The Future of 3D Printing

Views of the AHRC’s 3D printing film have just topped 200,000. We look again at the groundbreaking project behind the film.

In recent years, the press and public have been showing an increasing interest in 3D printing, with television news demonstrations prompting amused presenters to speculate as to when our home Hewlett Packards will be able to replicate themselves, or even be able to print our dinner. Such reports represent 3D print as a fairly new phenomenon, but researchers and industry experts have been looking into the technology for decades now.

“It's been around for a while,” says Professor Stephen Hoskins, who heads up the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England. “The SLA1 by Charles Hull was the first commercial machine in 1986, the first patent for the process were filed in 1976

Hoskins and his team at University of the West of England (UWE), regularly backed by the AHRC, have been working extensively on developing 3D printing in ceramics, with the results primarily having an application for model-making and prototypes. The printing process is quite different from the rapid, visually intriguing plastic printing process you may have seen on television and is certainly more difficult to get right. But there is a definite desire to work towards being able to print useable objects that can hold your morning tea, with commercial partners such as Denby providing a real testing ground for these advances and a sounding board for what industry will want in the future.

“With our process you have a powdered clay and you inkjet a binding material. To make a part you print the very base of a cup in a line of glue that glues the clay together,” says Hoskins. “That drops down one step and we push clay over the top to the next layer, it then drops down and we keep pushing clay over and it keeps dropping down a step at a time, building as it goes.”

This process leaves the printed object embedded in clay powder, so the excess powder is simply brushed away to reveal the printed cup or bowl underneath. It can then be fired twice, as a normal ceramic piece would, but Hoskins and the team are working hard to get one stage ahead of this process with their development work.

“One project we are working on is 3D self-glazing ceramics, which is based on an ancient Egyptian recipe called faience, the very first glazed ceramic material” says Hoskins. “The idea of making a material that can 3D print and only need to be fired once is great in research terms. You know it will theoretically have long term functions. We think we can make it more stable than it was in Egyptian times, in which case then it has some commercial applications.”

This research is exactly the kind of work that Hoskins says the AHRC grants allow him to concentrate on, meaning that innovation can happen at the correct pace and without the need for a strict financial imperative.

“We have a good idea that is possible and slightly more than theoretical, but we've still got to do the research,” says Hoskins. “We do need an element of 'I just want to try this' and I have that ability to fail, whereas in industry you would not be able to afford to do that. It allows for more innovation in the long run. You have an idea that something will work out one way and you usually get halfway through and then think 'ah, okay' and you discover you need to do something this way or that way. So, for example, the stuff we are most successful in is not making a 3D printable clay but how you support that in the kiln and that is the bit that has real commercial application.”

A lot of the focus on technologies such as 3D printing is on these exact, scientific commercial applications, but Hoskins comes from an arts and printing background and is keen to point out that the research has uses for fine art ceramics too. Lots of artists are already experimenting with 3D print, with Antony Gormley trying the medium and Richard Hamilton being assisted in 3D modelling by UWE before his death in 2011.

“For a long time it was quite hard for people to understand that research and industrial work could go together in the humanities, that’s always been quite a hard barrier to get over, because it’s not a normal humanities-type model,” says Hoskins who has a book 3D Printing for Artists, Designers and Makers coming out in October. “We still get people who say 'you don’t publish enough', but you know we publish a lot in science arenas as well as the arts arenas so it’s difficult getting enough spread of publication because we are quite diverse, which is difficult in an academic way.”

Academia may be somewhat confused about the work done at UWE, but the commercial sector is certainly keeping a keen eye on the department's work, with Denby being big fans of the work there.

“Here is a university that has already made ceramic printing a reality and having that AHRC funding meant they could try these things out without commercial imperatives,” says Denby senior designer Gary Hawley. “I think what is great is that UWE has opened the doors to people who would not usually have access to that technology. So, how would someone who was trying to make a bust or a portrait use it?

“I don't think that printing finished commercial products is achievable at the moment, but I think that day will come. For the moment we are within pushing distance of producing a one-off version of something we will make. We can certainly replicate things but we can’t yet produce an article, but I can only see it going one way. It is like anything, there are small steps, but we are really pleased with the way it is heading.”

For further information about Professor Hoskins’ work, please go to the University of West England Website.

To see an AHRC film about 3D Printing in Ceramics, please visit our YouTube page.

Article by Iain Aitch

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