Elizabeth Boorman augustus 25, 2014

Ceramics have a long and beautiful history in the world of art. From delicate Paleolithic Venus figurines to glossy dinner plates to 3D-printed coffee cups, ceramics have come a long way since 24,000 BC: consumers can mass-produce quality ceramic 3D prints. Given the long history of ceramics as a premium material that is as functional as it is ornamental, and as strong as it is delicate, the very idea of 3D-printed ceramics conjures up frenzied questions about this material’s future: Is it food safe? Durable? Recyclable? Allergy-triggering? Cheap? High detail? Can you store hot liquid in it? This article intends to answer some of the most pressing questions about 3D-printed ceramics, and to mark the innovations in store for this 3D-printed material. Read on!

What are 3D-Printed Ceramics, Exactly?

3D-printed ceramic is constructed from alumina silica ceramic powder, which is then sealed with porcelain and silica. After an object is printed, it is glazed with a lead-free, non-toxic gloss. The result is a ceramic material that is very heat resistant (up to 600°C), recyclable, and, most importantly, the only food-safe 3D-printed material. Other materials can be food-safe under certain circumstances, depending on processing. For more information about this growing field, contact us here.

Nontoxic? Allergy friendly?

The prints are glazed with a lead free, non-toxic gloss. They do not trigger common allergies (i.e. peanuts, gluten, fish, soy, penicillin, etc.) Diagram showing the visual steps of how stereolithography is used to 3D print ceramic material

How Are They Made?

Industrial-grade printing technology is used to create ceramic prints. The printer builds a 3D model up from bottom to top, one layer at a time. The printer’s rolling mechanism first glides a thin layer of ceramic powder on a platform and a print head places organic binder at specific locations. This results in the first paper-thin layer of your model. The platform then lowers and the roller spreads another layer of powder. This process is then repeated until your model is completed… one layer at a time! By the time the model finishes printing, it sits in a thick bed of cushiony-fine alumina silica ceramic powder. At this point, the model is removed from the printer and placed in a drying oven. The drying oven dramatically increases the strength of the model, though it’s still fragile at this point. We call this the "green state." After drying the model is extracted from the powder bed and excess powder is removed. The part is then fired in an oven to gain strength. At this point, a pre-glaze coating is applied. The coating is dried and then fired for a second time. Next the objects are glazed and fired for the final time. Now the shiny smooth glaze coating is visibly glossy. It is shiny-smooth and durable enough to survive routine handling.

 

3D Printed Ceramic Espresso Cup
3D Printed Ceramics are perfectly food safe, and glazed with a nontoxic lead-free gloss.

 

But Is It Food Safe?

Yes. 3D ceramics are currently the only food-safe 3D-printed material. You can safely eat and drink out of objects made from this material.

White ceramic 3D print

How Detailed Can It Get?

Detail level is relatively low. At the moment, the wall thickness and relatively limited “overhang” requirements give this material a soft, glossy, and rounded appearance. Our overhand requirements are presently among the best in the industry: many 3D printers max out at only 20mm, but ours can protrude up to 90-mm long (as long as it’s thick enough to support itself.) Perfecting this material’s ability to reflect very sharp or very fine details is an ongoing process. The gloss coating thickens some thin areas, thickening fine details. This soft and comparatively low level of detail is not yet high enough for a thumb-sized high resolution 3D scan of your body, but is ideal for home décor and tableware: cups, bowls, plates, egg cups and coasters, candle holders, tiles, vases, art, and more!

How Expensive Is It?

Our Ceramics cost $0.18/cm², which is based on the surface area of your model, not on the volume of material used. We use premium 3D Printing ceramic materials. There are cheaper options, but they do have worse overhang, color intensity, and durability.

Black Ceramics 3D print
3D-printed ceramics are now sold in more vibrant, market-ready colors. This makes them more likely to appeal to consumers accustomed to bright, lovable hand-finished ceramics.

Innovations?

At i.materialise, we’ve brightened our ceramic colors. This makes them more attractive to buyers, and more closely resemble colors used for the hand-cast ceramics sold in stores. Our ceramics are also fairly strong, with top-of-the-line overhang options (up to 90-mm long, which is much farther than the 20mm industry average!) Our 7 new colors: Banana Yellow, Safety Orange, Apple Green, Tomato Red, Denim Blue, White and Black.  

Check out the i.materialise web shop to find inspiration for your next ceramic design. Questions? Leave them in the comment space below!