van Herpt’s Incredible Ceramic 3D Printer

Olivier van Herpt in his Eindhoven studio

Olivier van Herpt in his Eindhoven studio

In a tiny workshop located in a repurposed aging factory in Eindhoven lies one of the most interesting 3D printers in the world: Olivier van Herpt’s ceramic 3D printer. 

The machine is the invention of designer Olivier van Herpt, who seems to have created a machine of great power and capability. 

Olivier van Herpt's prototype ceramic 3D printer

Olivier van Herpt's prototype ceramic 3D printer

But how did he arrive at such an invention? In school he worked on ceramics, and also 3D printing in plastics with a small OrcaBot. He found, as so many designers do, that 3D objects printed in plastic are not always in demand. He says, “It was hard to make valuable objects in plastic.”

But having knowledge from his studies, van Herpt decided to make the switch to a material that potentially could offer the ability to make more valuable 3D objects: ceramics.

Unfortunately, there were no commercially available, inexpensive ceramic 3D printers available for purchase at the time, so the ingenious van Herpt simply made one himself. 

Then it gets interesting: he found that while he could build a delta-style 3D printer to extrude wet clay, there was a serious problem with the output from the machine. Wet clay simply isn’t strong enough to build interesting shapes, because such attempts result in collapse. 

This is the case with other ceramic printers today: they all seem to use wet clay and are thus limited by the poor strength of the material. 

Typical hard clay used by artists - and by Olivier van Herpt's new ceramic 3D printer

Typical hard clay used by artists - and by Olivier van Herpt's new ceramic 3D printer

van Herpt decided to build a machine that would instead use hard clay, the same stuff used by artists to produce clay works. It typically comes in hard bricks like the one shown here. If you’re not familiar with this stuff, it takes a bit of effort to push your thumb into it and make a depression. 

Different colors of hard clay used by Olivier van Herpt

Different colors of hard clay used by Olivier van Herpt

But how could you extrude such material? Wet clay designs usually involve compressed air to push the slurry of clay through tubes to the extrusion point, but that definitely would not work with the much harder clay. 

The powerful piston used to drive ceramics in Olivier van Herpt's ceramic 3D printer

The powerful piston used to drive ceramics in Olivier van Herpt's ceramic 3D printer

van Herpt designed a piston with a massive stepper motor that drives a gear to slowly push the hard clay through a steel-reinforced hose to the extrusion point. How strong is this piston mechanism? van Herpt told us the mechanism generates an astonishing 6,000kg of force to move the hard clay. 

To put that in perspective, that’s like lifting 4.5 Toyota Prius automobiles ALL AT ONCE. This is an enormous amount of pressure, sufficient to accurately move the hard clay through the extrusion system. 

A selection of fine vases 3D printed in ceramics by Olivier van Herpt

A selection of fine vases 3D printed in ceramics by Olivier van Herpt

The resulting ceramic 3D printing system is quite capable of printing large relatively smooth - and large - vases in only an hour or two. The hard clay doesn’t slump, enabling the printing of much more complex objects. These prints are then dried for a couple of days and then fired in the usual manner to finish ceramics. 

An experimental porcelain 3D print by Olivier van Herpt

An experimental porcelain 3D print by Olivier van Herpt

van Herpt explains that while many of his prints use a 1.0mm layer size for speed, the machine is also capable of printing much smaller layers, such as the 0.3mm layers shown here in a porcelain experiment. Of course, large prints typically do not require such precision. 

A ceramic 3D print in progress showing different colors produced by a clay mix

A ceramic 3D print in progress showing different colors produced by a clay mix

It’s also possible to change color patterns in the print by pre-mixing the clay as it’s loaded into the piston. Here you can see a partially printed vase with varying colors that are derived from the input clay itself. 

van Herpt is developing a production version of the as-yet unnamed machine, but at the moment it’s only a prototype being beta tested. It’s my understanding that at least one will soon be acquired by a major company for testing. 

Via Olivier van Herpt

General Fabb

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has been writing Fabbaloo posts since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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