The forerunners of 3D glass printing

Nick Birbilis, the co-founder of Maple Glass Printing, spoke to Manufacturers Monthly’ and explained how his company created novel glass 3D printing technology, and successfully commercialised it.

Maple Glass Printing (MGP) was first conceived by a relatively simple idea.

In 2017, while serving as a professor of material science and engineering at Monash University, Biribilis expressed to one of his PhD students and soon-to-be co-founder, Darren Feenstra; “Wouldn’t it be great if we could 3D print glass.”

While plastic 3D printers had been in commercial use for around a decade, complex 3D glass printing was entirely unprecedented at the time.

“There was no commercial printer for 3D printing glass at the time, there were metals, polymers, and some slurry ones for ceramics,” said Birbilis.

“But to get a glass printer, we had to make one and so we took to task.

“It was a novel concept. And I’d probably argue that it still is because we’re the only commercial printer maker right now.”

While acknowledging the idea’s inception in 2017, Birbilis emphasised the extensive research and development required to establish this new technology commercially.

Thus, by 2018, Birbilis and Feenstra founded their startup, Maple Glass Printing.

In addition to recognising the market potential, Birbilis emphasised another motivation: developing technology to utilise glass waste effectively.

“We weren’t simply interested in filling a gap in the market, but we also wanted to print glass from the view of recycling and sustainability,” he said.

“There’s a lot of glass waste, and it’s infinitely recyclable.”

With their goals in mind, the duo embarked on the task of developing their technology and product.

Around the time of MGP’s inception, glass printing had already been demonstrated by groups from MIT led by renowned architect Neri Oxman.

Their process involved using hot molten glass in an open environment, but MGP focused more on precise control and converting digital files into physical products.

However, the pathway to achieve this approach wasn’t clear, as MGP were the first to commercialise it.

“Starting the company was challenging, but it wasn’t so much about the money, so much as it was the science and engineering of that technology. There was no pathway to follow,” said Birbilis.

Creating the pathway

To develop the product that MGP offers today, the company needed to explore various approaches, which in turn necessitated experimentation and funding.

Birbilis noted, “Like most deep tech startups, we underwent a period of intense R&D and demonstration.”

This period of R&D persisted from their inception in 2017, to 2020, which is when the company settled on a viable printing method.

To effectively process glass, their 3D printing machine needed to operate with temperatures reaching 1000 degrees celsius.

“Plastic printers operate at a couple of 100 degrees and your oven at home is at about 250. But 1000, you could cook a pizza in an instant,” said Birbilis.

This posed a significant engineering challenge on the MGP team, so initially, they attempted to combine glass with other chemicals to bring the glass working temperature down.

“This meant that the 3D printing operation could be at much lower temperatures. That that pathway failed, as the glass science was far too complex,” explained Birbilis.

Their next approach was to use crushed glass, which saw initial success, but was not viable as time went on.

Birbilis admitted, “We spent nearly a year attempting to use glass powder as a feedstock for 3D printing.”

“When we almost made this method successful, we realised that stopping the print with powder was not viable.”

Eventually, through trial and error, MGP discovered a successful process which is used in their printers today.

Birbilis explained, “By implementing a design that incorporates feedback, we ultimately arrived at the process we have today.”

“That process is feeding glass rods in and being able to really work with intricate detail throughout technology, which is very much in that in that printhead.

“There was a lot of failure over those three years and that’s an important part I think of any innovation. Sometimes it can be disheartening, but it really is part of the process.

“I think it’s important to remember that.”

Enabling that pathway

To enable this experimental process, MPG required a significant amount of R&D funding.

MGP participated in a couple of startup programs, including the Generator Program by Monash University and another program hosted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

These programs were essential for MGP to understand the market that they were eventually going to get into.

“Those programmes were really interesting because they taught us a lot about understanding potential end users and their needs,” said Birbilis.

“That really enabled us to transform from an idea into a company.”

With the assistance of funding of R&D initiatives, MGP were able to demonstrate an effective glass printer by the end of 2019.

“We demonstrated efficient glass 3D printing with full, computational control and our prototype was ready at the start of 2020,” said Birbilis.

“Since then, we’ve evolved to have multiple iterations of the printer, and several products as well.”

The MGP catalogue

Since it’s 2017, MGP has designed four printers.

“Like Apple, our prototype printer was never sold and it’s currently a museum piece. That was the Maple One,” said Birbilis.

