Why being able to 3-D print glass objects is such a big deal

Why being able to 3-D print glass objects is such a big deal

Researchers at MIT have just unveiled the ability to 3-D-print beautiful glass objects. While humanity has been forming, blowing and molding glass objects for more than 4,500 years, this is the first time that a 3-D printer has been used to process glass from a molten state to an annealed product.

Obviously, there are some purely aesthetic applications here, as in the potential for epic blown glass art. Think museum-worthy glass objects worthy of Dale Chihuly. In fact, the MIT team — a collaborative team of researchers that includes the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, the MIT Glass Lab and MIT’s Mechanical Engineering Department — plan to display a few of their beautiful objects at an upcoming exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2016.

If you think it’s mesmerizing to watch an artist create blown glass structures, it’s perhaps even more mesmerizing to watch a 3-D printer heat, cool and extrude the glass objects at extreme temperatures as a golden amber liquid gets extruded from a 3-D printing nozzle. The process, quite simply, looks just like “pouring honey.” (See for yourself with this GLASS Vimeo video released by MIT’s Mediated Matter Group).

But the applications go beyond just beautiful new designs that might be created via 3-D printers one day. As the MIT research team points out in a forthcoming paper for the journal 3-D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, “As designers learn to utilize this new freedom in glass manufacturing it is expected that a whole range of novel applications will be discovered.” That’s the real future potential of glass 3-D printing — the ability to create objects and applications that do not exist today.

One area cited by the MIT researchers as promising for 3-D printing is the aerospace industry: “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.” Indeed, 3-D printing is starting to make serious inroads in the aerospace industry, where the types of parts made possible by 3-D printers can reduce weight (and hence, fuel costs) or lead to other performance gains. For example, GE is now 3-D-printing fuel nozzles for jet engines, and the new state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner boasts 30 3-D-printed parts.

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