Computers In The Studio  

Vintage 1984

C 1984    John Baymore    all rights reserved

 Originally published in the NCECA Journal 1984

The microcomputer revolution has made a wonderful tool available to the clayworker for all the myriad technical calculations and bookkeeping operations which seem to go hand-in-hand with studio ceramics.  Currently produced micros are well suited for these uses, and soon 3-D imaging and solid modeling systems will also be cost effective.  The needs are current and the technology is current but in doing workshops and teaching classes I have found that clayworkers have yet to embrace this great new tool.  We lag well behind other professionals in this respect.  The largest barrier a potter who wants to learn about using computers faces is the fact that so few potters use computers.

  Publications such as Ceramics Monthly and Studio Potter and educational organizations like NCECA have shown an interest in disseminating introductory information on computers.  The only way this dialog will continue or deepen, however, is for the ceramic community to not only create a demand for it, but to develop applications and author articles.  Widespread interest will result in vast amounts of information becoming rapidly available in publications, at schools and workshops, in texts, and also the appearance of commercial software for such applications as glaze chemistry and kiln control.

  It is quite reasonable, with current technology, for any potter with a microcomputer and a modem to access a large data-base on a mainframe machine which is connected to the phone lines.  This would allow searching for glaze formulas, exhibition opportunities, craft fairs, kiln designs, and other types of information at any hour of the day or night.  Complex searches for information are easily accomplished such as: all cone 04 glazes which are red, matt, leadless, and contain petalite.  Such a service could also offer diagnostic serviced on kilns and firing, not to mention the possibility of electronic mail.

  What it will take to get this kind of service operational revolves mostly around interest.  With enough suppor, both in economics and in programming and data, there will be the reason and the means for us to set up this “Potter’s Information Center ” network.  This system would take advantage of the wonderful information processing capabilities of computers, and would facilitate widespread exchange of ceramics knowledge.

While it is possible to spend as much as the cost of a new kiln, most potters would benefit from even the most inexpensive computer systems.  Even the smallest system can speed up time-consuming jobs.  Having had some computer science while in college, I knew what could be done with a million dollar mainframe machine.  But in order to benefit, clayworkers I wanted to find out what could be done on the least expensive computer available.  By introducing serious uses for an inexpensive machine, I hope that more clayworkers will explore computer use now.

Computer are well suited for doing technical calculations of all kinds; they do not get bored, and they do not push the wrong keys on the calculator.  Most of the computer errors which we encounter are actually human errors in data entry or programming.  Any pottery calculations which involve a lot of complicated or repetitive math, or the repeated looking up of data tables are the perfect candidates for computerization.  Molecular glaze calculations, kiln design, and refractory heat loss problems are the obvious first choices.

Think back to Glaze Calc 101.  There seemed to be lots of information available in those molecular formulas if you could just wade through all the math steps.  So you worked at it, and got so you could do one series of calculations in about fifteen minutes.  Somehow it did not seem worth the effort to do enough of them to become familiar enough with Seger formulas to use the data you generated.  So once you got out of the class, unless you were quite atypical, you never did another molecular calculation.

The use of the computer in both schools and private studios allows you to do these calculations quickly, so you can spend your time doing the creative aspects of glaze calc, that is, deciding how to best use the vast amount of information you have generated.

I have been using a computer in teaching glaze calculation for the last two years, and have found it an invaluable tool in helping students develop a solid understanding of ceramic chemistry.  Students have repeatedly told me that they have learned more about raw materials in an hour on the machine using molecular to batch software, than in a week in the lab doing empirical testing.  I have also found, over the years, that people can generally deal more easily with the chemistry concepts that they can the repetitive long division problems with manu decimal places.  The computer removes this roadblock, and gives more clayworkers access to the wealth of published information which is in molecular format.

There are two formats to computer assisted molecular to batch glaze calculation.  In the first, the computer works and an intellighen filing cabinet and pocket calculator, and you make all the raw materials selection decisions.  The computer maintains a raw material data file and does the math steps.  In the second, the computer makes the choices based on programmed logic.

Computer assisted batch to molecular calculations are much more straight forward.  The computer just maintains a file for the raw materials compositions and does the math.  There are no complex decisions to be made.  In my batch to molecular software I have set it up to keep track of gasses such as H2O, SO2, and F, since my research shows that they all have an effect on glaze properties.  Without the computer, I probably would not bother with them.

Kiln design is another natural for the computer.  All of the calculations of heat input and loss, orifice sizing and the like can be done quickly by the machine.  I have been doing consulting on kilns for the last 12 years and now that I am using the machine to help I can generate a design much more quickly and with more detailed information than was practical by hand.  This gives me more freedom to play with a design, and saves my clients money.  Now I can easily figure out such things as how much heat is lost through and stored in a refractory wall and how long it will take to recover money spent on additional insulation.  These types of calculations take a long time on a pocket calculator.

Computer can control and monitor equipment also.  By adding an interface, you can easily set up a recording pyrometer.  It samples temperature at set time intervals and stores the readings for later recall and graphing.  It is also easy to add an output port to control a contactor which can control the elements on an electric kiln.  This paired with the appropriate software makes a computerized kiln controller.  The software is the hardest part, but as interest develops, it will become available and will allow the studio clayworker to enjoy some of the repeatability which industry has had for years.

Unfortunately, until there is widespread use of computers by potters, applications software for specific ceramics only problems will be hard to find commercially.  There has already been some software published, and more will follow I am sure.  But for a while most will be written by potters for their own use.  You will only need to learn to program if you want software to do something which you cannot find in stock commercial software.  Programming is not hard to learn, but it is time consuming.  I do know potters who have hired professional programmers to write programs for them, but that is an expensive solution to the problem.

I am really looking forward to seeing what artists, potters in particular, will be doing with computers during the next few years.  These machines should have a huge impact on how we live and work.  Soon, we will be able to search and exchange visual information with the same ease as data using computer controlled laser disk technology.  I am sure that photographic slides as a visual medium are going to be replaced very soon with digitized equivalents.  The only thing which is certain is that there will be wonderful uses of which we have not yet dreamed.


© 1984 + 2003        J. Baymore     all rights reserved

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