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download (12)As the 3D printing materials market continues to expand, one material that tends to be less talked-about is porcelain. While the material itself is ancient, it’s still very new, and relatively rare, to 3D printing. Porcelain has an odd reputation, actually – the term is often used as a metaphor for people and things that are fragile and breakable, but in reality it’s a very strong, durable material that lends itself just as well to industrial manufacturing as it does to fine china.

It’s still rarely seen in 3D printing, though – many “3D printed porcelain” items are actually cast from 3D printed molds rather than directly printed in porcelain material. That’s what makes Tethon 3D‘s new porcelain resin so exciting – it’s a UV curable porcelain material that can be used to directly print objects using vat photopolymerization techniques like DLP and SLA. Such a material has been virtually unheard of until now, thus it’s been met with a very enthusiastic response from the 3D printing community. Porcelite Ceramic Resin was introduced in February via a runaway Kickstarter campaign that raised  $20,597, over four times its original goal of $5,000.

With shipments to backers now complete, Porcelite is available on Tethon 3D’s website for $200 a liter. Sure, it’s a good chunk of change, but for a UV curable porcelain material, it’s actually pretty inexpensive. So now the big question remains: how well does it work?

Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg of the design studio Nervous System decided to find out. The Massachusetts-based digital designers have built their reputation by pushing the boundaries of 3D printing with their Kinematics clothing, biomechanically-inspired Floraform jewelry and more, so they’re obvious candidates to experiment with a novel material like Porcelite. For their first project, the duo decided to go with cups – a classic item that anyone working in ceramics has likely made at one time or another. Like all of Nervous System’s designs, however, these cups are unique.

3cups-750x422

“We wanted to explore ceramic designs that really required the use of 3D printing and would be nearly impossible to make any other way, even by hand,” said Rosenkrantz. “We were also interested in playing with the idea of double-walled chambers or heat sinks for insulating properties…We designed a series of cups surrounded by intricate cellular networks. These airy structures remain comfortable to touch even when the cup holds hot liquids. Each cup looks as though it’s sheathed in a frozen foam of bubbles. These shapes are not only be beautiful and functional, but are also self-supporting for the printing and firing processes.”

With such a new, experimental material, there was bound to be a learning curve, and while Nervous System experienced some issues and setbacks at several points, they were able to devise several workarounds that resulted in a solid end product. They used a Formlabs Form 2 printer for the project, and the first issue that arose was the material’s tendency to separate. Porcelite is composed of two main materials: a photopolymer and a ceramic powder, which very quickly begin to separate unless they’re being constantly worked and agitated.

“Because of the separation, we wanted to use the wiper on the Form 2 to add some agitation and mix each layer,” Rosenkrantz said. “However, the Open Mode that Formlabs has for using experimental materials disables the wiper. To get around this, we use an empty cartridge to spoof a normal Formlabs material, instead of using Open Mode. Because we use an empty cartridge, we have to manually add resin for long prints.”

There was also a bit of an adhesion issue, which Nervous System circumvented by sanding the build plate to add a rough texture. Because the porcelain material is quite a bit heavier than what the Form 2 is designed for, supports were a must, and while they tended to break easily, they were also very easy to remove.

Photo-May-25-10-27-55-AM_Edited-750x584Any ceramic artist knows that the firing process is the scariest part of the job. There are so many factors – temperature fluctuations, tiny imperfections in the clay, and other potential issues outside of the artist’s control – that can cause a carefully constructed piece to crack, warp or even explode, reducing hours of work to rubble in seconds. Firing the Porcelite was no exception; the designers found that because the resin burns out during the firing process, the material shrinks more than traditional clay – about 17.5% as opposed to 12%. This led to some cracking, warping, and bubbling, though Tethon 3D has provided a firing schedule that eliminates a lot of the problem. Nervous System further reduced the bubbling issue by post-curing the 3D printed vessels in a UV oven for about two hours before firing.

The good news is that glazing the fired cups was not only easy, but the glaze filled in and covered up small cracks and print lines, resulting in a smooth, polished-looking porcelain vessel. The takeaway is that Porcelite is a material that needs some work and a lot of experimentation and troubleshooting, but that’s no surprise; any new material like this one is going to have some kinks to work out. For an artist working in porcelain, challenges are to be expected, and Porcelite still offers a lot more design freedom than other 3D printable clays. Judging from the images of the beautiful, intricate finished cups, Nervous System’s experimentation was worth the effort.

[Source/Images: Nervous System]
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