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3D-Printing


It is becoming more practical for potters and ceramic artists or entrepreneurs to take on projects never before possible because of the increasing accessibility of 3D printing. Ordinary consumer printers are useful for making mock-ups, master and block molds, forms, templates, mold pour-spouts, supports, holders, cutters, tools, stamps, embossers, rollers and more. All of these things can make it not only easier, but also possible, to use forming techniques you would not otherwise use (e.g. jiggering, casting, pressing, extruding, stamping).

Many technologies must be understood and exploited to make practical use of 3D printing in ceramic production (although you can reduce the number needed by hiring a consultant at Upwork.com). One of the most difficult obstacles is learning 3D design software and conversion tools. Further complicating this is the hundreds of products available. The existence of standards is a big help. Another major enabler has been a policy change by AutoDesk, the maker of industry-standard AutoCAD for many years. They are building their future of mechanical design around Fusion 360 and, as of 2015, it is free for use by education and businesses earning less than 100,000 per year. It has exceptional online resources and training, this development could be the most important single factor that puts 3D into prime-time ceramic production.

Online service providers offer a wide range of printing technologies, so you can email 3D files to them. An exciting technology is laser fusing of powder, even metal powder (in this way metals and ceramic can be precisely printed). That being said, it is still best to have your own printer. This is because the process of learning and perfectly designs involves cycles of tweaking designs and reprinting them. The freedom to do this is a big part of the utility of 3D printing. Once you have a proven design, then consider sending it away for printing in higher quality.

Owning your own printer is largely possible because of the RepRap international movement to develop open source hardware and software platforms for 3D printing. Reprap printers use standard buy-at-a-hardware-store parts or ones that the printer itself can make. This means that anyone can buy and assemble an inexpensive printer to learn many details of their mechanics and operation.

Making practical use of the technologies and not getting caught up in the hype of things can be challenging. One way to do this is gradual learning and application of the technology.

Fusion 360, my choice for 3D modelling

Fusion 360, my choice for 3D modelling

Intimidation by the complexity of this type of software is the biggest obstacle you will face to learning 3D design (for 3D-printing). That being said, the new mission of AutoDesk, the leader in CAD software for 30 years, is to make it easy and universal! Fusion 360 has a lot of advantages. It is a standard. There is a simple learning curve via Tinkercad.com, videos on Youtube, easy online help and many freelancers to hire (at Upwork.com). It is free to qualifying users (teachers, students or people who earn less that $100k/yr), the fact that software of this kind of power and utility is actually available to anyone that wants to try it is amazing. Fusion 360 (and other 3D design products) cannot run 3D printers (3D slicers do that). Fusion 360 is very demanding on the processor and graphics hardware of your computer, typical laptops are not powerful enough.

Hand-tooling a mug model vs. 3D-printing and casting it

Hand-tooling a mug model vs. 3D-printing and casting it

I am creating molds for a 2019 casting-jiggering project to reproduce heavy stoneware mugs made here 50 years ago. I have a profile drawing I want to match (upper left). The solid plaster model on the left was my first attempt at manual tooling. The metal template was time-consuming to hand-make, its contour was difficult-to-match to the drawing and the plaster surface turned out rough and difficult-to-smooth. To make the plaster model on the right I printed a shell (using my 3D printer), poured the plaster in, extracted it after set and then smoothed it on the wheel using a metal rib and trimming tool. It matches the drawing perfectly and the round is very true. 3D-printing is revolutionary for this type of thing! That drawing: I hired someone on Upwork.com to make it for me (using Fusion 360). The shell-mold on the upper right: I printed it using my own 3D slicer and 3D printer.

Final cast-jiggered mug beside original 3D-printed mock-up

Final cast-jiggered mug beside original 3D-printed mock-up

This is a product of a casting-jiggering project I did in 2019 to recreate a 1960s Medalta Potteries mug. The first step was drawing a profile in 2D (using Adobe Illustrator) and then working with a Fusion 360 freelancer at Upwork.com to create a quality 3D drawing. 3D printing this mock-up was possible after that, using my favorite 3D slicer, Simplify 3D. The mug was drawn "parametrically", that is, measurements and geometric relationships were built-in such that changing contours and the size preserved the original design. The first production mug, made about a year later, is on the right. Molds were scaled up 10% from this mockup size so that final pieces would be this size, however the firing shrinkage of the clay turned out to be about 12%.

