Application Spotlight: 3D-Printed Eyewear
25 October 2019
3D printing is one of the latest innovations in technology to impact the design and production of eyewear. It’s used to prototype new designs and, increasingly, to produce eyewear components, like frames and lenses, directly.
Research firm, SmarTech Analysis, predicts that the overall business opportunity for 3D printing in the eyewear industry will reach $3.4 billion in 2028. The most significant segment will be the final parts production, which is set to grow into a $1.9 billion opportunity.
Today we’re exploring the advantages of 3D printing, driving its adoption in eyewear manufacturing, alongside delving into some examples of eyewear 3D printing in action.
Take a look at the other applications covered in this series:
3D Printing for Heat Exchangers
3D Printing for Bearings
3D Printing for Bike Manufacturing
3D Printing for Digital Dentistry & Clear Aligner Manufacturing
3D Printing for Medical Implants
3D-Printed Rockets and the Future of Spacecraft Manufacturing
3D printing for Footwear Manufacturing
3D printing for Electronic Components
3D printing in the Rail Industry
Benefits of 3D printing for eyewear
Greater design possibilities
3D printing gives eyewear designers more freedom in creating new looks. Designers can experiment with new shapes and textures that would be difficult and, in many cases, economically unviable with traditional techniques.
For example, Hoet Design Studio, a Belgian high-end eyewear manufacturer, has developed the Hoet Couture collection with the help of 3D printing. The collection features five models produced using laser-melting technology. A front portion of the glass frame is made of titanium, with a mesh-like geometric structure that could not be made through any technique other than 3D printing.
The ability to customise
Increasingly, customers wanting to buy eyeglasses expect customisable options that will speak directly to their tastes and preferences.
In a typical scenario, consumers visit the optician and select a pair of eyeglasses, which are then measured to fit, marking where the centre of the eye is. The optician then ships the frames off to be fitted with the correct lenses. Weeks later, the consumer returns for a fitting, during which the optician then adjusts the arms of the frame, the nose pieces and also makes sure the eyeglasses sit symmetrically on the face.
However, this standardised production and a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer enough.
With the introduction of digital technologies, like 3D printing and scanning, consumers can have their faces scanned on the first visit, which is then used to design glasses that won’t need to be adjusted.
As a result, 3D printing is becoming one of the solutions to the problem of an ill-fitting pair of eyeglasses, which slips down and causes eye strain.
At the same time, the technology enables eyewear companies to provide their customers with more options when it comes to the design of the eyewear frame. Options may include different shapes, colours and textures.
Greater market responsiveness
3D printing can help eyewear companies stay at the cutting edge of eyeglass trends, enabling them to make products faster and without the need to invest in additional, and often very expensive, tooling.
Styles change rapidly, and eyeglasses can quickly look dated, leaving a company with a great deal of stock and the task of retooling their production to new designs. On the other hand, using 3D printing to manufacture eyeglasses allows companies to stay nimble, responding to changes in style and market demand much more quickly than ever before.
Technologies and materials used in eyewear 3D printing
The key technology used to 3D print eyewear products is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). SLS is a powder bed fusion 3D printing technology that uses a laser beam to selectively melt and fuse powdered material, typically nylon.
SLS technology is ideal for creating highly complex parts, since it does not require support structures, unlike SLA (Stereolithography) and FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling). Unsintered powder, left over from the printing process, is used to provide additional strength and support to the part, thereby acting as its own support structure.
However, SLS prints usually have a rough surface finish and require additional post-processing to improve this. Some companies, however, find rougher surfaces an advantage.
‘In the beginning, when we made really rough frames, some people thought it was really good and asked how we made them. Sometimes you have a problem and you can sell it as a virtue’, says MONOQOOL’s founder Allan Petersen, in an interview with 3dpbm.
In addition to SLS, some companies are also exploring SLA. However, this technology, based on solidifying a liquid resin with a laser beam, is typically used to create patterns of eyeglass frames for investment casting.
Metal 3D printing, particularly Selective Laser Melting (SLM), can also be used in eyewear manufacturing, but its use is rather limited, due to the high cost of materials and processes involved.
Examples of eyewear 3D printing
MONOQOOL’S screwless eyeglasses
MONOQOOL is a Danish manufacturer of eyewear, which features a screwless frame design, made possible thanks to 3D printing. The company began using the technology at the beginning of the 2010s for prototyping, and a few years later, between 2012 and 2013, decided to take the leap to 3D production.
According to MONOQOOL, it’s fairly easy to get started with a 3D printing eyewear business, because it requires little investment, especially when you partner with a service provider.
To manufacture 3D-printed frames, MONOQOOL is using polyamide (nylon) powder and SLS technology. Each frame consists of 400 ultra-fine layers. One of the unique elements in MONOQOOL’s frames is a clever spiral hinge, which makes it possible to produce eyewear without screws, welding or bolts. Innovative design, paired with 3D printing technology, allows eyeglasses to be ultra-lightweight, down to 4 grams, which makes them more comfortable to wear.
Currently, MONOQOOL’s frames are sold in around 1,000 stores around the world.
Specsy’s customised eyewear frames
Canadian company, Specsy, is a great example of how eyewear companies can harness 3D printing to create one-of-a-kind eyewear.
Specsy provides eyecare professionals with a retail-ready app that uses augmented reality and 3D scanning technologies. Its cloud-based platform allows opticians to design custom frames in stores. The app uses facial 3D scans to enable patients to design frames on a live image of their face.
Once the design is confirmed, the company manufactures frames with the help of a number of in-house multi-colour 3D printers. The printing process takes about 8 hours, after which the frames spend three days going through assembly and hand inspection.
With this approach, optical professionals have the opportunity to offer a truly custom frame, tailored to the patient’s aesthetic preferences and specifications.
Going forward, Specsy has its sights set on offering custom metal frames, in addition to the plastic frames the company currently provides.
Luxexcel’s 3D-printed lenses
When it comes to the production of ophthalmic lenses, 3D printing presents a novel approach, pioneered by Dutch company, Luxexcel.
The company has developed a proprietary VisionPlatform that consists of industrial-grade 3D printers, lens-design software and workflow integration tools. The platform enables 3D printing of ophthalmic quality lenses, which meet industry standards, including all ANSI, ISO and FDA requirements.
Using 3D printing for lenses has several advantages over conventional lens manufacturing methods.
The conventional process for manufacturing custom optical lenses involves multiple machining steps in which material is subtracted from a lens blank, resulting in around 80 per cent of material waste. It is also a low-yield and labour-intensive approach.
A process, developed by Luxexcel, begins with the custom lens design and surface prescription being prepared in Luxexcel’s VisionMaster™ Software for printing. Luxexcel’s liquid material, called VisionClear™, is then loaded into the VisionEngine™ 3D printer, which creates lenses by jetting tiny droplets of a UV-curable resin onto the substrate and curing it with UV light. This solution is able to produce custom lenses in greater volume and with less material waste.
Over the past 12 months, 5,000 lenses have been printed on several VisionPlatform systems. This allowed the company to bring the technology to a level where commercial lenses are being shipped to customers daily.
The future of eyewear 3D printing
Increasingly, 3D-printed eyewear is gaining the attention of both consumers and manufacturers. However, although a number of companies are pioneering eyewear 3D printing, the technology is not yet ready for mass production, and is mostly used to manufacture small batches of products.
That said, 3D printing provides eyewear manufacturers with an opportunity to differentiate themselves and explore new, largely untapped avenues, like customised products. This eventually means that manufacturers will continue to explore the possibilities of 3D printing, enabling more people to benefit from better-fitting, unique eyewear.