Their second design, ‘Maple 2,’ was officially the world’s first commercial printer.

“At the time, it was the world’s most advanced glass 3D printer, and it was the only commercial one,” said Birbilis.

“It had an absolutely wonderful control of resolution from point one millimetre resolution with glass, right through to being able to build things from 30 x 30 x 30 centimetres,” he said.

The Maple Two has since been discontinued, and has been replaced by MGP’s current flagship product, the ‘Maple 3TM’.

The Maple 3TM is essentially identical to the Maple Two in design, except for being integrated with more advanced features.

“It’s touchscreen with Wi Fi so that you can send and receive files to it remotely,” said Birbilis.

Birbilis continued to explain that the printer excels in creating designs swiftly.

“We’ve changed the automation system on it so you can print wirelessly much quicker,” he said.

“Traditionally, crafting glass pieces entails a time-consuming process involving substantial equipment, metal moulds, and pristine materials.”

“Our 3D printers revolutionise this landscape, enabling customers to swiftly generate prototypes featuring distinctive designs.”

Another significant contrast lies in the origin of the heated chamber components between Maple 2 and Maple 3.

The former’s chamber was sourced and constructed overseas, while the latter’s chamber is now procured and built within Australia.

Maintaining manufacturing and parts sourcing domestically holds considerable significance for MGP, a lesson which was reinforced by insights gained during the pandemic.

The MGP team

The MGP team is relatively small compared to other tech companies; consisting of only five employees.

The core staff are based in MGP’s Melbourne office, and the other two work remotely.

Naturally, the work at MGP requires a particularly skilled workforce.

Birbilis explained, “All of them are engineers. Some of them are materials engineers, some are mechanical, but it really is for a deep tech start-up.”

“That necessitates an advanced workforce.

“In our printers, there’s everything from coding, scripting, mechatronics, computronics fabrication.

“That also includes everything from cutting, grinding, welding, so basically putting together an advanced system.”

Birbilis continued explain that he considers several PhD students as part of the MGP workforce, as the company is currently supporting them through their studies.

“We also support three PhD students. R&D is done by either paying the full cost of stipends yourself or being able to use schemes,” said Birbilis.

“In our case, we use CSIRO schemes, because they’ve just been available and favourable.

“CSIRO on behalf of the government puts in the rest of the money, and that pays for a PhD stipend.”

Currently, MGP provides support for a PhD student at Deakin University, ANU, and at RMIT University.

“These three distinct locations engage in varied research activities, all of which are considered integral parts of our workforce,” said Birbilis.

MGP also regularly engages in internship programs, where students and aspiring materials scientists and engineers can gain experience.

“We’re involved in summer internship programmes, where students that study in STEM, need to do a work integrated learning placement as part of their degree,” said Birbilis.

“We’re always willing to take them on, they always bring diverse insights.’

Birbilis continued explain that diversity and inclusion are staples of the MGP workplace culture.

“We’re conscious in trying to have a workforce that gives different lenses, so different backgrounds, different cultures, different genders,” he said.

“It’s really important to us to have a diverse workforce.”

Future developments

MGP is currently focused on developing 3D glass printers capable of printing large designs.

“True to our mission, the more glass you can recycle, the bigger the things you can make, the better the impact on the planet and making large things is what we’re currently working on at the moment,” said Birbilis.

“So, we’ve developed a large format glass printer prototype printer that’s not commercial yet but has been part of our R&D Since 2020.

“It’s a large format glass printer which works as a robotic arm, and that will eventually be used for architectural applications.”

MGP is collaborating with Roland Snooks, who is regarded as one of Australia’s premier architects.

Moreover, MGP is actively engaging with end users of architectural products, highlighting the project’s importance and relevance.

“We’re working with probably one of Australia’s best architects, Roland Snooks, at RMIT,” said Birbilis.

Not only are MGP working to upscale their manufacturing capability, but they’re also working to create printers efficient at producing small-scale objects.

“We’re working on the miniaturisation of our Maple 3 to create a maple for which will genuinely be a desktop glass printer,”

“Our decision to create a smaller printer is probably the first significant commercial decision that we’ve made.”

The aim is to create a printer that is ultimately more cost effective.

“The price of our Maple 3 isn’t prohibitive compared to other printers,” said Birbilis.

“But market penetration and being able to have a product that can be easily shipped, and that is also cost competitive, we think will grow our user base.”

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