Glass Robotics Research

Nathan King and Stefanie Pender


The glass industry has evolved over 5,000 years, emerging from very primitive artisanal operations, through periods of first-hand empirical research, refinement, and technological development, to reach today’s extensively commercialized manufacturing processes. As early as 1903, automation was introduced within industrial glass production with the advent of the glass-container-forming machine that produced bottles having uniform shape, capacity, and finish dimensions (Loewenstein 1973). Many automated glass-forming processes utilize methodologies that are extensions of traditional artisanal workshops—precision molding, slumping, and thermal forming, for example. Recently, Design Robotics emerged as research methodology within art, architecture, and design that has led to provocative exploration in variety of materials (Bechthold 2011). Whether problem driven or opportunity based, research has proven the efficacy of automation technologies, including the Industrial Robotic Manipulator and related tools, to enable the realization of complex forms, assemblies, and performative artifacts (Reichert 2014, Raspall 2014, for example). Within this context, we have seen explorations of automated material manipulation in a wide range of material systems ranging from advanced composites to traditional craft-based materials. Until recently however, Glass, and particularly hot glass, was largely absent from this discourse. In 2013 the Glass Robotics Laboratory (GRL) was developed as a collaboration between the Virginia Tech, School of Architecture + Design, Center for Design Research and the Rhode Island School of Design Glass Department (RISD Glass) with a goal of understanding the opportunities surrounding automated computational design-to-robotic fabrication workflows, including new processes, tooling, material simulations, real-time material feedback, and the development of a robotically integrated glass research laboratory.


Initial experiments in robotic glass blowing, slumping, and deposition have resulted in the development of a novel robotic 3D glass printing process. Unlike other material deposition processes like those seen in Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) the initial protoypical experiments rely on the robotically actuated movement of a build platform while the material source (a hot glass furnace) is static. In contrast to other glass printing development, all in infancy, the robotic method proposed by the GRL is unique in a number of ways. Presently, the field places emphasis on exact precision and utmost material control governed by the desired form and surface finish. This focus supports the development of a technique that would be best suited for industrial glass printing that requires consistent, repeatable results that could sustain production. While the GRL Robotic Glass-Printing Process is able to achieve this precision the primary focus of this research is on the material’s intrinsic qualities which result in emergent patterns through self-organization. The inherent morphogenetic properties of glass result in controlled yet singular one-of a kind results that are particularly desirable in many glass applications and present new opportunities for both expressive and performative developments. The ability to highly control the movement of the glass as it is deposited through the robotic process reveals an opportunity to manipulate this phenomenon which would be impossible without an automated process—thus presenting a new design potential.



Nathan King is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech and has taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and the University of Innsbruck. With a background in Studio Arts and Art History, Nathan holds Masters Degrees in Industrial Design and Architecture. He earned the degree Doctor of Design from the Harvard GSD where he was a founding member of the Design Robotics Group with a focus on computational workflows and Additive Manufacturing and Automation in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industries. Beyond academia, King is the Director of Research at MASS Design Group, where he collaborates on the development and deployment of innovative building technologies, medical devices, and evaluation methods for global application in resource-limited settings. As technology and programs consultant, Nathan collaborated on the design, development, and launch of the Autodesk BUILD Space—BUILD for Building, Innovation, Learning and Design—which is a world class collaborative AEC research facility in Boston MA scheduled to open in May 2016.