This Week in the Shop: Ceramic 3-D Printing via Shapeways.com

DSC02480In the late 1800’s and into the  early 1900’s, a number of furniture makers, craftsman and artisans reacted against the massive mechanization and industrialization of (their) modern world to create a type of furniture called Arts & Crafts, Craftsman or Mission style furniture.  Gustav Stickley in New York, the Roycroft community and others created furniture, which to my eyes, can’t be beat by anything that’s ready-to-assemble.

While I find my heart and soul called by Mr. Morris’s chair, other artisans were getting in on the action.  With so much intellectual rebellion running about, some energy had to flow into pottery, right?  I’m not a big pot fan (yep, that reads differently than it did in my head) but I do appreciate the art tiles.  I just had to find a way to make one without using actual clay.  I don’t have the sculpting skills, tools, a kiln or materials for such work.

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So how did I do it?  I used some of the latest and most innovative prototyping methods known to man.

I entered the the world of 3-D printing.  3-D printing, or rapid prototyping, uses CNC (computer numerical control) like machines to create computer-generated objects from plastic, ceramics and some metals.

If you can design it on a CAD program like 123D or SketchUp, you could reasonably print it.  Even better, you can even do it at home. To get a better picture of the machines and processes involved in home 3-D printing, I suggest the video below.

The home 3-D printer is limited to plastics and I wanted something in ceramic.  This is where 3-D printing services like Shapeways or Ponoko come into play.  Both have easy to use interfaces (although getting an approved model can be tricky) and both provide a variety of materials.  Use their help forums and classes for guidance on creating a 3-D printed object.

Shapeways offers an embarrassment of rich, diverse and fascinating range of materials to would-be designers, one of which is ceramic.  Using the material, my Irish heritage and a picture of a hanging tile as inspiration, I used SketchUp 8 to create a tile.  I exported the file (DAE file extension), and then joined the Shapeways community.  I uploaded the computer file to the Shapeways site.  Once loaded, I picked my material (green ceramic) and hit pay.  Shapeways sent an e-mail confirming my choice, reviewed the model, declared it fit to print and printed it out using a ceramic printer.  About four weeks later, my tile came in time for a post-Christmas gift giving to my wife.  While it sounds simple, the process was slightly frustrating – you pay before your model is approved for printing, but Shapeways won’t test your objects without you paying…meaning I received a number of emails claiming my tile could not be printed and therefore needed to upload a new, corrected model.  Of course, I should add they didn’t do the best job at telling me what was wrong with the model, just that something was wrong with it.  It took a while before I got everything sorted out. With every email came an inevitable refund on my credit card.  My statement was quite lengthy that month.  This build process can be a technically challenging task for someone uncomfortable in CAD work. But why worry too much? You can always just shop for other designers and artists work. I’m lusting after a Strandsbeest. I can say large models (large means something that can fit inside a 1’x1’x1′ box) cost enormous amounts of cash, especially solid pieces like this. Remember, they charge by volume…hollow is better.  Next time, I’m trying something thinner, smaller and lighter on my wallet.

The frame is a variant on the simple Arts and Crafts frames I’ve been experimenting with.  I have made a number of different designs, so expect a post and maybe some uploads into the 3d Warehouse soon.  I expect it will be the next in my Simple Project series.

I hope you like the piece and maybe try your hand at 3-D printing.  If you are in the Houston area, check out TX/RX Labs as they are chock-full of 3-D printer knowledge.

Make it safe & keep the rubberside down this week.