Complex geometric cuts are now achievable in safety glass.
Photo courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute. Complex geometric cuts are now achievable in safety glass.
In architecture, design must not only consider how materials are installed; it must also address how they fail. Control joints, for example, are an example of the consideration of failure, as they are used to anticipate the cracking that naturally occurs in expansive materials such as concrete. 
Glass failure is a frequently studied focus of testing laboratories, and has given rise to various types of safety glazing. But one example, laminated safety glass, is typically flat and rectangular, and does not easily accommodate geometrically sophisticated installations.
Recently, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials in Freiburg have developed a method for cutting safety glass to any shape. The researchers use a laser hot enough to penetrate the glass and vaporize the film interlayer. Prior to the existence of this technology, this kind of cut was usually made by hand with a knife—a difficult feat to pull off with curved geometries.
In collaboration with machinery manufacturer Helga, the researchers can now cut elaborate and seamless contours in glass. Moreover, this approach can be fully automated for mass-produced glazing units—thus ensuring that even the most geometrically-intricate envelopes are safe.
Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT  magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.