A 3D clay printer is the newest tool – or toy – for artists at Harvard University, mixing the cutting edge of technology with one of the world’s oldest forms of art.

Nicolas Touron, a ceramic artist and visiting artist in residence at Harvard University, is using the institution’s new 3D clay printer to create abstract sculptures, with big plans for the future.

The printer, called the LUTUM v4.6, was purchased with the help of a grant from the Boger Family Foundation. Harvard’s Graduate School of Design already uses robots to print clay. While 3D clay printing has been used by designers and engineers for years, it is a relatively new tool for artists. One advantage is that it allows artists to make multiple prototypes of their sculptures or print smaller pieces to be combined later.

The process begins on a computer, where a software program allows an artist to create a design, which is then converted into 3D printing instructions. The machine’s extruder, similar in appearance to a tattoo gun, is loaded with a cylindrical cartridge of clay, which is then forced out in a thin line with pressure from an air compressor. Once the 3D clay printer has completed the design, the sculpture is ready for drying, glazing and firing. Touron said he likes to view his ideas in 3D on the computer before starting with clay. The coil technique is ancient, as coil pots were among the first clay vessels made by early civilizations worldwide.

Kathy King, the director of Harvard’s Ceramics Program, is keen to offer the printer as a resource for artists who might otherwise not have access to the technology. She said the new printer will be used to create sturdier replicas of ancient pottery pieces for educational purposes. While discussions of new technology in art – including AI – often raise concerns about technology replacing artists, King said that is not the case here as the process still relies heavily on artists’ knowledge of the material. She added that the printer is not meant to replace anything, but instead to add another way of thinking, seeing and combining the method with ceramic art in general.

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