RCA Researchers Win Major Funding Award to Revolutionise UK Ceramics Production

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded Royal College of Art researchers £330,000 in funding to interrogate the potential of digital ceramic transfer printing technology. 

This new digital research project works with pioneers of 2D ceramic toner laser transfer printing to explore the potentials for scale, economies and a new aesthetic within the UK commercial production for the printed ceramic surface. The project brings together RCA academics with commercial and industrial partners in the UK and Germany to explore new applications of digital technologies and, in particular, those of laser-printed ceramic transfer printing technology.

As a collaborative research project, the RCA team will work closely with the pioneers of laser-printed digital ceramic transfers in Germany and their UK partners Digital Ceramic Systems in Stoke-on-Trent. The technology will be trialled and applied within the commercial context of UK production, working with project partners Royal Crown Derby, a ceramics manufacturer founded in the 1750s, who are internationally renowned for the high quality and finish their screenprinted ceramic surfaces.

Further demonstrating the College’s commitment to knowledge exchange, the project will see the RCA acting as point of contact between these partners, as well as coordinating and conducting the research activities, and bringing together and sharing expertise to facilitate new knowledge.

The project’s lead at the RCA is Professor Martin Smith, retiring at the end of this academic year as Head of Programme for Ceramics & Glass, but staying on part-time as the project’s Principal Investigator. Smith’s Co-investigator, Research Leader for the School of Material Dr Peter Oakley, will build on his previous work on specialist manufacturing sectors by capturing the impact of technological developments from an ethnographic perspective through interviewing participating personnel from across all three sites at various stages in the study.

The core team’s third member, Dr Steve Brown, full-time Senior Research Associate for the project’s duration, will undertake material and process research. This work takes place in a specially equipped ‘lab’ at the RCA’s site in Battersea, conveniently located next to the College’s printmaking facilities, with Brown also making regular trips to Germany and to Royal Crown Derby’s manufacturing facilities.

Notably, Smith and Brown previously worked together on the RCA’s hugely successful collaboration with the V&A to reconstruct an eighteenth-century table fountain by Meissen, pioneers in the development of hard-paste porcelain in Europe. The fountain will be displayed in the V&A’s major new Europe 1600–1800 Galleries, which open later in 2015.

Describing the genesis of the digital ceramics bid, Brown explained how the proposal emerged from ‘a feeling that aspects of 2D printing technology had been left behind, especially by comparison with the excitement around 3D printing. This has meant that, although digital laser-printing techniques for ceramic transfers have been around for a while, their development within and application to large-scale industry, supporting new economies and scales of production, has been overlooked.’

These issues of scale are crucial. While digital laser-printing technologies have been applied to the production of ceramic transfers, this has been primarily in the context of small-scale ‘bureau’ production and the fabrication of individual artworks and commissions, rather than the commercial and industrial processes the RCA project aims to explore.

In addressing scales of production for digitally printing ceramic surface imagery, the project tackles head on the feasibility of creating processes and technologies that would support innovation and enterprise, and offer competitive and cost-effective alternatives to the laborious screen-printing ceramic transfer methods currently used in industry – without compromising on aesthetic quality.

Under Brown’s supervision, the project’s Battersea base is being kitted out with specialist equipment, including two ceramic transfer laser printers. Significantly, in the absence of dedicated technologies, current practice involves ‘retrofitting’ existing office machines with special cartridges and toners for printing ceramic transfers.

The addition of an automatic screen-printing machine will offer further opportunities to experiment with combinations of analogue and digital transfer printing. With these technical resources, Brown can speculatively model conditions that correspond with larger scales of production. As well as definitively establishing what is already possible with available technologies, this empirical research will reveal what still needs to be done to make digital laser printing transfers a viable option for world-leading manufacturers, like Royal Crown Derby.

Brown is also keen to stress the aesthetic rewards of the enterprise, and the potential for creating new iterations in printed ceramic surface decoration, pattern and colour, commenting that, ‘Both Martin and I are independent artists, so part of the appeal of the project is drawing out the inherent qualities of the technology, and building on our existing practice-based experiences.’

Looking to the future, innovation in large-scale digital printing for ceramic surfaces could have important knock-on effects, socially and economically, boosting the UK ceramics industry and supporting regeneration in and around Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, where ceramic manufacturing, and associated trades and networks are concentrated.

As Brown concludes, the project is motivated by ‘wanting to do something positive – something that might offer a new direction for the commercial production of printed ceramic surfaces’.