3D Printed Lenses for Glasses from Luxexcel

Back in the late 1990s, Hewlett Packard was “going back to the garage” trying to reinvent themselves. At the time, rumor had it they had a printer in one of the R&D teams that could print chess pieces. People were blown away by the thought of printing solid objects on demand. We all thought that someday everyone would have an HP 3D Print Jet on their desktop printing out whatever they needed, when they needed it. What actually happened was HP missed the boat and consumer 3D printing ended up being a hobby at best.

As for commercial 3D printing, there was value to be found in offering extreme customization for products where there was a demand for it. A few examples of such applications are 3D printed footwear and 3D printed dentures, at least one of which resulted in a $16 billion publicly traded firm named Align Technology (ALGN). Today, we want to talk about using 3D printing for glasses and lenses. One of these is very different from the other.

3D Printed Frames for Glasses

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3D printing some frames for a pair of glasses doesn’t sound overly complicated, but still presents its own set of challenges. Founded in 2008, Danish startup Monoqool has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to refine a 3D printing process for screwless eyewear. They have an entire catalog of 3d printed frames, some nice, and some that will make you look like a complete tool.

3D printed frames for eyeglasses – Credit: Monoqool

In an interview last year with 3D Printing Media Network, founder Allan Petersen talked about how the number of competitors in this space “is mind-blowing because it’s fairly easy to get started because it requires little investment.” All you need is a 3D printer and some expertise developing eyeglasses, which means that it’s not just new entrants, but also the more established eyeglass providers that are beginning to utilize 3D printing technology for frames. Monoqool sells their frames in more than 1,000 stores around the world, though the stores are “not really buying huge quantities.” One competitor this side of the pond decided to take a different approach and go directly-to-consumer.

Fitz Frames – Unbreakable 3D Printed Glasses for Kids

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Mother of three, Heidi Hertel, founded her eyeglass company because it filled a need she couldn’t find elsewhere – kid’s glasses that fit and don’t break easily. Founded in 2016, Fitz Frames has taken in $2.5 million in funding to develop unbreakable 3D printed glasses for kids. Prices start at $95, and fitting takes place using an app which measures more than 1,000 points on your kid’s face. A selection of staple styles and colors will always be available so that kids can grow with their favorite frames.

Credit: Fitz Frames

Fitz Frames took a few seed rounds last year so we can only assume the model has been proven and they have traction now (in other words, people are buying meaningful quantities of their product). While there are plenty of other companies like Monoqool and Fitz that are 3D printing frames, there is only one company that’s 3D printing lenses.

Lenses for 3D Printed Glasses

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Founded in 2009, Dutch startup Luxexcel has taken in $28 million in funding including participation from KLA-Tencor, a $25 billion producer of semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Luxexcel’s “printoptical technology” started out as a solution to develop and manufacture optical solutions for the LED industry using additive manufacturing. In an April 2013 interview with LED Magazine, the CEO of Luxexcel, Richard van de Vrie, talked about how the company intends to sell manufacturing services as opposed to printers in order to reduce the risk of being copied. At that time, Luxexcel had three printers producing 600-700 thousand pieces of product for the LED industry. That same year, Luxexcel printed the world’s first fully functional 3D printed glasses and presented them to Dutch King Willem Alexander. That’s when they realized there was more to 3D printed optics than just LEDs.

Luxexcel’s 3D Printing Technology

The Luxexcel technology is an inkjet-based 3D print technology which builds lenses droplet by droplet. From a liquid material, small droplets are jetted to build the required ophthalmic lens shape. The 3D printing process obtains very smooth lens surfaces without any post-processes. They’re able to create very accurate lenses because they use extremely small droplets, and are able to print rapidly because they jet many droplets at the same time.

Printoptical_Example
Credit: Luxexcel

Printing is just part of the Luxexcel VisionPlatform which consists of industrial-grade optical 3D-printers, lens-design software, and workflow integration tools which enables customers to manufacture 3D printed ophthalmic quality lenses that meet all industry standards. A single printer can complete four lenses per hour. Contrast this to the subtractive process which requires many manual handling steps and more than 10 machine processing steps.

Standard lens manufacturing process with multiple grinding and polishing steps – Credit: Luxexcel

Around 80% of original materials are wasted in the traditional cutting/grinding process, while additive manufacturing uses only what’s needed.

Luxexcel VisionPlatforms in Europe and the United States are creating commercial lenses that are being shipped to customers every day. The turnkey solution includes: the VisionEngine™ printer, Luxexcel VisionClear™ print material, VisionMaster™ lens design software, lens designs, beta testing lens designs, service, training, and maintenance. Oh, and room to put the 15-foot 5-ton printer that does all the work. In exchange, you’ll enjoy three main benefits associated with 3D printing lenses. From the horse’s mouth:

  • Simplicity: by simply printing the lens a long supply chain is reduced to one printer, no inventories, no polishing and grinding, and no sourcing semi-finished lenses from all over the world.
  • Design freedom: new lens designs by removing limits in the traditional technology, but also integrating smart technology into prescription lenses
  • Eco friendly: 3D printing removes the significant waste which is usually associated with lens manufacturing. Reduced carbon footprint, energy, wastewater, plastic waste, transport, and toxic materials.

What we don’t know is how competitive this solution is compared to the traditional method.

Aside from the ability to create custom prescription lens, Luxexcel also has their eye on “smart eyewear.” For example, we’ve talked before about how smart contact lenses may be the killer augmented reality device we’ve all been waiting for. Doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that some technology from Mojo Vision and some custom 3D printing from Luxexcel could result in prescription augmented reality (AR) devices.

Conclusion

Right now, 60% of people who wear eyeglasses need a prescription lens. According to Statista, the global eyewear industry was valued at approximately $131.32 billion U.S. dollars in 2018. Even capturing 1% of that market is a billion-dollar opportunity. Luxexcel is the only company – worldwide – that can 3D print ophthalmic prescription lenses. 3D printed frames are neat and all, but the real opportunity here seems to be a technology that allows lenses to be printed to specification in just fifteen minutes.

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