How 3D Printing Technology adds to the Optical Industry
Is 3D Printing for Real?
3D printing has been making its usefulness and potential known throughout many different areas. Recent breakthroughs in 3D printing are opening doors for it to be utilized in precise applications like engineering and space travel and for more creative uses in the home and fashion industries. Right now, 3D printing seems to be limited only by the designer’s imagination (and the size of the printer).
In any of these fields, the basic idea is to allow items to be manufactured using the printer and a schematic rather than having to purchase or otherwise obtain the item already made. This saves time (to find the item), space (from not having to store it), and changes the availability of the item from seeing if it is in stock to downloading a file. The applications for this technology are enormous. If an astronaut needs a tool in outer space or your washing machine repairman needs a part to install, all they require is a design file and a printer.
Putting the “I” in 3D Printing
3D printing provides an innovative offering of freedom and imagination that impacts consumers on several levels. Eyeglasses are the core of the optometry industry, with the selection and purchase of frames being a finite business. There are, apparently, a limited number and type of available frames. Consumers understand that their eyewear selection will be based on what has already been designed and created. In other words, the consumer must ‘fit’ into the frames in a similar way that the frames need to ‘fit’ on their eyes.
On some level, the consumer is aware that their choices are controlled by the eyewear industry. With traditional methods of manufacturing, thousands of the exact same frames are made.
After receiving a prescription, the patient is directed to a wall of frames that await their inspection. This part of the process has been relatively effective so far because the consumer views the choices as a sampling of every type of frame available. Often there are categories like ‘new arrivals.’ The trendy colorful frames will be on the opposite side of the wall not mingling with the conservative business-style ones. The choices seem impressive at first glance, but they are finite.
3D printing has just knocked down that wall of frames.
This technology has put words like, specialized, customizable, personalized, and unique in the equation of purchasing frames. These are more than concepts to the consumer; these ideas form the basis of their purchasing power. People want choices, but they also want choices that they can create.
3D printing holds the potential for not only creating frames that exist in a model or photo, but frames that are literally born in the consumer’s mind. This opens the door to one-off, individualized frames. Imagine designing your own frames someday.
The technology sends a strong message to eyeglass wearers: choices are possible.
In an exciting, innovative way, 3D printing put the other “I” in eyewear. The potential and future impact will be astounding.
Benefits to Opticians
The role of the optician is to measure and fit lenses and frames for clients according to a written prescription provided by a licensed ophthalmologist.
3D printing can add more to this job description: print frames for clients. These frames can be made from a prototype or may even be a unique design.
The bottom line is that opticians are at the forefront of using technology that will add to their business.
One of the key benefits of printable frames is the elimination of excess inventory. Most optical stores have thousands of frames but they are not all being sold because they may not fit right or be the wrong color or shape. Consumers use their buying power most effectively when they believe they have choices that will benefit themselves.
Seeing thousands of frames in the optical store may seem impressive but consumers may get frustrated trying on frames that are close to what they want but not quite. 3D printing can create a unique and perfect-for-them set of frames.
Opticians can also combine current technologies to offer customized choices. Virtual try-on technology and facial recognition software can literally create a look for the client that is one-of-a-kind. 3D printing technology then wraps up the process by printing the frames according to the exact specifications of the consumer.
Remember those thousands of frames that are displayed on the wall? They may have been the epitome of the industry’s standard in the past, but 3D printing brings tens of thousands of choices to the consumer. Opticians will not have to rely on eyewear manufacturers to dictate the latest trends or be subject to purchasing inventory based on projected sales. The business of selling eyewear will be brought to the level where it will be most appreciated: the consumer.
Is this mind-boggling? Of course it is, in a cutting-edge, I-care-about-your-choice way.
Few companies already in this scene are Protos Eyewear, Sneaking Duck, and Mykita.
Protos has an unique algorithm which allows them alter the design of each pair of glasses to fit the user’s features and accentuate their facial structure.
Mykita is a German manufacturer of hand-crafted prescription frames and glasses. They have maee a unique material called Mylon, for their product, by employing a 3D printing process called Selective Laser Sintering.
Sneaking Duck is an Australian online retailer of prescription eyewear with a whole range of customizable 3D printed glasses.
