Have you seen those little Precious Memories figurines? Maybe sitting beside a tea set at an elderly neighbor’s house? Those porcelain statues are manufactured by a company called Franz Collection Inc., with its design and research center located in Taipei. Actually, they were made by Franz, before the Precious Memories brand went elsewhere, but the Taiwanese company remains one of the largest sources for porcelain manufacturing for a number of OEM companies. And, as such, they’ve ensured that their design and production process has stayed ahead of the competition. Some 15 years ago, Franz become what may be the first porcelain business to incorporate 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and 3D printing into the fabrication of delicate porcelain objects.
The 3D lab at Franz was built up by Alan Yen almost from scratch. Fifteen years back, Yen encountered no one using these technologies for porcelain production and, so, had to form a motley crew of designers, engineers, and computer experts to launch the 3D lab. For instance, he couldn’t find any individuals designing for 3D printing, so, instead, took aboard video game artists to perform the visual work. Now, 15 years later, his crew has become a team of experts that use this technology for prototyping, modeling, and even manufacturing porcelain products.
I can’t publish pictures of anything but the showroom, but the workflow pipeline for Franz looks something like this: a designer may draw the concept for an ornate vase, perhaps decorated with the white peacocks that represent luck in India. She’ll then carry the drawing over the team of highly skilled sculptors who craft a beautiful clay rendition of the designer’s artwork. In this process, the designers and sculptors work closely together to determine how feasible the designer’s concept is and ensure that the ultimate product remains as true to the concept as possible.
At the same time, this concept is sent to the 3D lab, where 3D artists might design more basic geometries for 3D printing. Using WACOM tablets and haptic devices, they craft the piece virtually, obtaining symmetry and precision not possible with the human hand. These models are then 3D printed in resin, using 3D Systems’ SLA technology. Then, handcrafted details are attached to 3D printed bodies to create the final positive for a mold that will burn out all of this hard work to make room for mass produced porcelain goods. The final goods are hand painted and glazed with care, resulting in beautifully delicate objects that combine the precision of 3D printing with the heart and soul of hand craftsmanship.
“Some details,” Alan says, “are made through hand sculpting. Like some attachments. So, we combine them together, hand crafting and 3D technology. To ensure a uniform shape, we use 3D modeling because human touch may not be capable of creating a uniform shape very easily. But human touch can create details that might be more emotional, more beautiful. So, that’s one of our strategies to make our products very unique.”
As you might imagine, 3D printing is also essential for the prototyping process. In the case of items like the white peacock vase mentioned above, which I’m told is a popular product in the Indian market,The team had to produce many, many iterations before going to production, as the top, featuring hand-crafted peacock details, was much heavier than the bottom. And printed prototypes were created a number of times to get the proportions just right, so that no cracking or warping would occur when the vases went to production.
“Going from two-dimensional drawing to 3D printing can be difficult,” says one Franz artist. “Because my drawing is just the idea and generally what the composition should be. But, really, it creates a lot of problems when we go to production. So, the 3D artists and research center rely on their experience to incorporate our ideas into the final product. Sometimes we have to make a lot of compromises, but still focus on the original design’s beauty.”
3D printing is now a regular part of the production process, but 3D scanning is, as well. A performance industrial scanner is implemented by Franz when necessary to improve on, modify, or bring back into production, items created by the company from the pre-3D printing era. By 3D scanning an older design, the 3D lab can shrink or grow previous items to create a greater range of sizes in a product line or make adjustments to create whole new products. Imagine, for instance, taking the right arm of one of these Miss Lanvin figures from LANVIN Paris, France’s first fashion house, and mirroring it as her opposite arm to give her an entirely new pose. 3D printing the result and creating a new mold, the company has, with great speed, introduced a new product.
Franz may be one of the first porcelain companies to implement 3D printing in the manufacturing process, but this won’t be the last 3D printing news we hear from them. Yen is a materials scientist and he’s moved from founding the 3D lab to an entirely new project, which I’ll likely be able to tell you more about sooner rather than later.