Large cookie-cutter 3D-printed in four pieces

Large cookie-cutter 3D-printed in four pieces

These four sections were glued together to make a larger one. Now it is possible to quickly precision-cut the shape for making my pie-crust mugs. Later I re-printed these templates on a better 3D printer so the inner vertex holes cut out much better.

A 3D-printed spout greatly increases the utility of this casting mold

A 3D-printed spout greatly increases the utility of this casting mold

It was glued down using the casting slip itself (it stuck in seconds). About ten minutes after draining a fettling knife was run around the inside, then it detached easily. The overhung lip produced imparts structural strength, for drying and firing, to the thin walled piece. This spout has advantages over the traditional "spare" built in to the upper part of a mold. It enables a one-piece mold. The lip can be more overhung. Draining is cleaner and easier. Molds are lighter. Extraction can be done sooner and it is easier. The spout does not absorb so there is less scrap. The degree of overhang is adjustable by simply printing new spouts.

3D-Printing the Medalta 66 prototype mug

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First, we did the 3D drawing in Fusion 360. It took 12 hours on this inexpensive build-it-yourself printer! Notice the supports it prints for the handle, these break away after it is done. Of course the surface is not smooth enough to use as a model for mold-making. But to be able to hold it to judge size, wall thickness, handle feel and shape is very valuable. All other drawings we made (for molds, templates, spouts, etc) were based on this starting point.

Here is what happens when you put a 3D-printed PLA part in hot water

Here is what happens when you put a 3D-printed PLA part in hot water

These are pouring spouts, they are glued (using the clay slurry) to the tops of molds to enable over-filling with clay slip (since the slip level drops during the time it is left in the mold). The "pouring spout" function permits much easier cleanup. Before each use I immerse these in water for a minute to remove the dried-on clay from the previous cast. But, obviously, that needs to be cold water.

Printing a prototype propeller for my Lightnin lab mixer

Printing a prototype propeller for my Lightnin lab mixer

An example of how handy the ability to print in 3D can be. The worn-out stainless propeller costs $300 to replace. But the size and pitch of the blades is not right anyway. So I draw them using Fusion 360 and print them in PLA plastic, enabling experimenting with different sizes and pitches. While I could have one printed in stainless at shapeways.com I do not need to because these plastic ones are surprisingly durable. How about getting a tight fit on the shaft? No problem. I measured this shaft with a callipers and printed that size. It was a little tight so I printed slightly larger and it fits very tightly. One issue: If you mix slurries with hot water, it will travel up the shaft and the blades will bend.

Making ceramic tile shapes by 3D printing your own cookie cutters

Making ceramic tile shapes by 3D printing your own cookie cutters

This was done on an affordable RepRap printer. The red plastic templates were drawn in Illustrator, extruded in Fusion 360 and sliced and printed using Simplify3D (which took about 30 minutes each). The round wooden block was used to press these cookie-cutters into the clay. The plastic wrap made sticking a non issue (and rounds the corners nicely). The clay is a low fire, buff burning talc body (Plainsman L212). Commercial bottled glazes were applied by brushing (in three coats) after bisque. The tiles were fired at cone 03. This is an old classic design that I discovered when researching Damascus tile. The toughest obstacle was learning how to use Fusion 360. It turns out that cookie cutters are a starter project for many 3D software packages, there are lots of videos on making them.

The incredible utility of 3D printing master handle molds

The incredible utility of 3D printing master handle molds

These molds are 3D-printed from PLA filament. They are part of my 2019 year-long casting-jiggering project. A quick soaping, 164g water, 236g plaster and a fifteen minute set produced this plaster mold. It takes time to learn how to soap the masters properly to get optimum quality, but these molds seem to work well regardless. The two halves mate with a tiny amount of play, but it is easy to line them up perfectly (the play actually enables lateral movement that aids in releasing the handle). It is actually easier to cast handles solid rather than pour the slip out, they can be ready to apply in an hour after pouring. The ease of making these molds puts slip casting within much easier reach for potters and small companies.

