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I noticed that my university has a glass blowing service in the same building as the chemistry precinct, supposedly to make the glassware for the chemistry labs. At first I thought this was kind of quirky and I chortled to myself, "man, the chemistry students must break a lot of beakers."

Later I toured a campus overseas and noticed that they too had a glass blower. A quick Google search showed that many institutions have similar facilities. Most of them sell their services too. It seems to be more academically-focused than I first thought; it would be incorrect to equate it with the janitorial service or the on-campus bakery, presumably.

Why glass blowing and not another craft? I'm curious as to what separates glass blowing from other crafts and manual arts that warrants it a dedicated department in an academic facility.

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Glassware breaks regularly, and the stuff used for chemistry can be rather expensive. And repairing it is often possible if you were a bit lucky with the location of the damage. Having someone who can repair glassware is rather useful in such situations. –  Mad Scientist May 12 at 9:04
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Would you be surprised if a Mechanical Engineering department had a mechanical workshop? –  E.P. May 12 at 16:55
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I find this super amusing because we typically repaired our own glassware at my school, and the glass blower - the only thing I'm aware of that he ever made was bongs. –  Jasmine May 12 at 17:12
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man, the chemistry students must break a lot of beakers — Yup. –  JeffE May 13 at 13:43

2 Answers 2

up vote 29 down vote accepted

If you make enough use of them, it's cheaper and more efficient to use in-house services. That's why most universities will also have a mechanical workshop, to make one-off items mostly for the physics and engineering departments.

  • Everything is streamlined: the glassblower is an employee, not a business owner. He can spend more of his time on his products, thus his services are cheaper. The University will also make some profit from selling their services.
  • It makes things easier for the academic staff, and there's less bother with accounts or purchase orders. For routine jobs (if these things aren't outsourced), just visit the workshop and ask for another 1L boiling flask.
  • The academic staff know that he will always do a good job: a low turn-over rate means the glassblower(s) develop a strong rapport with their frequent customers, and have a good understanding of their needs. If more jobs are outsourced, this personal touch can be easily lost.

Of course, it seems these days that ordinary items are usually outsourced -- a big factory is more cost effective. It's for the one-off custom items that it still makes a lot of sense to keep things in-house.

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I wish my university understood better this concept -- as of now, we don't even have an in-house poster printing service. :( –  Federico Poloni May 12 at 6:39
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I wish we could have a programming service for the same reasons. :| –  Raphael May 12 at 7:07
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@Raphael They do have a programming service. Us. –  Moriarty May 12 at 7:14
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@Moriarty To add to your excellent answer, a further reason for a glass blowing service on campus is because of the nostalgic connection between the craft and Chemistry. Many chemists at my school take great pride in teaching the art to those of us who would not otherwise be privy to it. It ties you to Chemistry's roots, in a way. –  Jonathan Landrum May 19 at 21:20

As a chemist, I'll expand on Moriarty's answer, and confirm that he's in the right. Buying beakers is definitely cheaper through a commercial supplier, but for research in synthetic chemistry, every now and then you'll need glassware that doesn't fit standard specifications. For these one-off pieces, if the university is large enough it's better to have an in-house scientific glassblower. In particular, what my colleagues appreciate most with having access to in-house glassblowing services, is that it makes communication very easy and helps improve the products (“you sure you want the top part to be so thin? I looks to me as it won't help condensation and might be a failure point later”).

PS: the design and production of the most complex glass instruments is an art as much as a craft. In France, there even is a yearly competition of scientific glassblowers: 1, 2.

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To expand further, in the UK, an in-house glassblower will still quote figures on the order of £2000 for a full Schlenk line, and repairs on the taps can easily be £150, so you can imagine that the prices to outsource would be both considerable and considerably higher! –  Sam May 12 at 9:56
    
And sometimes there are hard-to-find specialist glassware that one can basically only source from somewhere other than the big-name commercial vendors. –  Willie Wong May 12 at 15:43

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