Old Skills New Ways

ADC’s Lisa Cahill spoke to Kate Dunn, designer and research leader in Digital Fabrication and Material Innovation in the Creative Robotics Lab at UNSW Art and Design, about the intersections between the traditional craft of ceramics using clay and the use of 3D printing to explore cross disciplinary collaborations.

Lisa Cahill: Ceramics and 3D printing can at first seem to be at odds – a traditional craft messed around with by a digital technology perhaps – particularly in terms of materiality. How do you resolve these two opposing fields?

Kate Dunn: Interesting you use the term “messed around”, ceramics is messy – really messy, while 3D printers are precision instruments designed for rapid prototyping, able to deliver reliable repetition at the touch of a button (of course, anyone who has used a 3D printer knows that this can be closer to marketing hype than reality).

When combining these two disparate disciplinary approaches – craft and rapid prototyping – the long history of ceramics manufacturing springs to mind, for example brickworks, tile factories, sanitary ware, precision ceramics in car parts etc. When viewed through this industrial lens, the combination of ceramics and 3D printing in some ways seems to be an extension of an established field. What is different is the desktop scale, the capacity for short runs of designed objects and the ability to alter a master design at the CAD model stage.

Concurrently, 3D printed ceramics also substantially extends the field of rapid prototyping by introducing a material that is cheap, and yet can be made into permanent, high-quality objects and prototypes.  Prior to this, the majority of materials used in 3D printing have been plastics, particularly at desktop scale.

LC. 3D printing and associated technology can provide artists with a creative freedom that’s not possible with clay and a wheel. What are some of the creative applications that you have developed or come across that take ceramics to a new level and why?

KD: 3D printing allows artists and designers to create for incredibly complicated forms that were either impossible to make or required complicated multi-part moulds. Michael Eden’s work in the Shapeshifters exhibition is a great example.

In effect, 3D printing makes high-end ceramic fabrication accessible to anyone with access to the printer and a bit of perseverance. This subverts traditional craft notions such as the master potter and apprentice. The millennial apprentice may actually create a masterful work quicker than someone who has been a potter for 30 years. This not to suggest they will have the refined design sensibility to create signature works, however there is a democratic element of desktop tech that is closely affiliated with the ethos of the Maker Movement. Examples include the work being produced globally by design groups such as Alterfact, Emerging Objects, Unfold Design Studio, and Oliver Van Herpt.  A number of architecture schools also use ceramic 3D printing to train students in coding and fabrication because of the high quality of the material outcomes.

LC. When we think of ceramics we generally think of functional or sculptural pieces. Does 3D printing enable ceramics to be utilised in more diverse applications?

KD: I have a degree in ceramics from Sydney College of the Arts and a PhD in architecture. My PhD research investigated three-dimensional models of climate change data made using recyclable ceramic 3D printing. This is an example of how 3D printed ceramics can be used in different ways. The material qualities of ceramics make the objects appealing and familiar to touch and engage people’s curiosity about the models and the scientific data informing them.

A new project I am working on is a collaboration with orthopaedic surgeons at Westmead children’s hospital to 3D print models of bones in ceramics and other materials to simulate patient specific bones for surgical rehearsals and implant testing.

LC. You head the ceramics studio at UNSW Art and Design.  How is 3D printing incorporated into the curriculum?

KD: We now have three ceramic 3D printers in the ceramics studio, giving us the capacity to introduce whole classes to the technology. I run a project for 3rd year art and design students based on biomimicry using 3D printing. We are getting some great results because of the tremendous creativity of the students and the potential of the technology.  The clay 3D printers allow the students to experiment with 3D modelling and different clay materials for 3D printing while creating art and design works.

LC. How are students and emerging artists utilising technology in their practice?

KD: They are using technology in almost every way imaginable. One of the things I find most interesting about teaching 18- to 20-year-old students is the way they can fluidly move across technological platforms with no delay, in a way that I can only dream of.  I actually think the interface of analogue and digital technologies is where contemporary students and emerging students are making significant innovations in their practice.

LC. Gazing into the 3D printed crystal ball, what’s next in this field? 

KD: Like any emerging technology there are constant innovations, developments and missteps, for example, what happened to paper 3D printing? The future of 3D printing is the hard-won testing and development of materials and processes until they are reliable, functional and user friendly, while also being able to address industry and creative requirements. A big field of development and potential is multi-axis 3D printing using robotics. To date it has primarily involved adapting industrial robots and changing end effectors to suit 3D printing applications, however there is great potential to combine and refine this technology.

LC: How is technology changing future artistic practice?

KD: In a broader context, technology allows us to share artistic practice globally and to traverse fields of enquiry previously only available to larger organisations. Technology also allows for easier cross disciplinary collaborations as it can overcome language, geographic and financial barriers.

Kate Dunn


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Image: Kate Dunn, Scorcher, 3D printed porcelain, photo: Graham Clarkson