A few years back I lived in Corning, New York, home of the Corning Museum of Glass. This museum is an amazing collection of glass objects from around the world. Now, Mediated Matter from MIT has created a new system for 3D printing glass that is making objects fit for the museum.
The Mediated Matter team will be releasing their full paper discussing their method of optically transparent glass printing as part of the September issue of 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, a journal covering 3D printing research. The team constructed the body of their machine out of aluminum extrusion — similar to the construction practices we have seen in many RepRap printers — and even uses the popular RAMPS system for its electronics.
Atop the frame sits a kiln that heats the glass up to around 1900ºF so it can be extruded through a high temperature alumina-zircon-silica nozzle. The machine functions in a very similar way as your standard FDM 3D printer, but is able to operate at much higher temperatures.
The team found a unique solution to stopping extrusion from their printer. Since the machine doesn’t use a filament that can be pushed or pulled to control the extrusion, they couldn’t just reverse the motor to stop the glass from flowing. Instead, the team blasts the nozzle of their printer with compressed air, cooling it down rapidly and causing the glass to halt in place.
Glass can’t be allowed to cool too quickly. If it does, it can become very fragile and might shatter from its own internal stresses. To prevent the glass from cooling while it’s printing, propane torches are applied to the printed piece, keeping it above its annealing temperature. After the entire print is complete, it can then be moved to an annealing oven where it will slowly be cooled to properly temper it.
Surpassing its beauty, the characteristics of glass means the ability to 3D print in glass opens many new possibilities. Glass’s strength, high-temperature capabilities, and ability to be sterilized make it an ideal material for many applications that plastics just can’t handle.
The team will be displaying works they have created with their new system at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum next year. Let’s hope the Mediated Matter team continues to develop this process, and soon we can all have these beautiful printed objects in our lives.