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At the Nexus of Art and Technology

An international collaboration tests the possibility of bringing architectural ceramics to the masses.

Professor Errol Willett in the Ceramics Studios at the Comstock Art Facility. Click to read his story.
Errol Willett teaches ceramics in Syracuse University’s School of Art.

Ceramics professor Errol Willett has recently gotten into playing with robots.

Willett and his teammates at the Haptek Lab design-research group have been using a robotic arm to test a cutting-edge method that would bring the handmade qualities of pottery and sculpture to industrial-scale ceramics produced for architecture. The eventual goal is to apply this technique to make large pieces that can be used in buildings, public art, and landscape and interior design.

“Current design choices in architectural ceramics are limited. The ornament and the decoration of architecture have gotten lost because of the expense,” explains Willett, who teaches in Syracuse University’s School of Art in the College of Visual and Performing Arts . “This research could expand the potential of architectural design. In other words, what a building looks like and feels like, and its potential meaning in a community.”

Seeds of an Idea

Aerial photo of two individuals in a lab with a robotic arm
Errol Willett and Ryerson University’s Jonathan Anderson collaborate on projects using the robotic arm in the Toronto-based Haptek Lab. Photo courtesy of Ryerson University, Creative Technology Lab, Toronto. Photo credit Linda Zhang.

The idea originated in the early 2000s, when Willett and architecture professor Clare Olsen taught an interdisciplinary course that incorporated ceramics and architecture. They discovered that each group of students was fascinated by the other’s technology. “The architecture students brought digital designs to us, and the ceramics students helped them turn those into actual ceramic glazed objects,” says Willett, recalling that the art students were especially eager to test out the 3D printers. The experience sparked an idea that would eventually lead to the international collaboration known as the Haptek Lab, whose name nods to the haptic or touch-related qualities of keramik (the German word for ceramic).

After Olsen left Syracuse to take a position at California Polytechnic State University, Willett teamed up with Linda Zhang, the Harry der Boghosian Fellow for 2017-18 in Syracuse University’s School of Architecture . He helped Zhang’s class make a replica of the Erie Canal Monument using plaster molds and slip casting. “I was her liaison in the School of Art, helping her navigate the tools, materials and processes.”

In 2018, Zhang accepted a position at Ryerson University, but she and Willett continued their partnership. Together with Olsen, Cornell University architecture professor Naomi Frangos, and Ryerson interior design professor Jonathon Anderson, they formed the Haptek Lab team. Anderson, who brings expertise in robotics and digital tools, runs the Toronto-based creative technology lab that houses the robotic equipment.

From Assembly Line to Ceramics Studio

The robotic arm—which has a range of 36 feet—uses six axes of movement and has multiple tools that can produce a gradient of markings and textures in the clay to create a tactile image. Working at the speed of an industrial assembly line, it allows handmade qualities to be made affordably at the architectural scale.

When the project started, the team tested the robotic arm by creating an image of the Erie Canal Museum. Every team member’s skillset was on full display. They started with a drone scan of the building, which was then printed on 3D printer and wrapped around a cylinder approximately 6-8 inches in diameter and 10 inches tall. The cylinder was attached to the robot arm and rolled across the clay, transferring the image.

A machine roller rolls a pattern onto ceramic plates
The robotic arm transferred the Erie Canal Museum image to clay using a 3D print wrapped around a 10-inch cylinder. Photo courtesy of Ryerson University, Creative Technology Lab, Toronto. Photo credit Linda Zhang.

To test the difference between images created by machine and by hand, the team hand-pressed the rollers on raw natural clay that they’d mined from streams feeding the Erie Canal House system. The quality of the two images was indistinguishable, but the robot was able to transfer the image at a much greater speed—a promising sign that it might ultimately be able to reproduce intricate details at an architectural scale.

We have a proof of concept in terms of visual qualities and aesthetics within architecture. The challenge is how to safely build it into a larger structure that can withstand the elements.

—Errol Willett

“This first image test brought together my knowledge of ceramic processes with the expertise of someone who could make a drone scan, someone else who could translate that into a 3D printed object, and somebody who knew how to manipulate a robot,” says Willett.

The team wanted to learn more about how the process could eventually be applied to buildings that require both a fixed surface, like ceramics, and a glass surface that would let light into a structure. Frangos had an existing collaboration with the Corning Museum of Glass and was using tooled surface molds for blown glass for research at her design studio at Cornell. She suggested using ceramic pieces as molds instead of as a finished product, creating a box out of the ceramic pieces and blowing the glass around it.

“Ceramics is not affected by heat, so it can handle hot glass being blown against it,” explains Willett. “The texture we put into the ceramic extrusion with the robot worked extremely well with the glass blowing process.” He says the challenge of incorporating blown glass into their work is in the engineering. “We have a proof of concept in terms of visual qualities and aesthetics within architecture. The challenge is how to safely build it into a larger structure that can withstand the elements.”

Three rows of ceramic tiles with imprinted images.
Erie Canal Museum ceramic images created by the Haptek Lab robotic arm.

Next Steps

Now it’s about size. The team is using 3D printers, robotic tooling and architectural terra cotta to scale up a clay sculpture from the original 18-inch handmade object to one that is 72 inches high. The final piece will be built and fired at the Syracuse University ceramics studio.

The Haptek team recently received a Research and Creative Grant from the College of Visual and Performing Arts and will participate at the Architectural Ceramics Assembly Workshop 2021 . They’ve also been invited to hold a panel discussion in January at DesignTo , Canada’s biggest annual design conference.

Willett loves working with the design-research team on different applications for the research. “You really have questions, but you don’t have answers. That’s where the pursuit is. When you bring together a lot of talented people who have a lot of experience with what works and what doesn’t work, and you all have questions, it’s an exciting mix.”

Lisa Maresca

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • College of Visual and Performing Arts

    Home to the visual and performing arts at Syracuse, VPA supports the creative process and professional development. The College is divided into six areas: the School of Art; the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies; the School of Design; the Department of Drama; the Rose, Jules R. and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music; and the Department of Transmedia.

  • Syracuse Stories

    The Orange story has thousands of chapters. Discover some of the people, programs and research that fuel Syracuse University's undeniable spirit.