What if the hunting and frustration were taken out of the equation? In the near future, a technology called 3D printing may change the way eyewear is distributed. Instead of choosing from pre-designed frames, an individual could dream up an original product. These custom eyeglasses would be suited to the patient’s taste, budget, and anatomy. The frames would be made to order, perfect on the first try. This is the promise of 3D printing.
David Friedfeld is the president of ClearVision Optical. He is an expert on future technology, and frequently speaks on the future of the eyewear industry. He is fascinated by trends like 3D printing and how they may affect business. Friedfeld spoke at AAO 2013 on “the various applications of 3D printing to the eye care and eyewear community.”
For the uninitiated, here are some basics. 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates objects from raw material. It is part of a larger “DIY” (do-it-yourself) or “maker” culture on the rise in America.
To 3D print an object, a person first uses a computer program to design what they wish to make. The finished digital file is called a CAD (computer aided design) file. This CAD file is then sent to a 3D printer, just like you would send a picture or written document to a standard printer. The 3D printer lays down many tiny layers of material until the desired object is created.
Most 3D printing is done with thermoplastics such as PLA and ABS. However, metals and ceramics have made their 3D printing debut, as have edibles like chocolate and sugar. 3D printing is already being used to create many types of objects- toys, jewelry, tools, prosthetic body parts, and even candy!
Thanks to more desirable materials and dropping prices, 3D printing is finding its place in business. The process is fantastic for product prototyping. The high level of customization is attractive to the automotive and aerospace industries, too. Parts for specific vehicles or machines- even long outdated ones- can be recreated via 3D printing. Multiple components of an object can even be printed simultaneously. This cuts out potentially expensive manufacturing steps. As an example, ICO has received 3D printed eyeglass frames with hinges and temples already connected.
“I’m a grown-up who could fit into the frames of any child. It would be nice to engineer a pair of glasses.”
– Valerie Kattouf, OD ‘95
Pre-assembled eyeglasses aren’t the only optometric possibility for 3D printing. Explains Friedfeld, the technology could “change how frames are dispensed.” In theory, “a patient will pick a design and go through facial scanning to ensure optimal fit.” This process could particularly benefit individuals with facial asymmetry, disfigurements, or sensitivity.
Even if a patient has no medical need for custom frames, 3D printing still makes quite the fashion statement. Designs can be simple or ornate. The artistic possibilities are limited only by the imagination. If 3D printing takes off, creative patients could avoid name brands altogether, instead favoring their own designs.
Other forms of vision correction also have 3D printed potential. As of today, no major breakthrough has been made toward printing contact lenses. However, the possibility is on the horizon. Explains Friedfeld, “companies like Luxexcel have the ability to print 3D optics using proprietary plastic.” Research is ongoing. In 2014, Princeton University researchers 3D printed 5-layer contact lenses made of transparent polymers. While not able to correct vision, these lenses created tiny circuits that beamed light directly into the wearer’s eyes.
Friedfeld feels there is a robust future for 3D printing in optometry. “3D printing unleashes a tremendous amount of creativity and energy in our organization,” he says. “It allows us to think differently.” ClearVision Optical currently 3D prints prototype frames and personalized items for customers, and provides 3D printing demonstrations at trade shows. He has spoken to focus groups- namely families with small children. “Parents love the idea of customized and personalized eyewear.” In response, Friedfeld now employs two mechanical engineers to work exclusively in the realm of printed eyewear. He hopes to soon partner with additional companies and educational institutions to further the cause.
3D printing’s place in health care at large is even more promising. Friedfeld imagines a world of “personalized medicine.” Already, custom-printed titanium jaws have been implanted in patients in Australia and the Netherlands. Scientists at Harvard University are experimenting with human cells as “ink” to print human tissue- perhaps even organs, someday.
So, how and when can 3D printing become a part of your optometric practice? The big question is, “How much will it cost?” The price of 3D printing can vary heavily. There are many factors to take into account.
“I imagine a world where people will go to the mall, get their head scanned, and within the hour, get a pair of frames that fit perfectly in every way.”
– Dominick Maino, OD ‘78
By becoming a one-stop 3D design and manufacturing shop, your practice could reduce the costs of creative talent, logistics, and shipping. However, it’s a big commitment. An optometrist would have to purchase a 3D printer, facial scanner, and design software. Printers are manufacturing tools, not medical ones, so at least one employee would likely need to be hired and trained for technical maintenance.
Friedfeld estimates these collective purchases at “$20,000 – $100,000 based on current pricing.” If this sounds daunting, don’t worry! Pricing has dropped every year as technology advances.
Additionally, 3D printing can be introduced into a practice in partial ways. Pre-made designs can be found on sites like Thingiverse.com. Third parties such as Shapeways can print designs at their facility and then ship the product to you. 3D printers can also be leased to curb cost and obligation. This may be the best option of all, as Friedfeld predicts that industry-specific printers, made exclusively for optometrists, “will be available between 4 to 8 years.”
3D printing, perfected for optometry, may change the profession forever. Personalized eyewear could improve vision, save money, and increase patient enthusiasm for wearing and caring for their spectacles. Mobile clinics could instantly print tools in remote locations. Overall, optometrists and patients would gain more control over how we create and distribute eyewear.
“I think these could benefit people who are very particular or people with asymmetrical facial structure. For somebody who breaks or loses their glasses, this might be a cheaper alternative.”
– Kelli Theisen, OD ’14
In this version of the future, every individual can custom manufacture the “perfect” life for them. 3D printing satisfies unique people and solves unique problems. Why not discover what it can do for your practice?