G-Code 3D Printer instructions

G-Code 3D Printer instructions

Simplify3D knows how to convert the 3D geometry generated by Fusion 360 into G-Code (shown in the black text window lower right). I have just told Fusion 360 to print this and it automatically launched this and passed the 3D geometry to it. Simplify3D is a "slicer" because it knows how to convert a 3D object into slices that a 3D printer can lay down (one on top of the other). Simplify3D is fairly expensive and competes with a number of free products (like Slic3r, Cura). It gives me a 3D view of the object and enables positioning and rotating it on the bed and configuring dozens of parameters. It is about to deliver the G-Code (via a USB connection) to my RepRap 3D printer (although it is often preferable to use the "Save Toothpaths to Disk" button to generate G-Code and write it to an SDCard which the printer can accept). The black text-edit window shows what the G-Code looks like. It is just text. With hundreds of thousands of commands that mostly move the head to successive X-Y positions and a defined filament feed-rate.

Fusion 360 on YouTube

Fusion 360 on YouTube

Popular gurus get millions of views on their videos. Lars Christensen and Tyler Beck are popular contributors. Each of them has plenty of videos to teach you everything you need to know to get started designing for your ceramic production. If you get stuck, there are hundreds of places on line to go to find help. It is helpful if you know how to do a screen recording (e.g. using Screencast-o-Matic) to be able to demonstrate your problem. Getting specific answers to specific problems is a surefire way to progress in your knowledge. The first item to learn is sketching, if you can master that much of what you did will be modifying sketches (e.g. extruding, revolving, sweeping and lofting them).

Polish the plaster surface, not the 3D-printed shell-mold

Polish the plaster surface, not the 3D-printed shell-mold

This plaster model was just removed from the 3D-printed shell behind. It dropped out easily (after tapping it at-an-angle on the corners), this worked well despite the resolution lines on the surface. While I could have spent time sanding and smoothing the inside of the shell-mold, it is actually far easier to smooth the surface of the plaster form after extraction. Seconds with a metal rib completely smooths any of the surfaces. And remember, it is easier to remove plaster items cast inside of 3D-printed molds rather than cast around the outside of them.

3D-Printed shell to cast working plaster jigger molds

3D-Printed shell to cast working plaster jigger molds

The grey outer shell mold on the left was printed in two parts and glued together (at the shoulder). It's vertical split enables me to open it a little. The center model of the outside contour of the mug (on a two-step base) was made by casting the plaster inside another two-piece 3D-printed form I had made (we had to use a heat-gun and scissors to get the PLA printed form off of that plaster). It smooth the surface on the wheel using a metal rib and trimming tool. Then I stretched a rubber band around the first step at the bottom (because the shell was a little lose-fitting). Now the outer shell mold fits perfectly and clamps tightly in place. The cast a jigger mold it is just a matter of soaping the plaster model and the inside of the shell and pouring in a mix of 1300 pottery plaster and 900 water.

Out Bound Links

  • (Glossary) 3D Designer

    The biggest hurdle to adopting 3D printing is choosing and learning to use a 3D design program. While these are available for tablets and phones, the processing power, multi-function mouse, connectivity and screen of a desktop computer are essential (portable devices are fine for previewing). And yo...

  • (Glossary) 3D Slicer

    Slicing software converts a 3D model (drawn by Fusion 360 or other 3D designer) into G-Code that a printer can understand. The G-Code contains head movement and temperature instructions. Many free and paid products are available. They can exist because of standards developed over the years in the 3D...

  • (Articles) Making a Plaster Table

    Make your own plaster table. One person can pour a 350 lb plaster table in two hours.

  • (Glossary) Upwork

    There are many freelancer websites online, this is the one we know. Services like these, that offer thousands of skills, will completely disrupt the world of engineering, putting inexpensive engineering talent at the service of everyone. Upwork charges a percentage but other wise it is free (unle...

  • (URLs) Imerys 3D printing cartridges

    http://www.imerys-ceramics.com/watch-ez-print-3dtm-action-through-our-demo-movie

  • (Glossary) 3D Printer

    For making typical functional pottery, forget about 3D printing the clay itself. But a standard 3D printer, that uses PLA filament, can be incredibly useful. I only deal with FFF printers (fused filament fabrication) at this time, those that print by extruding a tiny stream of melted material, ad...


By Tony Hansen




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