3D Printing of Ceramics for the Arts

Nathan Smith (aspiring MFA)

Zack Woodruff (4th year BS Mechanical Engineer; graduated, staring at Northwestern, Fall, 2013)

Katie Hansen (3rd year BS Chemical Engineer)

Prof. Bill Kremer (Ceramics, Dept. of Art, Art History and Design)

Prof. Paul McGinn (Materials Science, Dept. of Chemical & Biomolecular Engr.)


The goal of this project is to develop technology that will allow the introduction of inexpensive 3D ceramic printing technology into the process of creative arts. The idea is to augment the tools and techniques presently used to create ceramic art with 3D printing technology. Adaptation of 3D printing technology will allow different creative techniques and levels of object complexity to be considered in artistic designs. The hope is to expand uses of 3D printing technologies beyond industrial design and engineering, and explore novel and creative uses of 3D ceramic printing for artistic endeavors and creative expression.

This project is a collaborative effort between engineers and artists at the University of Notre Dame with the goal of developing a low cost, simple approach to ceramic printing that is well suited for a variety of artistic applications, and is inexpensive enough to be affordable for placement in art studios. While it will sacrifice some of the precision achieved with more complex printing systems, by keeping it inexpensive it can have a greater impact on the creative and artistic world. It is our hope that it be extended to art programs at other universities, and even to high schools.

A primary technical challenge in the proposed project is to adapt an inexpensive thermoplastic printer for economical slurry dispensing. This involves developing inexpensive dispensing technology and ceramic slips (low viscosity slurry) with appropriate shear characteristics. Commercial auger-based dispensing valves are available for epoxy and solder dispensing in the microelectronics industry (e.g. Nordson ) but these cost from $2,000-3,000 plus the cost of the needed controller.

Fortunately, many other individuals have been similarly interested in dispensing fluids of moderate viscosities including chocolate, frosting, adhesives, cement, etc. As a result there are many excellent approaches that are described on the internet. For example, the universal paste extruder has gotten a lot of interest in the homebrew 3d printing community.

Printing of ceramic slurries (as opposed to the inkjet approach available commercially through Z-corp and now 3D Systems) has been of engineering interest since the early 1990’s. There are many academic papers in this area, with much high end development coming from Jennifer Lewis’s lab at Illinois (she is now at Harvard) (e.g. ceramic origami), Sandia Labs and their spin-off Robocasting Enterprises and Jim Smay’s research group at Oklahoma State. Among various applications, there are papers in the dental arts community on printing of crowns.

This project is a less expensive approximation of their work for artistic and educational use. New technology isn’t being developed, but hopefully this will make the technology more accessible. It should be noted that the inkjet approach has also been adopted for art and design at various institutions including Bowling Green State University , the UWE Bristol – Centre for Fine Print Research and the Solheim Rapid Prototyping/ Rapid Manufacturing Lab at the University of Washington (Note: for lots of good 3D printing info also see their open 3D printing forum )

On a much larger scale there are efforts to adapt slurry printing of cement for building construction. For examples of this novel approach to building construction see the work of Prof. Behrokh Khoshnevis at USC (video) and Brian Peters .

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