Shape, glaze, fire. Since prehistoric times, ceramic artists have followed these basic steps to shape clay to their will. Though refined through the years, the fundamental methods for creating ceramics have remained unchanged.
Now, BGSU s John Balistreri is poised to revolutionize this time-tested process. He still aims to create original ceramic art pieces; but instead of shaping each piece by hand, he is using a three-dimensional rapid prototyping process traditionally used in medical and high-tech industries.
In 2006, as a ceramics professor in the School of Art, Balestreri served on the thesis committee of Sebastian Dion, then a graduate student in the digital arts program. Dion was interested in trying to use ceramics in the Zcorp rapid prototype printer that was housed in the College of Technology. The idea was intriguing, explains Balistreri, but I was skeptical that clay could be used in this manufacturing environment. However, once Balistreri saw the items coming out of the machine intact and ready to fire, he became more interested in the potential combination of the technology with ceramics.
To use the Zcorp system, an object is designed using digital rendering software. Then, using the digital file, the system s printer disperses a thin layer of powder, after which another printer head disperses a binder material. The process is repeated layer by layer until a three-dimensional object is built up from the original digital file. When the layers are completed, a build box is lifted from the machine. The unbound powders fall away from the created object.
In its traditional manufacturing setting, the Zcorp object is used as a prototype for developing a mold for further production. Balistreri and Dion saw the potential for the object to be the final product a one-of-a-kind piece of ceramic art.
Balistreri explains, When we looked at how ceramics had been combined with rapid prototyping and computer assisted design, I was surprised that we couldn t find anything quite like our discoveries.
Balistreri and Dion could see enormous potential in the idea and began experimenting with different binders and clay recipes. The binder is crucial to the printing process; it must be able to travel through the printer head and also act like a glue to hold the clay particles together. The ingredients also have to be both strong and porous to withstand transfer to the kiln and firing.
Balistreri and Dion were awarded a $50,000 BGSU Technology Innovation Grant to extend their research. In 2007, they received a follow-up grant to purchase a new Zcorp printer to continue their research. While the funding has expired for Dion s role, Balistreri continues to perfect the process and is negotiating licensing agreements for the production and sale of his binders and powders.
This is exciting news, says Balistreri. This technology will allow artists to create ceramic objects that can contribute technically and intellectually to the medium s development. It is a new tool for interacting with clay a phenomenon that is rare in the field of ceramics. Even today s high tech ceramic tools rely on hand manipulation of some type. This innovation allows artists to conceive and create a ceramic object purely from digital information. Plus, its marketability will create jobs and research opportunities in Northwest Ohio.
Balistreri isn t alone in his excitement. His Web site is getting up to 200 hits per day from people interested in the process and the aesthetic and historical implications. His research may be in its infancy, but it is clear that this technology will continue to be developed and utilized to create ceramic art objects in the future.