Engineers and artists develop 3D printing in glass

Engineers and artists at the University of Washington’s Solheim Rapid Manufacturing Laboratory have developed a way to create glass objects using a conventional 3-D printer.
The method builds on the teams previous success printing with ceramics. “It became clear that if we could get a material into powder form at about 20 microns we could print just about anything,” said Mark Ganter, co-director of the Solheim Lab.

The lab is releasing its method of printing glass for general use.

In a typical 3-D printing system, a thin layer of powder is spread over a platform, with an inkjet printer depositing droplets of binder solution only where needed. Glass powder doesn’t readily absorb liquid, however, so the approach  had to be altered by adjusting the ratio of powder to liquid.

The 3-D printed glass bears remarkable similarities to pate de verre, whereby glass powder is mixed with a binding material such as egg white or enamel, placed in a mold and fired. The technique dates from early Egyptian times. 

Artist Meghan Trainor, a graduate student in the UW’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media, was the first to use the new method to produce objects other than test shapes.

“Creating kiln-fired glass objects from digital models gives my ideas an immediate material permanence, which is a key factor in my explorations of digital art forms,” Trainor said. “Moving from idea to design to printed part in such a short period of time creates an engaging iterative process where the glass objects form part of a tactile feedback loop.”

Ronald Rael, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, is working on new kinds of ceramic bricks that can be used for evaporative cooling systems.

“3-D printing in glass has huge potential for changing the thinking about applications of glass in architecture,” Rael said. “Before now, there was no good method of rapid prototyping in glass, so testing designs is an expensive, time-consuming process.”

The new method would also create a way to recycle used glass.