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Glassblowing 2.0: MIT Unveils a 3D Printer for Glass

It's hypnotic to watch.
August 24, 2015, 11:10am

The art of glassmaking dates back at least 4,500 thousand years and spans many civilizations, each of which put its own spin on the process.

In a continuation of that tradition, a team of MIT researchers has now developed a sophisticated 3D printer that can produce optically transparent glass. Not only does this technique, known as G3DP, produce museum-quality artwork, it is also completely enthralling to watch. Behold:

There are three main components at work within the printer: a kiln cartridge, a nozzle, and a print annealer. Molten glass is created within the kiln cartridge, which is kept at temperatures of about 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit.

From there, the glass flows in coiled filaments through the heated ceramic nozzle, which is designed to moderate the cooling process. It is deposited and shaped within the print annealer, which is roughly half as hot as the kiln cartridge. Then, the object is exposed to room temperature to cool and solidify.

This printing method operates on the same principles as fused deposition modeling (FDM), which is the most popular technique for producing 3D printed plastics. The big difference is that the temperature required to liquify glass is much higher, and so the G3DP requires a lot more hardware for containing and shaping the molten material.

So far, the MIT researchers have used G3DP to create vases, decorations, prisms, and other small objects, some of which will be on display at the Smithsonian Design Museum in 2016. But there are more ambitious projects in the works, according to the team's forthcoming paper about G3DP in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing.

The new process "enables the creation of structures characterized by higher structural and environmental performance delivered through geometric complexity," the authors write in the paper. "Currently we are observing how geometrical complexity can be leveraged for engineering gain, particularly in the aerospace industry in some cases improving performance by 40 percent or more."

"As designers learn to utilize this new freedom in glass manufacturing it is expected that a whole range of novel applications will be discovered," the team concludes.