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Artist builds giant 3D clay printer to make beautiful ceramics

Netherlands-based artist Olivier van Herpt wanted to 3D print ceramics. The problem? There was no machine that could do what he wanted. His solution was to build his own.

© Olivier van Herpt. Used with permission.

When you think about how 3D printers work, ceramics seem like a perfect fit -- especially when you take into consideration methods such as coiling, which involves taking a long roll of clay and, well, coiling it around on top of itself to build a vessel. This is very similar to how a plastic filament extruder works.

While there are, however, ceramic printers on the market, these do not use wet clay; rather, like sandstone printers, they use powdered ceramic and a binding medium to produce small objects. For Dutch artist Olivier van Herpt, this wasn't enough.

"I felt that although 3D printing was fun the machines were limited. Food safety was an issue. And you could not make human sized objects," he told CNET. "So I set off designing and building a 3D printer of my own that was capable of making large functional things. 3D printing is a complex interplay between material, shape, function, software, electronics, engineering, material science, design and creation. The challenge of making machine is the challenge of balancing out these things. The learning curve was steep in the beginning but over the last two years I've learned a lot and this has all been put into the machine."

What he wanted to make, he decided, was ceramics: something functional and useable in human day-to-day life, rather than purely decorative.

"3D printing lets one manufacture many different forms, textures and colors that otherwise would not be possible. By developing a 3D printing process for a more noble and beautiful material, ceramics, I was able to make better more functional things," he said.

© Olivier van Herpt. Used with permission.

"Food safety is a very practical reason to want to do ceramics. With ceramics 3D printing you can make functional plates, cups, vases that actually work for the customer. Plastic is limiting in this way. I also found ceramics to be interesting since there are so many forms of it and you can vary, change and mix many clays."

He started off modifying a delta 3D printer to print with clay, but he soon ran into a problem: he could only print small objects. Part of this was the size of the printer itself, but another part was the medium: after a certain size, the wet clay would collapse under its own weight, so van Herpt set about designing his own extruder that could print in the more sturdy hard clay.

"Getting clay to 3D print on my old delta was comparatively simple. But, I was limited in size to tiny objects. I wanted far more functional things so had to construct my own machine measuring 1.5 metres," he explained. "The large Delta itself was the easy part of that equation. I spend only a few months on this but almost one year on the extruder alone. The rest of the time was software and testing. Printing, failing, printing. And repeating this cycle while changing the variables in a coherent way. Especially getting it to work well with hard clay was a time consuming issue. The extruder has to withstand several tons of pressure and this in and of itself was an engineering and manufacturing challenge."

While he succeeded in creating his printer, van Herpt found himself missing something in the final objects: error, or an element of randomness. During the process, he had found the printer would sometimes make mistakes; yet, even while trying to correct the machine to stop them occurring, he found himself fascinated by them -- and wanted to find a way to deliberately make mistakes -- partially inspired by an earlier project, where he produced 3D-printed wax sculptures by dripping the molten wax and letting it fall naturally.

© Olivier van Herpt. Used with permission.

"We are in a world where machines surround us. In such a world when making a machine one is confronted with the search for perfection and also the coldness of a repeatable manufacturing process. You strive hard for repeatability and good results but then miss the human element. In a 2D printing scenario the paper output of graphic design is "perfect" but when we move into 3D manufacturing there are a lot more variables and process constraints," he said.

"Also, with 3D printing each object can be unique. You don't have to, as in mass manufacturing, have everything looking exactly the same. So it would be a shame not to use this capability, a shame to have identical things all the time. So I'm looking to 'bake in' the randomness, uniqueness into the process in order to every time get a truly unique piece."

For van Herpt, this means that it's possible the project will go on indefinitely as he continually adds refinements to his machine.

"Both the extruder and 3D printer are in continual development. They have no final form, they are constantly redesigned and remade as they are improved. The project is therefore an ongoing one, without an end date," he said. "My next step will be my new collection which will be a further development of including random process elements in the 3D printing of the objects. I will also be working together with other designers to see how they use my machine to make their collections."

© Olivier van Herpt. Used with permission.