Could 3-D Printing Disrupt the Eyeglasses Business?

Posted in Ophthalmology by Stephen Levy on June 9, 2014

We have already seen 3-D printing being used for a woman's skull implant, and to make prosthetics. At least one doctor thinks a fully-functional 3-D printed heart will be possible within 10 years.

Adding another accomplishment to the roster of 3-D printing's capabilities, LuxExcel has developed a process that allows complex refractive lenses such as eyeglass lenses to be produced from a 3-D printer. The Goes, Netherlands–based company uses a clear, light-curing plastic that puddles as it is deposited rather than forming the usual layers so the lenses come out of the 3-D printer with smooth surfaces that require no polishing.

The company, which mass produces injection-molded lenses for light-emitting diodes (LEDs), developed the process to enable it to produce small production runs of custom lenses. Now, although the technique is not yet sufficiently refined to equal prescription lenses made the customary way, the firm is continuing to work on the process.


LuxExcel envisions custom prescription eyeglasses, 3-D printed while you wait. (Courtesy LuxExcel)

LUXeXcel's 3D-printing process, which it calls Printoptical, is based on a large-format inkjet printer fitted with specially adapted print heads. These heads deposit droplets of LuxExcel's novel fluid plastic. Critical to the technique, the droplets flow into one another without hardening into layers. As it is being built up, the lens is measured with lasers. Once it has achieved the required shape it is hardened by curing the plastic with ultraviolet light. Repeating the process, the company says, allows complex lenses to be constructed.

“We think the level of precision will go well beyond that provided by injection molding,” Richard van de Vrie, LuxExcel’s CEO, told The Economist. In time, van de Vrie says, the printing of prescription lenses for glasses directly from a computer eye scan will be possible. This “one-step-CAD-to-optic” process will enable the manufacturing of smooth printed optical components directly from LuxExcel's printers. Since the 3-D printer could make the frames as well as the lenses, complete custom glasses could be printed on demand, while you wait.

In addition to 3-D printed reading glasses, LuxExcel sees many niche markets that might be served by its process. Eventually, one-off items such as copies of pieces to restore stained-glass windows and unobtainable long-out-of-production lenses for classic car lights, and short runs such as museum lighting with specially tailored lenses to illuminate paintings uniformly might be only a CAD file and a button push away.

Stephen Levy  is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.