Will the consumer be overwhelmed with this abundance of options? It’s more likely that the consumer will be overly impressed with the available choices they can control. Buying power is put back into their hands.
Opticians will see a renewed motivation in the consumer and the words ‘close-out sales’ may no longer be heard in the office.
No, not the eyecharts. ‘One or two’ in this case is inviting you to compare how you buy glasses now to how you might purchase them in the not-so-distant future.
Meet Steve and Joe. Steve loves following new tech so he’s excited to test out those new 3D printed glasses frames he’s read about on some of his favorite blogs. Joe is a little more cautious of technology and trends so he opts to get his new glasses from the shop he’s been purchasing from since he was young. Let’s see what each of their experiences looks like.
Steve walks into the office where an equally enthusiastic optician walks him through what he needs to do in order to get his new frames. He asks if Steve has any ideas about what kind of glasses he’s looking for and, of course, Steve does. That idea is actually the first step in the 3D printing process; a vision of what you want to make. Steve pulls a well-worn pair of glasses from his bag. He says these were his favorite pair but they’ve haven’t fit right since he repaired them after they got run over with a bike. He wants to be able to have the look of his ‘geek-chic’ square black plastic frames with some measurement tweaks so they won’t slide off his nose (and into the path of oncoming bicycles).
The optician takes some measurements of the both the frames and Steve’s face before recreating the glasses in a 3D modeling program. As he works, he tells Steve the other ways he could have designed his new glasses. Bringing in a design he downloaded or created himself at home, using a database to select a pre-made frame, experimenting with different colors, or even emailing the shop a frame model (so Steve never even had to leave his house) were all other options.
As Steve and the optician excitedly discuss frame designs, Joe walks into his local glasses shop and right away sees a frame he likes. And another one! And another one? Joe and Steve actually have something in common here: their preferred style of square black frames. But while Steve works to customize his perfect pair, Joe is tasked with trying on the many pre-selected frames the store carries. Pick a frame, take off the glasses you’re wearing and put them down, put on the new pair and squint into the mirror to see if they look okay, decide they don’t and put your old pair back on. And repeat. Joe might be here a while.
And Joe is only dealing with one downside to the current way glasses are bought: too many choices. If Joe was interested in a more unique frame or if his face measurements fell above or below the ‘average’ sizes, he would run into the other side of his current problem: not enough choices. Sure, there are fifty pairs of average-sized square black frames but only one option if you want a small, red pair of glasses.
Meanwhile, the optician finishes creating the frame’s schematic in the 3D modeling program and, after getting Steve’s approval, sends the file to the 3D printer to be made. 3D printers work like this. A thin layer of plastic powder is spread out across the printer’s surface. It heats up and a laser runs over the powder in the shape of the model the optician uploaded. The process then repeats creating a new layer over the previous one. One by one, these layers build and form the shape of the frames. After the printing process completes, the optician attaches the arms, pops the lenses back in and hands them over to Steve.
Joe did find a pair that fit him well so the sales person sat him down to take his measurements for lenses and to get his payment information. She says the glasses will be ready in about a week as she hands him the invoice. Joe is a little surprised such a simple pair of frames cost so much but it’s either pay with money now or in time spent later having to find another, cheaper pair. He pays and leaves to see if Steve fared any better with his new-fangled technology.
No Crystal Ball Needed to See the Future of 3D Printing
Industry experts predict that within 20 years, all optical stores and optometrist offices will have a 3D printer.
Designing and printing unique customized frames will be the norm. Tens of thousands of options will be available to the consumer.
This will revolutionize the eyecare industry. The consumer benefits from choices and the ease of getting their customized frames printed in the office while they wait.
Optical stores benefit from not having to keep a larger, and often, not sellable inventory.
In terms of employment, 3D printing will create new and specialized careers in the optical industry. The duties of the optician will also include being a designer, as the creation of frames will be both fashionable and functional.
Perhaps a way to sum up the optical industry of tomorrow will be to think of the past and future.
2D is the past, giving consumers two choices: buy what is available or don’t make a purchase.
3D offers a new dimension: if you don’t see what you want, create it. This third choice empowers opticians to stop asking consumers to settle for available options but to offer them what they really want.
3D printing is powerful. Watch what it will do for the eyecare industry.