lengths in general, or options to easily expand printers to do longer lengths and (2) mouth friendly materials. On #2, I have been using full color Zcorp materials with texture mapping for gorgeously decorated flutes, but have to worry about the safety and non-water resistance of the material (I seal in epoxy but still). I've been interested in ceramics for this as well, as I've made by hand both wooden and ceramic flutes, and especially in the hands of good artisans (not me!), the ceramics resonate incredibly.

    Anyway, trying to find ceramics powder printers or extruders with 15-25" maximum lengths (horizontal) for this purpose. Thanks.

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  2. What a great application for ceramics! I love it!

    Please contact me directly at the email address found at the end of the "Personalizing Help" section to the right of the screen.

  3. Amazing work by ceramics...I like it..
    its like casting a piece.....I hope so..

  4. Are there any ceramic printers for sale?
    3Dsystems is not selling any.

  5. I believe that Shapeways is offering ceramics. But, I do not know what machine they are using. You might try to contact them. I have not heard ANYTHING about a ceramic printer from 3DSystems; but, that does not mean that they aren't working on one.

    They are being very prudent about introducing new printers these days.