Mobile Glass Blowing Studio Goes Where the Wind Blows
Phillip Keane posted on August 07, 2018 |
Company uses Siemens CAD to bring products to market.

Phil Vinson loves glass. He’s been working with the stuff for over two decades, during which time he has been learning how to mold glass (and improve the processes) as well as traveling the world teaching people the skills needed for glassblowing.

Recently, Vinson and partner Chuck Wells launched their own company named Mobile Glass Blowing Studios LLC, which offers a range of products related to all things glassblowing. In particular, the company has a flagship range of mobile glassblowing furnaces for use in exhibitions and schools—and indeed for anyone else who needs a mobile glassblowing solution.

Vinson and his team have been making the most of Solid Edge to design their products (as you can see in the furnace render shown in Figure 1). We spoke to Vinson to find out how he has leveraged the power of CAD to bring his products to market.

Figure 1. Mobile glassblowing furnace render. (Image courtesy of Mobile Glassblowing Studios.)
Figure 1. Mobile glassblowing furnace render. (Image courtesy of Mobile Glassblowing Studios.)

“Essentially, what we do is we build small glassblowing equipment—or hot glassblowing equipment—for artists of all experience levels to use, and we make all the associated [annealer and annealing tube, workbench, ladle and other tools] that are needed for it,” said Vinson. “We also design them in such a way so they can be moved around, so you don’t need to have permanent infrastructure wherever you’re going to use it. It’s not really a new concept, but we’re the first company to focus on that idea for this kind of equipment.”

The company is still very much in the startup stage, although it has seen fairly rapid growth in terms of its premises since the company’s inception.

“We formed the company in 2015,” continued Vinson. “We currently have 11 employees, including my partner, Chuck Wells, and me. We started in Chucks’ back yard with a 12x32-foot portable building and a whole bunch of extension cords running from his house, and now we have a 7,000-square-foot factory space. Yeah, it’s been quite a wild ride.”

The premises have evolved to keep pace with the growth of the company’s manufacturing output.

“Where we are at now, we manufacture an average of between 30 and 40 units per year. We’ve just shipped our 100th furnace about a month ago, and since then we’ve shipped four or five more. And that’s just furnaces,” said Vinson. “A lot of the time, the furnaces will have accessories, so there will be a cooling oven, or a bench, or some other type of furniture that we build. Usually our sales are more than just the furnaces.”

The gas-powered furnaces can use either natural gas or propane and are easily interchangeable. To switch from propane to natural gas, all the user needs to do is swap the fuel source, and then reboot the regulator. There’s also a little bit of electricity required to operate the forced air blower and the safety systems.

Mobile Furnaces

So, how exactly does the glassblowing process work in the mobile system?

“The way the furnace system works is that the gas comes in and it mixes with the air, and it goes through a burner tip and combusts inside the burn chamber,” explained Vinson.

”The interior of the burn chamber is made of a high density castable that can withstand 3000 °F, and there’s a big ceramic bowl in there called a crucible that holds the glass, which is engineered specifically for glass. So, you put glass that’s already been melted—we call it “cullet” or “nuggets,” depending on where you are from. But it’s essentially recycled glass. You put that into the crucible, then you ignite it using a hand torch, and in about three hours or so, you have the glass up to working temperature.”

This three hours sounds like a long time, but as Vinson explained to us, it is a small amount of time compared to what is required with large-scale industrial furnaces. There are a few differences between traditional systems and the mobile glassblower, as Vinson told us:

“There’s a few little things that make ours different. There’s the mobility of it, and the size. The majority of furnaces are much larger and much heavier, and our designs focus on the fact that you want to turn the furnace off and on again repeatedly. That’s a big difference. With larger furnaces, they hold several hundred pounds [of glass] and they take a long time to heat up. So, when you turn them on, they stay running for 24 hours, 7 days a week, and they never shut off.”

Besides the size and startup time differences, the Mobile Glass Blowing team has introduced a few more innovations to its line of furnaces.

“Traditionally, what artists will do is they will have a second piece of equipment, called a glory hole, that they would heat up every day, and they would use that to do the reheats and work out of that,” continued Vinson.

“Our design has both of these pieces of equipment in one. And in addition to that, usually there’s a thing called a pipe-warmer, where you heat up the tips of the blow pipe, which are the tubes and rods that you gather the glass with that the glass sticks to. Our system includes this piece of equipment as well, so it’s several pieces of equipment in once.”

Figure 2. Glassblowing equipment, rendered in Solid Edge. (Image courtesy of Mobile Glassblowing Studios.)
Figure 2. Glassblowing equipment, rendered in Solid Edge. (Image courtesy of Mobile Glassblowing Studios.)

In addition, the mobile furnaces make use of a miniature lear, which is like a small conveyor, or train, that allows the finished pieces to be incrementally cooled (annealed) to relieve stress in the workpiece. This enables work to be completed in a matter of hours, rather than waiting until the next day for the glass to be ready.

This mini-lear has already proven disruptive in some markets. Vinson explained that the company had previously performed glassblowing demonstrations for customers at a theme park, but when they used the old system, customers would have to wait for 24 hours for the parts to be ready, and would have to have their parts shipped out to them the following day. Now, with the mini-lear, customers can come back in a couple of hours and collect their work. No need for postage!

So, there you go. You now know how the mobile furnace works. Now, let’s take a look at how it was designed.

Solid Edge for Startups

Vinson’s CAD software of choice is Solid Edge from Siemens. Vinson had previously worked with Solid Edge while working for a company designing shop fronts. For Vinson, it was a natural choice to return to the software he was experienced with. But there were other benefits to using the software, especially for a fledgling company.

“We are part of the Solid Edge startup program, and it’s an initiative they have where can we get a license at no cost. The reason the program exists is so that startups don’t have to justify a piece of software in their expenses. So, they [Siemens] allowed us to have the software for a year or two, and we have been able to model all of our furnaces. I used to use a 2D program and, with the help of our lead-fabricator-turned-design-developer, Charles Wells III, we moved everything over into Solid Edge. Now we can model the equipment and we can analyze how we are building things. We’ve been able to develop really nice working drawings for the folks on the factory floor, so they know what they’re supposed to do.”

And, of course, there are more benefits to using Solid Edge than just modeling. The switch from 2D to 3D can change the very culture of how work is done.

“The switch to 3D has made it much easier to communicate to people that I’m working with. With 2D, you have to draw every single view—and make sure you didn’t miss a little detail. And then when you’d go to make changes, it was really difficult to make sure that everything was updated. It was just a nightmare to try and update it. So, what we had with 2D was a bunch of loose ideas of the parameters of how these things were supposed to be, and kind of an oral history of how to actually build the stuff. It was very dependent on specific people being available at specific points. If you reach that point on a Monday afternoon and that person isn’t there, then everything comes to a standstill. So, the switch over to 3D means you don’t have to envision anything—it’s just there. You’ve actually built the thing in 3D, which is a very different way of looking at things. You think it’s only going to have a little bit of an impact, but when you actually put it in place, it’s pretty profound.”

The company currently has a few more products under development, including a furnace that is a hybrid of its current system and traditional systems. The new furnace contains a free-standing pot in which multiple crucibles for mixing different colors of glass are located.

You can read more about Mobile Glassblowing Studios and its range of products over at its website … and maybe you can find yourself a new hobby while you’re there!

And if you’re a startup and you’d like to learn more about the Solid Edge startup program, then mosey on over to this link.

Siemens has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. —Phillip Keane

Recommended For You