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Ceramics, breaking through the next 3D printing material frontier / part 2

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Earlier this week we brought to you an exclusive overview of the leading ceramics-based additive manufacturing processes and systems. In Part 2 of this article, Rachel Park explores the leading materials, services and applications that are breaking through the next 3D printing material frontier.

Specific Ceramic Materials for 3D Printing

There are a small number of 3rd party companies that have focused specifically on developing 3D printing ceramic materials. Notable here is US firm Tethon3D, a member of the American Ceramic Society and a manufacturer of ceramic powders/binders and photocurable ceramic polymers for the binder jetting and SLA/DLP 3D printing processes respectively. The Tethonite ceramic powder (and its companion binder) was developed to work with the original ZCorp 310/510 machines (now 3D Systems) but it is believed that it is also compatible with ExOne, Voxeljet and even HP’s Multi Jet Fusion systems. Tethon3D also offers comprehensive services with its materials.

DWSLab in Italy has also developed and is retailing a nanoparticle ceramic resin, called Therma 289. The technical data for the material is impressive for the proposed applications of thermal resistance test and high definition models.

Ceramic Services

Companies offering dedicated services for 3D printing ceramic materials are also increasing in number. Most are specifically for industrial applications, but there are also services available directly for consumers, designers and artists. And, of course, some offer both.

As mentioned above, 3D Ceram, Admatec, Lithoz and Tethon3D offer industrial ceramic 3D printing services based on their proprietary hardware and material developments in-house. Alternative dedicated industrial ceramic 3D printing services are also emerging, such as WZR (Germany), Desamanera (Italy) and Form Ceram (a division of Steinbach AG, also in Germany).

The two most prominent global 3D printing service providers — Shapeways and i.materialise — both, unsurprisingly, offer direct and indirect 3D printing services with decorative, functional and technical ceramic materials.

The i.materialise service uses the binder jetting process and alumina-silica material to fulfil 3D printing services for a wide variety of ornamental, often colorful consumer products. The company provides all necessary post-processing — including sealing with porcelain and glazing with a lead-free, not toxic gloss, to ensure the finished products are food-safe, recyclable and watertight for home-use applications.

Shapeways also provides a glazed ceramics service, based on a proprietary in-direct 3D printing process. Utilizing its expertise and countless hours of R&D, the company states that it has developed “a unique porcelain body, which can be cast using individual 3D printed molds. This opens up the possibilities for creative textures, surfaces, and geometry while providing a strong material with low shrinkage.” The porcelain material is reportedly food, dishwasher, and oven safe.

One user of this service is James McArthur, founder of start-up company FormTap. He told me: “When it comes to ceramic printing we have found the solutions currently available in the market range between accuracy and time. The fastest solution is 3D printing but current solutions have incredibly visible layers and actually getting the printer to work requires almost the same amount of work it takes to slipcast. That is the reason we slipcast all our products through Shapeways. At low volumes, this is the most economical choice despite it taking up to two weeks to get products produced.”

Research & Exploration with 3D Printed Ceramics

Emerging Objects is a stand out company in its exploration of expression and technological innovation with 3D printed ceramic materials at various scales. Its latest project cannot be expressed any better than in its own words:

“In early 2017 President Donald J. Drumpf suggested that there were “bad hombres” along the border and has continued to suggest he would build a wall to divide Mexico from the United States. His pronunciation of the Spanish word hombre, which simply means “man”, sounded more like ombré, which means a gradual blend of one color to another. In many ways, ombré is a much more rich understanding of the borderlands. Along the U.S. – Mexico border, there is no clear distinction between Mexico and the United States. There is a gradient of languages, cuisine, landscapes, and culture that is shared across the political boundary that defines the two countries. The Bad Ombré series of ceramic vessels explores the nature of creating a single object from two different clay bodies, creating a gradient that spans both the entire object, but also a differential gradient within the single extrusion itself. Inspired by the landscape that spans the political divide, these objects celebrate the object and the individual extrusion of clay by liberating particular extrusions from the vessel, suggesting the material is defying gravity with petal-like extrusions of multiple clay bodies. While the two materials have their distinct colors and qualities, they also blend together, erasing the distinctions and becoming a new clay body entirely — a clay body comprised of different geographic landscapes coming together in a single object.”

Another distinctive and notable research facility focused on ceramic 3D printing is the Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) at The University of the West of England (UWE). Led by Professor Stephen Hoskins, who has been the Director of the CFPR since its inception in 1998, and who is currently the Hewlett Packard Chair of Fine Print. Prof Hoskins with David Huson and a team at the CFPR have been working on developing 3D printed ceramics for functional and artistic products since 2007.

Similarly, Olivier van Herpt continues to explore functional 3D printed ceramics, a project he started in 2012, which resulted in him developing his own extruder specifically for clay. Van Herpt states: “Iteratively improving my process and testing brought me closer and closer to a solution. I gradually solved major issues such as the collapse of objects. A breakthrough came when I decided to move from mixing clay with water. By redesigning my extruder I could use hard clay instead. This led me to be able to make larger items with higher levels of detail.

In Summary

The breadth and depth of the growing ceramics 3D printing sector is producing some fascinating developments. As with most 3D printing sectors these days, there is a definitive dichotomy between hard industrial applications with technical ceramics for the dominant industries (aero/auto / medical & dental) and the softer (no pun intended) consumer and artistic industries. This sub-sector of the wider 3D printing and additive manufacturing sector is also reflective of wider trends, noticeably that the dominant application area is prototyping. The progress with technical ceramic materials, however, is starting to produce breakthroughs for manufacturing applications, but at a much slower rate.

End of Part 2

Check out Part 1 of this article, where Rachel explores the leading AM technologies are breaking through the next 3D printing material frontier.

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Rachel Park

Rachel is a freelance writer and editor with more than 25 years experience. Her specific area of expertise is the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing sector, a market she has been immersed in since 1996.

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