The digital physical artefact: A case study for digital engagement in the creative industries

Hoskins, S. and Huson, D. (2011) The digital physical artefact: A case study for digital engagement in the creative industries. In: Digital Engagement 2011 (the Digital Economy All Hands Meeting), Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, 15th - 17th November, 2011. Available from:

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For the last five years the research team at the Centre for Fine Print Research have concentrated on the interface between creative design and mass market technologies. The research developed from a three-year AHRC project ‘The Fabrication of Art and Craft Artefacts through Virtual Digital Construction and Output’, this led to a patented process for additive layer manufacture of ceramic bodies. Creating the ability to design, print, fire and glaze a finished item in a ceramic body. The primary aim of the project was to investigate the potential for designers and craftspeople to ‘digitally physically’ create one off and bespoke artworks in materials they were familiar whilst using digital technology at all stages of the process, far beyond a virtual on-screen representation. The ability to digitally print ceramics has led not only to a process of benefit to the Art and Design community, but additionally to a growing number of industrial collaborations. Currently the team are working with, Renishaw, Denby Potteries, Johnson Matthey and Viridis LLC in the USA. This is because the ability to print in ceramics is a fundamental shift from creating prototypes in plastic to manufacturing actual objects that have all of the tactile qualities that are so essential to the definition of British Design quality. The common perception of the digital economy concerns communication. To quote the RCUK ‘For us, ‘digital’ is the complex interaction of people, processes and technology to create socio-economic benefits for all. In the digital economy, digital networking and communication infrastructures provide a global platform over which people and organisations can interact, communicate, collaborate and share information’. However there is a further function to digital technology beyond communication, which involves the creation of artefacts through the interface between the virtual digital technology and the actual physical output. Increasingly these processes are being used to custom manufacture user specific items. In the past, due to the limited materials available, this was referred to as Rapid Prototyping, now with the advent of functional materials it is more commonly known as additive layer manufacture (ALM) or 3D printing. This functional digital technology currently splits two ways. Firstly as an engineering tool exemplified by companies such as EOS who use ALM for manufacturing precision parts for the aerospace industry and who have grown out of the rapid prototyping arena. Secondly the technology is now gaining a presence in the Creative Design sphere. Consequently a broader mass market interest and appeal exemplified by NESTA’s recent Hot topic seminar ‘Personal Manufacturing, the New Look Entrepreneur’, MIT’s FabLab’s and articles in the Economist, Guardian, New York Times and Radio 4’s Business Week. It is this growth area that this paper addresses. With funding from the AHRC, the authors currently collaborate with Denby Pottery, one of the UK’s best known and longest surviving ceramic tableware manufacturers. Founded in 1806 Denby are known for their high quality oven-to-tableware and their innovative glazing technology. Unusually for UK based ceramic manufacturer, Denby control all aspects of their manufacture from concept to completion. They are already experienced users of both 3D design software for ceramics and powder deposition 3D printing systems that print in plastic and plaster. Testing and development regimes within the project do not bother Denby, an incredibly forward looking company in a very traditional industry, so they are already familiar with the technology. The ability to digitally print directly in a compatible ceramic material that can be rapidly glazed and decorated is a quantum leap in digital printing technology for Denby. Currently they can produce a concept model accurate for size and appearance of the form, but it has none of the material properties inherent in ceramics, cannot be coloured, fired and glazed. Additionally the concept model will not hold liquids or food so cannot be used for photography or promotional purposes. The project is a feasibility study to prove the viability of 3D printed ceramic body as a design tool for concept modelling of tableware, the researchers need to develop an understanding of both the design considerations required for commercial ceramics and the particular constraints inherent in producing 3D printed industrial ceramic tableware. The paper details this collaboration and in doing so highlights some of the unforeseen problems that arise from real term academic/industry collaboration. In the digital economy the anticipation is that the technology will not function, or the learning curve will be to steep. In fact the digital technology functions well and the major problems arise from creating an entirely new manufacturing process, which no longer conforms to the rules of the process it is emulating. For example in this case it is very feasible to design a plate in CAD software such as ‘Rhino’, convert it to an STL file send it to the 3D printer, (in this case a Z Corp machine filled with ceramic powder), print the plate, remove it from the printer and de-powder, dry it and put it in the kiln for firing. So far we have produced a totally digitally designed and printed item. The previous statement is in fact the crux of the research challenge, a conventional ceramic item is bonded with water and the clay therefore has a natural adhesion as it dries, with a high degree of compaction, when it comes to firing it therefore conforms to a traditional set of prerequisites. The digital plate has been constructed by laying down individual layers of dry powder. Then bonding each layer loosely together with a very low compaction. When this is in the kiln, there is very little available to hold the clay together as the temperature increases, a very different problem to conventional ceramics. It is possible and in fact sensible to create designs that make a virtue of the differences between the two processes. However in order to create digitally printed ceramics that are functional for Denby we need to emulate Denby’s final product output. Denby want a concept model that looks and is ceramic that can be glazed and hold food and liquids for customer evaluation. Currently the team are collaborating with Denby on addressing these challenges by investigating how the objects can be physically supported in the kiln, by digitally printing setters and supports alongside the artefact, so the object is supported in the kiln and does not fall apart. Whilst this route may appear more expensive and time consuming the advantage of digital technology means that the printing of the supports takes no longer as they are created concurrently to the object. Additionally as thay are of identical materials, this means they expand and shrink in tandem with the object in the kiln. This case study is in some senses predictable, it articulates the use of newly developing digital technology, seamlessly integrating into a traditional design and manufacture environment, that creates a consumer end user product that has low engineering tolerances, well within the parameters of the digital printing process. In the last twelve months there has been much publicity of ‘the internet of things’ and the integration of digital technology into the artefact in order for the object to communicate with society. We are in danger however of missing the slightly more mundane but far greater potential of using digital technology for the fabrication of the everyday. Whilst most people own at least one computer 98% of society is still made up from physically manufactured artefacts. This case study highlights the enormous potential for the digital economy through additive layer manufacture using real materials to digitally therefore custom manufacture the everyday object.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item (Poster)
Uncontrolled Keywords:3D Print, ceramic, mass market technologies, design, creative industries
ID Code:15943
Deposited By: J. Montgomery
Deposited On:05 Dec 2011 16:14
Last Modified:15 Nov 2016 18:21

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