Illuminated 3-D-printed glass structures on display at the MIT Media Lab (Chikara Inamura)

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 glass 3D printing (G3DP) team plans 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).

The G3DP project was created in collaboration between the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab, the MIT Mechanical Engineering Department, the MIT Glass Lab and Wyss Institute. Researchers include John Klein, Michael Stern, Markus Kayser, Chikara Inamura, Giorgia Franchin, Shreya Dave, James Weaver, Peter Houk and Prof. Neri Oxman.

Given the interdisciplinary team involved, 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.

3-D-printed glass structures are at the intersection of art and technology. (Andy Ryan)

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.

Another area for future research might be fiber optics — think fiber optic cables made by 3-D printers that transmit data without loss or distortion. The full title of the MIT research paper is “Additive Manufacturing of Optically Transparent Glass.” Here, the “optically transparent” descriptor is the key. As one of the project’s lead researchers, Neri Oxman, points out, “Now consider printable optoelectronics, or the possibility of combining optical fibers for high-speed data transmission by light, combined within glass printed building facades. Or consider the possibility of printing spatial pockets and channels containing photosynthetic media. Think Centre Pompidou without functional or formal partitions…”

Centre Pompidou?

Which brings us, yes, to architecture. Another area for glass 3-D printing might be new types of building structures — think glass building facades printed entirely by 3-D printers. According to the researchers, what makes this possible is the “higher structural and environmental performance delivered through geometric complexity.” In layman’s terms, it means that the glass might be used to make aerodynamic building facades optimized for collecting and storing solar energy.

Let’s get back to the possible everyday uses of glass 3-D printing. What if the production or distribution of any glass object could be altered or improved by leveraging the process of additive manufacturing? Imagine drink vending machines that house 3-D printers capable of dispensing glass bottles made on demand. Hit “3-D print” and the vending machine prints a glass bottle together with the juice or soda ingredients that go into that glass bottle. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem — there has already been a 3-D printer vending machine on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley that can print certain (albeit, rather tiny) plastic objects on demand.

Of course, there’s still some way to go before all this is ready for prime time. For one, 3-D printing can be a really, really slow process so it’s not ready yet to compete with traditional glass manufacturing. Glass 3-D printing is basically limited at first to highly specific areas where there are distinct performance gains for the new material. (Hence, all the attention being paid to aerospace.)

Moreover, in their paper, the MIT researchers highlight all the potential pitfalls along the way that could trip up glass 3-D printing. For one, the extruded glass tends to get stuck on the glass covering the nozzle tip of the 3-D printer, resulting in some imperfections. (Think of what happens when you try to put icing on a cake too fast). Another problem is that the researchers still aren’t able to control the full printing process in real time, including the direct control over temperatures. That also leads to some imperfections. Finally, the researchers are working on a different feed mechanism that involves a continuous flow of glass material.

Yet, the real potential is that the G3DP process could result in unique glass structures that can be custom-printed as needed. This goes way beyond just printing out quirky wine or beer glass creations for your next summer backyard bash. It could mean the ability to create bespoke laboratory-quality glassware for scientists or custom-built parts for different industries.

One of the articles currently highlighted on the website of MIT’s Media Matters Group suggests that, “To redesign our world, we need to redesign the objects in it.” Redesigned glass objects might be one step in that direction. They might enable us to re-imagine the objects in our lives, and by so doing, enable us to change our world in new ways.

This article has been updated to include the names of all the researchers involved in the G3DP project.