A team of engineers and artists at the University of Washington's Solheim Rapid Manufacturing Laboratory has revived an ancient Egyptian glass casting method and developed "Vitraglyphic," a technique to manufacture glass objects from fine glass powder using computer-aided design and a 3-D printer, paving the way for a significantly faster and cheaper method for artists, architects and designers to build high-precision prototypes.

In a typical powder-based 3-D printer, thin layers of fine powder are progressively spread over a surface while a software-controlled inkjet printer deposits droplets of a binder solution. This solution is readily absorbed by the material as the next layer of powder is being laid on, and the cycle repeats itself until the entire object is formed.

A similar process was developed by the team just a few months ago to obtain 3-D printing of ceramics objects from ceramics powder, sugar and maltodextrin, again obtaining faster precision prototyping while slashing its costs by 30 to 50 times.

But unlike ceramics, glass powder doesn't readily absorb liquid: the process therefore had to be readapted by using a different ratio of powder to liquid - to hold the mixture together - and finally heating the object past its fusion point to create a solid structure.

The method bears a striking resemblance to a glass casting technique first developed by the ancient Egyptians and now known as "pate de verre" in which finely crushed glass was mixed with a binding material such as gum arabic and water, deposited on a negative mould to form a coating, and then fused. In a way, the team's work brings this ancient method to the digital age.

Vitraglyphic is a significantly cheaper process to precisely manufacture glass structures in various shapes. "3-D printing in glass has huge potential for changing the thinking about applications of glass in architecture," Ronald Rael, assistant professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley explained.

Prof. Ganter, co-director of the Solheim Lab, pointed out that this method could also find a way to recycle used glass as a low-cost material that can make 3-D printing affordable to an even broader community of artists and designers around the world.

As with the previous ceramics 3-D printing process, the Vitraglyphic method was released for general use to encourage further development within artistic and design communities.