Shane Williams

Interview - Shane Williams - Breaking the mould

Potter Shane Williams discusses his relationship with Remap and how its spirit of DIY shed invention has enabled him to offset his cerebral palsy and open up new possibilities in his art.

"These Coffee cups are pretty bog-standard. A tin glaze, £6 or £7 to produce." Ceramicist Shane Williams is making a point: the lone potter can't compete with the mass market these days. He's been diversifying. He was up till 3am last night. Not on his wheel but trying to get parts of the 3D printer that he has built working. His is an invention that could see people printing at home cheaply and from varied materials. But more of that later.

Working with Williams is Martin Baker, engineer, former head of an electronics company, and a friend who has been helping and advising. "If not for Martin, I'd probably still be swearing at my plotter," says Williams of the vector printer he has customised to cut his objects.

Artist of the year

Williams studied ceramics at Falmouth University. His lecturers used to call him 'Magic Man'. He says he has tended to use concrete and glass, as well as clay. He was always "trying to push clay in ways it wouldn't go". His combination of a technical and inventive mind won him the title of South East England Development Agency Artist of the Year in 2006. The brief: art to reinvigorate distressed public spaces. Williams's concept was to revive an underpass in "the most underpassed town", Basingstoke. This underpass was fast becoming a no-go area at night. Williams's design included a new LED lighting rig and a system where pictures could be emailed in that would then be projected onto the underpass walls. The idea was to give people back control of their environment.

Williams has also worked at a couple of pottery companies and as a technician for Langley College in Berkshire. Here, he used invention and technology to his advantage on what he describes as "the Tardis". This was a large gas kiln, which he operated but no one could read his kiln charts. Williams has cerebral palsy, which affects his motor skills. So he employed OCR, Optical Character Recognition, software so that the 'Tardis' could let him know if it was doing anything irregular.

Williams can't read or write on account of having severe dyslexia, yet he does both. "For someone who can't read," says Baker, "I'm surprised how well read he is." It is pattern recognition. And technology. Williams describes his use of technology on his blog at

"Reading and writing are as different as carrots and peas, this shows up more with me because of the programmes that I used to access these skills. Two completely separate programmes: screen reading = reading (input typed text output synthetic digital voice); dictation programmes = writing (input spoken word output typed text)'"

Williams has neuromuscular spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, which he says has been key to the subject and execution of his work: "It's all about brain damage... it's made me. My style was very sharp, controlled, because I fight against what I am." He doesn't describe it as a disability "because I was born with it" but says it gives him some "unforgiving" experiences. For instance, he suffers from extreme muscle-tone 'rugby player' legs. He describes this on his blog:

"The muscles in my legs are incredibly strong especially around my inner thighs and hips, this is because my spine does not produce a chemical to relax my muscles."

He has to exercise his legs to prevent aches and muscle contractions. It has required specialist machinery, much of which Williams has destroyed because it isn't strong enough to take on the task: "The strength in my legs has destroyed three racks. I end up bending the box steel that makes up the frame of the machine."

Engineering ability

So what can be done in a case like Williams's? Enter Remap, a national charity working through local groups of skilled volunteers to help people with disabilities achieve independence. Remap volunteer Richard Brown designed a leg-exerciser to Williams's specifications. Williams calls it "the rack".

"I told them about the ratchet gear not being able to cope with the stress my legs put upon it and when I release the tension of the gear my legs slam together which jars them and causes spasms which in turn defeats the object of exercising on the machine. They replaced the ratchet with a two-tonne hydraulic bottle jack, so you can release the pressure slowly... Some might say it's overkill to have two tonnes of pressure between my thighs separating my legs, but my legs are even fighting against the hydraulic jack."

Remap was founded in the early 1960s by retired Royal Engineer Major Pat Johnson. His sister had polio and he constructed a hoist and a ramp so that she could get out of the house in her wheelchair. The Major then got some engineers together in Teesside and Remap's first panel was born.

Today there are over 80 panels with a core of retired engineers – people who have always loved and excelled at problem-solving, explains Remap chief executive Susan Iwanek, although, she adds, Remap hasn't yet had much interest from large engineering firms.

There are also two smaller organisations working in the field: Demand offers bespoke equipment; and MERU "designs and manufactures specialised gadgets for children and young people with disabilities". Their products include the Bugzi – an indoor wheelchair for one-to-six-year-olds and the Grabzi – "a groovy grippable grab bar".

Dispensing wisdom

Given that Williams's motor skills don't allow him to make the fine objects he'd like to, he has taken a leaf out of the Remap book of problem-solving. For instance, he has repurposed a soap-dispenser mechanism – which he noticed worked by flick and vibration to dispense liquid soap – to provide him with instant coffee. He has also programmed a Raspberry Pi to govern his plotter. Now he is working on his revolutionary 3D printer – and anyone who has grappled with a standard 2D printer will suspect this may be his undoing.

Baker describes 3D printing in a nutshell: "Any 3D system uses layers, a tank of gunk, and a laser solidifies." Williams uses an open-source 3D programme called Blender (which he describes as "amazing"), a printer, a cutter and a "kiddies' programme". He builds up his shape from layers of 85 to 100µm self-adhesive vinyl, the air sucked out by a vacuum press.

"The building system is very simple: the first layer of material (with the biggest holes) is backed on to a sheet of toughened glass, you then carry on building up the sheet levels until your model is complete. I used soft soap to get the air out from between the sheets. Soft soap also doubles up as a barrier between the PVC layers and the silica rubber that will be tipped into the model design later."

Although the price of 3D printers has come down from thousands and thousands to just over a thousand, it is still generally an expensive process. However, not only is vinyl a cheap material, "such thin vinyl can make very detailed objects," says Williams. And here's the really clever bit: the vinyl makes moulds that can then be used to make any object, not limiting you to any one material.

The concept originally came from a children's toy, which makes borders around things, says Williams, upending the sugar bowl to demonstrate.

"I was drawn to the Boxford Rapid Pro program, primarily because of the borders that it generates around the parts that it prints out. I figure that by using a plotter to cut my objects, all I have to worry about is stacking the individual sheets on top of one another to make the desired part. There is no part size restriction, the only restriction is the surface-area of your plotter. Because I produce the feminine cut away of a mould I am not restricted by the materials that I want to produce the final object from. I have used traditional 3D printers before but the glue that is used to strengthen the object puts [about] 0.25mm on to the surface of the model so pieces do not slot together easily."

Williams doesn't envisage getting something highly finished out of his invention, "you'll probably never get a car part out of it", but he does mention anything from washing machine and model railway parts to the head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He shows me what looks like a sheet of figure-of-eight stickers. This is the beginnings of the vinyl printing of a screw feed. He's currently looking at ways to finish off the layers. "You see the layers in the screw feed," he shows me a finished one, "there's a 22° angle on the blade to cut the vinyl, but with the vinyl you get grooves. They are set depending on the angle of the blade."

Order of the anarchist

Williams sees his invention potentially providing a lifeline: "lots of disabled people are good at CAD or Blender, they make models but can't afford to produce them." He'd love to get an Unlimited Award, from this fund for social enterprise. Here is his mission statement:

"I would like to develop a system where our designers, artists and craftsmen will be able to generate a mould cheaply and easily out of the material that they desire. Using open-source programmes like Blender to conceptualise their initial idea. But it would be possible to send the file that you make to a sign-making company, they would have bigger cutters so you could make big concrete modes – for example a piece of public art. As an artist I have always been more interested in process than outcome. This is possibly a symptom of my cerebral palsy; because of lack of coordination and perception my anarchist streak tells me that I not only have to master the process but beat it into submission."

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