3D printing is one of the world's newest manufacturing industries and one man is using it to shake up one of the world's oldest - the 30,000-year-old ceramics industry.
This sophisticated and comparatively unsung 3D printing material is being championed by President of ceramic 3D printing company Figulo Andy Jeffery, which is precisely why TCT Show + Personalize was excited to book the expert to discuss his work at the event at the NEC in Birmingham on September 25th and 26th.
Jeffery has been working with additive manufacturing technologies for two decades. He set up Figulo in August 2011 to build on his experience in understanding 3D printing materials and processes, and combining them with traditional ceramics manufacturing. The company produces statement pieces such as intricate tableware and drinking cups, as well as customised tiles and other bespoke pieces designed by the customer especially for their home.
Embracing a challenge
Jeffery believes ceramic 3D printing is perfectly positioned for facilitating the growing demand for customised products, as more people look at alternative and emerging methods of manufacturing to realise their own ideas. However, he noted the technique requires just as much precision, skill and an understanding of your materials to make high-quality products as traditional ceramics production methods.
"3D printing with ceramics is extremely challenging," Jeffery said. "It is a complex dance of materials, machines, design, computing, kilns, chemistry and marketing. The ability to get all this right and produce exciting, beautiful, functional and artistic ceramic objects is the reward."
Jeffery's presentation title for TCT Show + Personalize is Ceramic 3D Printing: Revolutionising 30,000 Years of Ceramic Production, the Challenges and Rewards and will serve as both a lesson and a celebration in ceramic 3D printing.
"After 18 years of 3D printing ceramics I am still amazed at some of the objects we can print. We are constantly pushing and expanding the boundaries of what we can do all the way through our process from powder to finished object," he said.
"The TCT audience represents the people who are setting the goals and pushing the boundaries of 3D printing. It includes the thought leaders who can envision building a house on the moon with 3D printing or assembling almost anything directly from atoms and molecules."
The 3D printing expert was positive about the recent boom in 3D printing coverage in the media, which has been criticised by some in the industry for focusing too heavily on desktop 3D printers that produce smaller models predominantly made from plastic materials. Jeffery thinks his own business - and 3D printing in general - has benefited from the increased attention the press has given the manufacturing technique and very much believes that the publicity cannot be a bad thing for 3D printing in general. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the technology and its capabilities and applications journalists have a tendency to overlook.
"Figulo has definitely benefitted from attention to 3D printing in the mainstream media," he mused. "The coverage has generally been very good, but I think that the media does not understand how truly revolutionary the technology can be. Just in the case of Figulo, we have made over 4,000 individual ceramic designs in just over two years. This would be impossible with conventional ceramic technology."
Jeffery added that ceramics as a 3D printing material is unfairly left in the shade. "I would love to see ceramics given a bit more of the limelight. [Ceramics is] one of the few 3D-printed materials that produces a fully-functional durable object that can then be used for years."
Education and enterprise
Jeffery's work includes using traditional ceramics techniques to perfect his finished 3D-printed creations and at present is working on a range of new glazes that promise to be more durable and extend the range of colours Figulo can offer to its customers, potentially broadening the horizons of the process and its users.
The expert believes strongly that 3D printing in a range of materials ought to make an appearance on the school curriculum because of the transferrable skills young people would learn when designing and testing those designs with 3D printing technology.
"I think every school child should be given hands-on access to 3D printing technology. It should be part of every class from maths to art," he stated.
Jeffery's 3D printing vision is an inclusive one - from materials to the age and background of users, he is not going to be the one to dismiss any big ideas, especially when it comes to transforming brainwaves into enterprise. And it is this notion of 3D printing that he admits thrills him the most.
"The aspect of 3D printing that really excites me is the ability to create a completely new business that could not have been contemplated before 3D printing. Companies like Shapeways and Cubify have created production platforms that anyone can use to make designs then sell them anywhere in the world. We can turn an idea into a real object that can be sold online or in a store and enable the designer to start a business," he concluded.
Andy Jeffery will be stepping up to the mic on the afternoon of September 26th at TCT Show + Personalize.