3D Printing: New Dimensions for the Optical Industry

By Evra Taylor

LegalAngleAt the 2013 Vision Expo West, ClearVision Optical presented cutting-edge 3D printing technology as one of the optical industry’s newest innovations. Some pundits refer to it as the 3D industrial revolution.

ClearVision Optical is one of the first optical companies to openly discuss its implementation of 3D printing in the eyewear production process. Its president, David Friedfeld, spoke with Bruce Bradshaw, director of marketing with Stratasys, a leading 3D printing firm, at a special Vision Expo event, during which Friedfeld noted, “Our product is entry-level but we think there’s a big opportunity going forward.”

Three-dimensional printing is not new to eyewear. In the 1940s it was called additive manufacturing and the process involved building by layers. But as the old slogan goes, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The types of printers exhibited at Vision Expo West range in price from roughly $100,000 to $300,000.

ClearVision Optical demonstrated their new 3D printer and talked extensively about the process and possibilities. Company executives believe that the technology to “print” ophthalmic lenses is only a few years away. And they don’t see why – in just a few years – ECPs couldn’t be “printing” their own frames.

The company is currently using the technology to produce prototypes – 3D models – of eyeglass frames. What’s more, industries such as jewellery manufacturing, interior design and fashion are using this latest technological advance to produce one-offs, such as $10,000 dresses, for fashion shows and the like.

In the 3D printing process, instead of producing an image made up of one layer of ink as in traditional printing, multiple layers are stacked upon one another to create complex 3D structures. One of the chief benefits of this process is the ability to move away from generic forms and styles to highly personalized objects made on demand to fit custom requirements.

In the past, explained Friedfeld, a hand-made prototype of an eyeglass frame, for instance, was manufactured overseas, which compromised product control to some degree. Furthermore, it took weeks or months for any necessary corrections to be made. Now the process can be reduced to one day. With 3D printing, ClearVision Optical can discuss its products with customers or vendors, interpret the data they provide and print out a template on site in 30-40 minutes.

As with all technology, the flip side of the coin may be tarnished. The protection of patents, intellectual property, trademarks and copyright will rear its head as a new challenge. In addition, this equipment facilitates the work of counterfeiters and could encourage a larger number of people to engage in such activity.

Moving back to the positive, the most exciting part of this innovation, said Friedfeld, is that a lot of patents are expiring, therefore allowing new engineering and innovative designs. “A lot of people want to get into this field and these expirations will lower barriers to entry.”

Friedfeld holds that in the optical space, buzz about the process will make people increasingly comfortable with it. Custom frames represent a good opportunity for ClearVision Optical down the road. Three-dimensional printing technology is ideally suited for, among others, African American and Asian consumers, who have bridge-fitting challenges; or for professional athletes with money to burn.

According to Friedfeld, 2014 will bring a more advanced printer that will print faster and require less prototype finishing. “We see ourselves as keeping the conversation going. In the future, we may be installing software or printers in peoples’ offices to make eyewear, or we may be involved in making eyewear designs available to people,” he stated.