Volume 49, Issue 2 - February 2014


3D Printing: Will the Glass Industry

3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but the process has been getting more buzz in recent years, particularly in the architectural industry. Today it is being used by product manufacturers in a handful of industries to help users visualize their creative concepts.

According to the blog 3Dprinter.net—which points out that the appropriate, albeit rarely used, term for this process is “additive manufacturing”—3D printing is the process of sending a CAD file to a 3D printer, which essentially lays down multiple layers of some material (be it plastic, resin, metal, etc.), which are then bonded together to ultimately create a 3-dimensional model of the CAD design. All that is needed to generate the design is 3D software, which includes Sketch Up, Modo, Maya, Solidworks, Revit, Rhino, Inventor and others. Multiple printer technologies are in use as well, all with slight variations in how they achieve this end result.

“For many industries this … technology is not anything new,” explains Arthur Young-Spivey, digital fabrication specialist with NRI, which provides digital document management services and print solutions, with a focus on architectural, engineering and construction industries. According to Young-Spivey, the recent explosion in awareness of the technology has been the result of expiring patents that have led to a promulgation of new suppliers.

So could 3D printing translate to the glass world?

Young-Spivey offers two scenarios where this industry could potentially benefit from the technology.

First, Young-Spivey points out that with the shift toward overseas manufacturing, 3D printers can be a means of quickly reviewing and approving samples from a vendor halfway across the world. Second, it can be used by overseas suppliers to create a proof of concept.

“Another scenario would be to show an architectural detail/connection 1:1 to demonstrate how it will actually work as built,” Young-Spivey adds. “Even professional designers and engineers who work in 3D software on a daily basis can sometimes create a disconnect between what’s drawn in the computer and what’s realistically possible, and this technology can help to bridge that gap in part because the machine makes what it sees. At this point, very few companies have fully leveraged the technology for its true capability, which is that one machine can make just about any product and each product can be different. From a customizable standpoint this is huge because the cost of increase due to complexity or that each piece is different is gone.” He says this fits perfectly into the glass industry since “3D printing is not about making 1,000 of the same thing when one can make 1,000 different things and not see a price increase because each piece is different.”

At this point, that would mean making models only since there isn’t a fully commercial glass 3D printer, “although it is being worked on,” Young-Spivey says.

But do those in the industry agree this technology is a perfect fit? Some say the technology is being put quietly to use already within the glass industry, although of the several top glazing contractors contacted for this article none were currently working with this technology. According to Charles Bostick, who until recently was a senior project manager with glazing contractor seele in New York, “There are applications for 3D-printed models in the glass industry but they are currently more in the research and development phase and not widely known or talked about. Applications that I know of involve molds for curved glazing, whether cold-formed, heat bent or cast, [with] the trend towards more curves in architecture (brought on by the ease of drawing those curves in plans using CAD) driving this development somewhat. The costs are, however, not insignificant so the market currently doesn’t support much actual manufacture at this time.”

At least one manufacturer, however, is finding useful applications for the technology. Jerry Habeck, R&D design engineer at Wausau Window and Wall Systems in Wausau, Wis., explains the company is using 3D printing to help it increase the speed of moving products to market and reducing product development time lines. “Wausau also is using it for market research; job customization validation, with the ability to better visualize the proposed solutions; custom fabrication tooling; and for low-volume hardware parts,” Habeck says.

The company first looked at the technology when it began outsourcing custom profile shapes for project validation. According to Habeck, this “showed the potential impact on our business.”

Soon the company found that the technology offered a number of additional benefits, including the ability to conduct rapid design evaluations; the ability to produce prototypes without having to manufacture expensive tooling; the ability to produce net shape prototypes allowing form, fit and function analysis; and reduced development costs. “We then purchased an entry-level printer to produce parts internally and quickly found that we needed a more robust printer with better throughput and capabilities,” Habeck says.

Despite these successes, those glazing contractors taking a wait and see approach to this technology may have the right attitude since, according to Young-Spivey, this trend isn’t exactly poised to take off. “The expansion and explosion and the overall interest in this technology is great but will also start to slow over the course of the next few years to a more reasonable level,” Young-Spivey says. “Sure a good portion of these people and companies will have these machines but the majority of people will not, mainly because of current material limitations and the post-production that needs to be done to all models when 3D printed. Nothing comes out of the machine as an end product and the amount of time it takes to make something I’d liken to baking a turkey or cake: there’s no ‘microwave equivalent’ when it comes to this technology that allows for a model to be made and then directly used.”

Even Habeck acknowledges Wausau has not heard much demand from architects for use of this technology. However, he adds, “We are promoting the technology with [architects] and have used the technology to gain project decisions.” While this may not be the year of 3D printing for the glass industry, custom manufacturers are sure to watch how this technology evolves since, as Young-Spivey says, “This technology also really boils down to the simple fact that it’s just another way to make something. It definitely offers capabilities that were not achievable through conventional methods or would have been too costly.”

—Megan Headley

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