3D Printing Clay

Posted on Apr 6, 2015


I use 3D printing and mold-making to shape clay.  Meanwhile, quality printers are emerging that are designed to output directly to ceramic and metal clays.  There are also a range of machines made to extrude a broader category of paste.  I’ll talk about some of the top options here.

First up is the Mini Metal Maker.  Designed to print metal clay, this 3d printer was developed with funding from a successful IndieGoGo campaign.  The creators have shipped the original units and are currently looking to fund full scale production with another campaign.  You can get yourself DIY build plans for a contribution of $25.  A fully assembled metal version of the machine will run you $1500.  Very affordable compared to some options. Strangely, if you want to choose your own color, that apparently will cost an additional $600.  The Mini Metal Maker is flexible funding and as of the date of this post looks to be sending out only three machines, with nine days left in their campaign.  It would be great to see them continue to develop and produce the machine.

The Mini Metal Maker appears to be a thoroughly thought out little machine. It looks worth supporting to me, but maybe you will be interested in some of the following machines instead, which are capable of printing with ceramic clay and more.

The 3D Potterbot is a delta type machine, which means the print head is moved via three arms, instead of the more common Cartesian style machine, which runs in linear fashion on X and Y axis. It features a heavy duty ram extruder, and is billed as the first dedicated ceramic 3D printer.  The bot has a 17″ tall build area and rigid construction to handle the weight of ceramic clay.  Nozzles range from 3.5 to 6.5 mm.  As a test, the company ran the extruder with no nozzle and was able to lay down consistent layers at 16mm.  If you are ready to run a bot, they go for $3250.

Hyrel 3D hails from Atlanta.  Their flagship model, the H30 is designed to print in more materials than I’ve ever seen as well as pull triple duty as a light weight CNC router and laser cutter.  They have a variety of extruders to accommodate cold, warm, hot, and very hot materials (up to 350C extrusion temp). “The Cold Flow EMO-25 prints in Biologicals, Clays including PMC, Plasticine, Plah- Doh, Porcelain, RTV Silicone, Sugru (Rubber), Sculpey and more.”  Prices start at about $4000.  Expensive, but they look super solid, highly capable, and come with an embedded PC, including a 650W power supply, an Intel mother board, and 4GB RAM, plus a multi-touch screen, embedded camera…it probably makes coffee too.

Dutch company VormVrij 3d has just released  a polished looking printer from which they have achieved some beautiful prints.  The Lutum 3D system is pneumatically powered and features dual extruders, offering the ability to blend two colors of clay in one pieces.  They claim best prints with 3 to 6 millimeter nozzles and can print up to 10.  Bonus for the giant build volume of 650mm x 700mm x 700mm.  Prices run from €4655 for the single tank, single extruder Lutum Original model to €5858 for the dual extruder option with two XL clay tanks and one normal sized clay tank.

The WASP project, from Italy, produces high resolution clay printers capable of using a .35 millimeter nozzle, as well as large scale delta printers.  The project originally coalesced around the goal of using clay 3D printing to make homes.  WASP is an acronym which stands for World Advanced Saving Process.

Many others are looking into this technology.  I’ll be looking forward to what Printrbot has to offer in this range.  As of last fall, they were beta testing a paste extruder.

Others to watch in the field include Belgium’s Unfold, a design studio that has been chronicling their exploration of clay 3D printing since 2006.  They are pushing exploration into the extrusion technology, attempting to address the core issue of flow–starting it precisely, and ending it with as much precision.  They claim that “a progressing Cavity Pump is the ideal solution to maintain and control true volumetric extrusion of materials with varying levels of viscosity”

Nothing compares to the purity of pottery made from simple earthen clay.  I personally love the opportunity to work on my clay models in a leather hard state.  It’s a great way to put a beautiful surface on the finished piece.  Working with printed pieces while they are still green also offers the chance to build something larger out of them, deform, or otherwise add a custom touch.  Others, such as artist Jade Crompton are 3D printing models, mold-making, and slip-casting.  Will 3D printing change the way you work with clay?