The Future of 3D Printing Is Clear
Words by Nikki Stefanoff
Photos by Björn Rust
This content is produced in partnership with Monash Materials Science and Engineering
As 3D printing gets progressively experimental, one Melbourne-based Canadian is hoping to use his research into glass printing to help move us towards a fully sustainable society. Oh, and he might just have solved part of our global problem with waste in the process.
Darren Feenstra is a long way from home. The co-owner of 3D glass printing company, Maple Glass, and PhD candidate at Melbourne’s Monash University grew up on a small farm just south of Toronto. “I’m from a hard-working family. My dad was a landscaper and my mum cleaned houses until they had a mid-life crisis, quit their jobs and started a perennial farm,” he says. “They are true entrepreneurs.”
While studying his Masters of Applied Sciences at McMaster University, Feenstra started conducting research for Chrysler America studying corrosion science. “It meant I was working with a team on developing materials to make cars lighter and stronger and it taught me a lot about materials science.” Feenstra is the first to admit that corrosion wasn’t exactly his cup of tea, but it would be the launch pad to his life in Melbourne. “During my Masters I went to a lot of conferences, one being NACE. I was presenting my work and I met Nick Birbilis, head of Monash University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. After chatting to him for a while he offered me a position in Melbourne,” he says. “The first time I said no because my family is so important and it was such a big move. The thought of going to the other side of the world was so daunting and I just felt that it didn’t suit my personality at the time. He offered me it again and I said no, again. The third time, he flew to Canada and offered me a good scholarship and project. I thought about it for around two months and decided to take the leap of faith.”
Feenstra arrived in Melbourne in February 2017 to start work on his PhD in Additive Manufacturing, but the formation of Maple Glass – a nod to Feenstra’s Canadian roots – was also a leap of faith. “Nick likes to push people. One day we were talking about all the things we could print in the lab. We recognised that there was a hole in 3D printing glass, in that there’s nothing out there that’s doing it very well,” Feenstra explains. “We started to mess around, taking some printers and retrofitting them to start to printing glass – essentially building a glass printer. Then there was a call out from Monash University for the Generator Accelerator Program, asking for new business ideas and new emerging start-ups. We looked at each other and said: ‘Why don’t we try and turn this into a company?’ Over 200 teams applied and we were one of 10 to get into the program.”
The reason glass is incredibly hard to print is because it’s a very complex material that melts at a high temperature. There are people out there doing it but Feenstra and Birbilis feel that the current 3D printer designs aren’t appropriate for commercial scaling. “At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) they have done it but it’s a very large-scale printer and so limited as to what it can print,” explains Feenstra. “Our technology will be more affordable, therefore, more appealing to industry. Our design, the components of the printer itself, is being patented as we have essentially taken an old printer that was used for printing with plastic and retrofitted it so it can print with glass. We had to create it from scratch, which has been really exciting.”
While finding a solution to printing glass is obviously a challenge Feenstra and Birbilis relish, will it be of use to us as a society? “I see being able to print glass as another step towards creating a more sustainable world. It’s more efficient in terms of the recyclable materials it can use and less energy intensive than other recyclable processes currently on the market,” Feenstra says. “We’ve spent a lot of time and energy ensuring that our printer can use all kinds of recyclable glass materials because, at the moment, there are tonnes of waste being put in landfill and it’s not all necessarily waste – we just need the right tools to process it, to make new products and reduce our footprint. This is where glass printing could be part of the movement towards a fully sustainable society.”
Our waste problem is at the forefront Maple Glass’s work. “There’s a big problem in the world at the moment about what to do with it all and a big part of that is what to do with a certain kind and shape of glass that can’t be recycled,” says Feenstra. “When household waste is processed it’s all separated, which is why recycled glass is hard to work with as different types of glass needs to be melted down at different heats. We think our system will be more applicable to be able to handle bulk recycled material and have a wide range of composition. We can mix recyclable materials, which would be a huge benefit to recycling.”
Once the glass has been melted down and turned into a material that can be used to create with, the possibilities are limitless. Currently, if you want to make something out of glass you have to either blow it or mould it, which is expensive and labour intensive. “A 3D glass printer would allow people to make things with glass in a way they’ve never been able to before,” says Feenstra. “We want to be able to print with it so that we can create other objects, whether jewellery, pieces of art or medical materials. As we become more sustainable in the way we think, we will be looking for alternative methods, and materials, to get creative with.”
While the research, technology and knowledge is all there ready to go, Feenstra will spend the next 12 months working on the prototype before driving the company towards a provisional patent, and then onwards to a full patent. Once achieved, the aim is to get 3D glass printers on the market. As he said, Feenstra believes that this technology brings with it endless possibilities for creative thought, sustainable living and a possible solution to part of our global waste problem.
"Glass printing could be part of the movement towards a fully sustainable society.”