Three-dimensional printing brought significant and rapid changes to manufacturing, letting companies create customized objects like apparel and plane parts on demand.

With each passing year, the technology becomes even more sophisticated. Case in point: Now scientists can 3-D print with glass. Using 3-D printing methods that are widely available today, a team of German scientists was able to create small, highly detailed glass objects. They published their findings Wednesday in a study in the journal Nature.

While plastics and metals have been 3-D printed for years, glass is a difficult material, largely because it melts at very high temperatures. Other teams have attempted the process before, but the results have either been cloudy or contained individual layers detectable to the human eye.

The German team from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology circumvented this with a method called stereolithography, which entails using ultraviolet light to shape materials. While a mixture of powdered glass and a liquid polymer is printed into the desired design, UV light shines onto it layer by layer, causing the material to rapidly harden.

The entire object then goes into a high-temperature kiln, which fuses the glass together and burns away any excess materials. The result is a transparent glass object that lacks any distinct layers.

Bastian Rapp, one of the paper's authors, told the The New York Times the process will be able to create glass that's smooth enough for windows and mirrors and intricate enough to serve as a lens on camera phones. Rapp says the process will be far easier and less costly than today's glass-making practices, which generally involve melting sand and placing it in vats of molten tin, then using hazardous chemicals to add finer details.

Three-dimensional printing will let manufacturers design objects using software, then let the machines do the rest. While the objects the team created were only several centimeters in size, Rapp told the Times that eventually the process could be used for larger glass structures, like facades for skyscrapers.

Some clothing companies, like Under Armour and Adidas, have begun 3-D printing parts for use in sneakers. Airplane manufacturers such as Boeing and GE have increasingly turned to 3-D printing to create plane parts.

So far, 3-D printers intended for the home haven't become a mainstream trend. But Rapp thinks this day is coming. "Maybe, in the future," he told the Times, "if you drop a drinking glass, you could 3-D-print a new one."

Published on: Apr 20, 2017