Cutting-edge 3-D printing technology is changing the dynamics of Japanese ceramics as designers merge the traditional craft with a digital framework in pursuit of aesthetic refinement — and drastically reduce the time needed to create their artwork by ditching the potter’s wheel.
Yuichi Yanai and Tatsuya Uemachi, both graduates of the Kanazawa College of Art, in Ishikawa Prefecture, are the masterminds of Secca Inc., a design outfit aiming to break the mold in culinary creativity by replicating ceramic ware with their leading-edge technology.
The company’s digitally produced ceramics won high praise when their wares were showcased at a catering event in Cannes, France, that was hosted by a group of Japanese restaurants and sake breweries from Ishikawa last December.
Ishikawa’s capital, Kanazawa, is home to Japan’s traditional craft arts, including porcelain, lacquerware and kimono dyeing techniques.
“The introduction of 3-D printers has changed the game,” Yanai, 32, said at a Tokyo exhibition featuring Secca’s crafts and other 3-D printing technologies. “One of the advantages over the traditional manufacturing process for ceramic work is that we can use computers to create a more accurate drawing and more flexible designs than humans are able to craft.”
Some 20 items produced by Secca, including gilded and lacquered ceramic ware, were on display at the show, which was held in Setagaya Ward and ended Wednesday.
Visitors could try their hand at creating their own virtual ceramic prototypes as the steps for producing them were shown in a video.
First, a design is drawn up with computer software before a mold based on the design is produced with the 3-D printer. Workers fill the molds with clay and later remove them before the products are fired in a kiln.
Uemachi, however, suggested that clay shrinkage was less of an exact science.
“As different types of clay have different levels of shrinkage, we have failed to complete works many times. We have to try a lot of times, estimating the shrinkage that will occur in clay when it is burned,” Uemachi, 32, said, adding that the potential for designing ceramic ware with the technology is vast.
Yuji Hara, chief executive officer of K’s Design Lab Inc., which hosted the Tokyo show, said using 3-D technology is worth it just for the time savings.
“With the use of a 3-D printer, the time to make custom-ordered plates will be drastically reduced,” Hara said.
Uemachi said that, in certain cases, it takes several years to deliver works via traditional ceramics methods.
Ceramic ware that traditionally might take a month to produce could be completed in a fortnight.
Secca’s products range anywhere from ¥5,500 ($44) to ¥100,000, and it is already receiving orders for the less pricey items.
Traditionally, a potter coils clay around a wheel to manually create a prototype for mass production. With the use of a 3-D printer, designers say they can freely and quickly create unique models via digital data — increasing opportunities for individual customers to order products that meet their particular needs.
Uemachi, who worked as a designer for Nikon Corp., quit the camera maker in 2013 to set up Secca because he “wanted to do work that connects food with craftsmanship.”
Yanai formerly worked at audio equipment maker Victor Co. of Japan, now JVC Kenwood Corp., where he was involved in designing headphones. Disillusioned with the short life cycle of consumer goods, he left after five years.
In 2010, he began studying to become a potter in Gifu Prefecture and later hit on the idea of using 3-D printing technology to design ceramic products that are digitally one of a kind.
“When I was studying ceramics with other craftsmen, I found most of them were highly skilled but lacked new ideas. I wanted to try something new in ceramics-making and at that time, CAD software, which I used for my former work, came to mind,” he said.
In 2011, Yanai took one of the top prizes for his digitally aided ceramics works in the design category of the International Ceramics Festival in Mino, Gifu Prefecture.
Although the technology is in the vanguard of a new era of manufacturing, Yanai said his aim is not to destroy tradition, but to create a renaissance of merging creativity.
“We do not want to counter the traditional ceramic arts, but combine (them) with 3-D technology in (the) spirit of creativity,” Yanai said.