Aug 21, 2015 | By Alec

Glass production has been almost a constant throughout civilized society, being produced as early as 4,500 years ago in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Since then, different methods for molding, forming, blowing and even sintering of glass has been developed, but for some reason the most futuristic of production techniques – 3D printing – hasn’t been able to tackle glass. Until now, that is, as one design team at MIT called Mediated Matter has developed a 3D printing platform capable of 3D printing optically transparent works of glass with a remarkable level of precision.

To explain, Mediated Matter is a group founded by Neri Oxman, the Sony Corporation Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab. Other researchers involved include John Klein, Michael Stern, Markus Kayser, Chikara Inamura, Giorgia Franchin, Shreya Dave, James Weaver and Peter Houk. This group of designers and scientists is positioned somewhere at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, material science, biology and art. Their goal? To radically transform the construction methods and design of objects and system through a focus on natural environments. ‘We create biologically inspired and engineered design fabrication tools and technologies and structures aiming to enhance the relation between natural and man-made environments,’ she says.

Photos by Steven Keating.

And this latest project certainly does that. Called G3DP: Additive Manufacturing of Optically Transparent Glass, it has been developed in collaboration with MIT’s Glass Lab and is – for as far as we know – the world’s first platform for 3D printing transparent glass in large shapes and with stunning levels of precision. ‘G3DP is an additive manufacturing platform designed to print optically transparent glass," Oxman says. ‘The tunability enabled by geometrical and optical variation driven by form, transparency and color variation can drive; limit or control light transmission, reflection and refraction, and therefore carries significant implications for all things glass: aerodynamic building facades optimized for solar gain, geometrically customized and variable thickness lighting devices and so on.’

Oxman and her team are already envisioning a wide range of revolutionary applications for their G3DP platform, especially in the field of optoelectronics and data transmission encased within glass. But theirs is obviously also a strong artistic possibility in this machine, evident in the cool examples made but also in their plans. ‘Consider the possibility of printing spatial pockets and channels containing photosynthetic media. Think Centre Pompidou without functional or formal partitions. Instead consider a single transparent building skin that can integrate multiple functions and can be shaped to tune its performance,’ she speculates.

While it looks great in the video above, how exactly does the G3DP platform work? Well in a nutshell, it’s a dual-heated chamber platform that covers all the manufacturing functions. The upper chamber is essentially a Kiln Cartridge where glass in heated sufficiently; it operates at approximately 1900 degrees Fahrenheit (or 1037 degrees Celsius) and can house enough glass material for a single component to be made. The lower chamber, meanwhile, functions to anneal the 3D printed structures. The glass itself is extruded through an alumina-zircon-silica nozzle capable of withstanding all that heat. Together, the two chambers are able to manufacture a wide number of shapes in a relatively quick fashion. If not for the extreme temperatures, this would almost be an FDM 3D printer with glass.

Photos by Chikara Inamura

The team is currently testing to see how this tool could be adopted for manufacturing architectural components – something they believe 3D printing is perfectly suitable for. ‘The advantages with 3D printing are in the expanded design space, the ability to achieve customization, and the fact that design complexity can be achieved,’ they say. ‘Glass can be distributed in a more sophisticated way throughout the cross section of each component, and intricate inner features are feasible which enable the incorporation of internal channels to distribute water, air and other biological mediums.’

While there are currently no plans for any commercial ventures at all, this MIT-based project is already planning an exhibition of 3D printed glass objects at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2016.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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David wrote at 8/27/2015 8:58:22 AM:

I currently make small, complicated, High Voltage insulators in PEEK polymer. It would be useful to me to print these in glass.

Howard wrote at 8/22/2015 7:40:01 PM:

Stunning? Precise? Completely wrong choice of words.

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