Compared to other materials like plastic and metal, ceramics are still relatively new to 3D printing. Like any new material, they started out by being pricey and tricky to 3D print, but they’ve begun to get more accessible, and today Formlabs has taken ceramics a big step closer to true accessibility by adding a ceramic resin to its available materials inventory as the company continues on its growth path. Ceramic Resin is a product of Form X, Formlabs’ experimental product platform, and is a bit challenging to use compared to ordinary resins, but the company clearly outlines the steps required to print with the new material.
Ceramic Resin is a silica-filled photopolymer. When it is fired, the photopolymer burns out to form a true ceramic part. 3D printed parts do not require any post-curing after printing, but they do require firing, which causes them to shrink by about 15% in XY and 29% in Z during firing, so you’ll need to plan ahead for that. Pieces can also be glazed after firing, just like any ceramic ware.
The new material requires some trial and error, Formlabs admits – and trial and error is what design studio Nervous System thrives on. The experimental studio uses generative design to create art, jewelry and housewares, some of which are inspired by biology, while others are the direct result of experimentation with new fabrication techniques. In 2017, Nervous System tried out an early version of Formlabs’ Ceramic Resin to create a cellular tea set, which is still in development. Now, with the formal release of the finalized resin, the studio has created a 3D printed ceramic jewelry line called Porifera.
“Ceramic materials are really beautiful and have nice qualities,” said Nervous System Co-Founder Jessica Rosenkrantz. “They’re inexpensive and strong, and they have this nice tactile feel; they can be glossy or more earthy.”
Nervous System had previously outsourced the production of a porcelain housewares line, but were interested in exploring the potential of ceramics with the design freedom of additive manufacturing. They tested a variety of powder- and resin-based materials, but the weight and feel of the pieces was too far removed from traditional ceramics. While beta testing Formlabs’ ceramic formulations, Nervous System helped the company to overcome challenges such as printability issues and final fired part density.
“One of the things we’re most excited about is the ability to make objects you couldn’t make using any other ceramic technique,” Rosenkrantz said. “You can’t make super thin interconnected three-dimensional structures. They can’t be cast. The green state of most ceramic processing is very fragile. But the green state of the 3D printing material is strong because it has resin in it. So we can make these super weird geometries that are super strong when they’re fired.”
Nervous System began by working on a ceramic tea set, but switched to a smaller jewelry concept after encountering challenges with cost-effective production and 3D printing the tea set’s cellular structures.
“We knew that we wanted to work with a ceramic 3D printing material for a while, but we didn’t necessarily know what we wanted to make,” said Nervous System Co-Founder Jesse Louis-Rosenberg. “A teapot and cups are very large, so it’s hard to make them affordable, so we’re still working on that project. We wanted to start with something smaller, like jewelry.”
Nervous System was also investigating minimal surface structures and came across glass sea sponges, whose interconnected, self-supporting shapes proved to be ideal for 3D printing with Ceramic Resin. Thus, the final necklaces and earrings for the collection are sea sponge-inspired – beautiful and intricate.
Firing and glazing were trial and error processes that ended up informing Formlabs’ Ceramic Usage Guide, which should be read carefully before attempting to 3D print with the Ceramic Resin. Ceramic materials that Nervous System worked with previously did not reach the density of traditional ceramics, so parts in their fired state were still very porous and required a different glazing process.
“We would sort of fully fire them, then glaze them, and then do a low fire glaze,” Louis-Rosenberg said. “That doesn’t make sense for Formlabs Ceramic Resin, because it’s able to get more of a fully dense final part. This is what is good about it, but that means that if you fire it all the way, it’s very hard to glaze because the glaze doesn’t actually stick to a glassy surface.”
Nervous System then realized that they had to fire the parts at a much lower temperature to make them porous, then glaze them and fire them at a higher temperature.
“What we do is actually much more like a traditional ceramic process; we first do this process, called a burnout where all of the resin is removed and we fire it to a lower temperature—1900 degrees Fahrenheit, which is around a cone of 05,” said Louis-Rosenberg. “That leaves kind of a very brittle, porous part. We want it to be porous, because that way it accepts glaze very well.”
Nervous System glazes parts by dipping them in glaze, rather than spraying, to ensure that every part is fully coated. The parts are then fired again to cone 10, which is about 2350ºF. The parts are sanded twice – after glazing, the parts that will touch the kiln are sanded, then after the final firing the backs of the jewelry are sanded to eliminate any rough areas touching the wearer’s body.
Besides the Formlabs Color Kit, Ceramic Resin is the most experimental product Form X has released so far. Beta testers like Nervous System are integral to the development of products like the resin.
“I really like the idea of the Form X initiative; it makes it clear that Formlabs is comfortable with people doing experimental things with their machines,” said Rosenkrantz. “I think a lot of other manufacturers don’t espouse that philosophy, and then it makes it difficult to experiment using their technology.”
Ceramic Resin is now available in North America and Europe.
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[Images provided by Formlabs]