Game Changer

August 26, 2013

Text by Louis Postel

Boston-based Figulo leads the way as 3-D ceramic printing technology revolutionizes the world of design and architecture. 

Andy Jeffery holds up a piece of driftwood. The wormholes have created a complex pattern, a configuration that changes in the light as Jeffery turns the wood. “Before now,” he says, “you could never duplicate such a thing in ceramic. But now we can.”

Imagine a client showing a similar piece of driftwood to her designer, a souvenir from a long moonstruck stroll on the beach. It means a lot to her. “Could it be immortalized in clay as a towel bar, perhaps, or a lamp?” she asks. A couple of years ago, the answer would have been no, or not very well. No ingenious mold, no monk toiling fifty years could make such a thing…until now.

The challenge for designers posed by 3-D printing and manufacturing, however, cannot be underestimated. Now that no ceramic object is out of bounds (as long as it can fit in a kiln), the question remains how to make that object feel manmade—a custom piece involving hand and eye, tradition and imagination—not machine-made and mass-produced?

Jeffery came to America from Australia twenty-two years ago to launch a career in textile engineering. “This was just as 3-D printing was in its infancy,” he explains, and that is what kept him here in Boston. He’s now founder and CEO of Figulo, a world leader in 3-D ceramics printing and manufacturing.

His venture—housed in a 5,000-square-foot space within walking distance of the Boston Design Center—has reached the break-even point in two short years, shipping all over the world to artists and designers and even a retail shop in Chicago called The 3-D Printer Experience. “Since we started in October of 2011, we have made over 4,000 unique designs,” he says. “If you had made molds for all of them, they would fill half this building easily. The process itself would have a taken a lot longer, as well: at least ten days just to make the mold. From receiving a CAD design to manufacturing, baking, glazing and shipping, we take about ten days total.”

He shows off the computer that controls the process. “You can see on the screen how the object in the printer still has about six hours to go,” he explains. “We have seven printers, each filled with a solution made from a clay powder I engineered.”

The printer looks like any big office printer; even its cartridges are much like those infernal inkjet cartridges that keep running dry just when you need them most. Under the printer’s glass cover, a tray can be seen lifting an infinitesimal amount of the white powder, allowing a roller to move a thin layer of the stuff onto the tray next to it. The object pattern solidifies, while the roller goes back for more powder and another layer.

Once all the layers are on, the manufactured egg cup, vase, lamp, tile or whatever happens to have been communicated by the computer, gets baked in the kilns in the next room, glazed and shipped. The result is some of the most sophisticated art and industrial design on the planet, from U.K. designer and Figulo client Michael Eden’s lacy, racy “Wedgwoodn’t” tureen to tiles and trellises for green walls, not to mention potential driftwood-inspired bath accessories.

It’s at this point that our initial question finds an answer. Do these 3-D printings made from Jeffery’s special sauce look and feel like the work of robots?
The simple answer is no, hardly. Eden may incorporate as many as three different kinds of technology in one work, but his pieces still resonate with wit and human creativity.

Equally strong is the work of artist and Figulo client Peter Nelson of Sidney, Australia. “For me the process of 3-D modeling, with its manual manipulation of vertices and faces, is very similar to drawing,” says Nelson. “I have an intimate relationship with the work, and retain a detailed knowledge of every intricacy of its form as well as the process by which that form was created.”

With this new relationship between art and technology, imagination and science, 3-D printers such as Figulo are providing a toolkit that can take design in directions never before imagined. •

Figulo, Boston
(617) 306-8934
figulo.com