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Programming ceramics

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Staff writer |
ceramicsUniversity of Washington researchers are combining the ancient art of ceramics and the new technology of 3-D printing.


People choose to work with ceramics when they want to calm down, to rest from everyday chores. However, computers entered that part of life too. About five years ago, Mark Ganter, a UW mechanical engineering professor and long-time practitioner of 3-D printing, became frustrated with the high cost of commercial materials and began experimenting with his own formulas. He and his students gradually developed a home-brew approach, replacing a proprietary mix with artists' ceramic powder blended with sugar and maltodextrin, a nutritional supplement.

"Normally these supplies cost $30 to $50 a pound. Our materials cost less than a dollar a pound," said Ganter. He said he wants to distribute the free recipes in order to democratize 3-D printing and expand the range of printable objects. Glitzy three-dimensional printers have become common in the industrial world, churning out fast 3-D prototypes of everything from airplane parts to running shoes. But the machines also are becoming popular among artists, hobbyists and educational institutions.

ceramicsFor the past 15 years Ganter has taught an engineering course introducing students to rapid prototyping that draws students from engineering, art and architecture. Lab fees were already at the maximum, Ganter said, so instead the group went looking for a different approach – cheaper materials.

Three-dimensional printers are based on inkjet technology and look like photocopying machines that spit out solid objects. The inkjets are filled with an adhesive, or binder, that prints onto thin layers of powder. Any surface with binder will be included in the finished object. Users generally create their designs on a computer and send the completed design file to the printer. The object gets built up layer by layer, each about the thickness of a piece of paper, over 10 to 60 minutes. Users then dust or blow away the excess powder to reveal the prototype.

The UW group has initially published results and formulas using three different types of ceramic powders, which are sold at local pottery or clay stores by the 50-pound bag. Most other supplies are purchased at local restaurant supply stores. "Clay is dirt cheap," commented Ganter.

Ganter describes his lab, strewn with fanciful objects, as a toy shop. The UW's Solheim Rapid Manufacturing Laboratory houses two do-it-yourself kits (Fab@Home systems) assembled by undergraduate students, a homemade 3-D printer designed by a team of students, and several state-of-the-art commercial machines used in teaching and research.

Now that the ceramics formulas are working, it should make the technology more accessible to anyone who are used to working with traditional art ceramics, he said. "Artists and museum curators are already investigating possible collaborations," Ganter said.

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