LONDON, United Kingdom — Transformative technologies can often start small. Over the last decade, what began as basic online diaries gave birth to the simple yet powerful web-based blogging tools that have fundamentally democratised mass media, ending the monopoly once enjoyed by large publishers. Now, digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing, which enable people to 'print' objects from digital files, are set to drive a equally powerful revolution in physical manufacturing.
"3D printing represents a paradigm shift in the way some forms of production take place," said Andy Middleton, general manager for EMAE at Stratasys, a leading US manufacturer of 3D printers and 3D production systems. "Traditional production takes an existing material, shapes it using cutting tools and then assembles the parts — what we call ‘subtractive’ manufacturing. 3D printing on the other hand, creates an item essentially from nothing, from the ground up, through an ‘additive’ process.
In the fashion and luxury space, 3D printing technologies, which can currently create objects in plastic, rubber, metal and ceramic, have been used to make dresses, notably by Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, who has shown in Paris as a guest member of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture. But it's the entry-level category of designer eyewear — a strategically important area of business, where brands make a sizable chunk of revenue through highly lucrative licensing deals with companies like Luxottica, Safilo and Marcolin — that may be the first to feel the impact of 3D printing in a significant way.
On the one hand, the 3D printing is not new. "As futuristic as it seems, 3D printing is a mature technology that has been around for nearly 30 years. It’s used daily across countless industries from automotive and aerospace, right through to consumer goods and electronics," said Middleton.
But for the most part, large manufacturers have, thus far, used the technology for rapid prototyping. Indeed, in the designer eyewear market, the largest licensing player of all has been using 3D printing to create prototypes for some time. "Luxottica uses 3D printing technologies to speed up the process of product development in the prototyping phase," said Antonio Miyakawa, executive vice president of marketing, creative direction and product at Luxottica, which, along with eyewear licenses for luxury brands like Chanel, Prada, Armani and Ralph Lauren, owns Ray-Ban, Oakley and Oliver Peoples, as well as powerful retail outlets including LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut and others.
"Using unique multi-material technology, customers can now even print the rigid plastic frame along with the clear transparent lens all in a single build — requiring no assembly — in just a matter of hours," added Middleton. "When it comes to product design, this is revolutionary. The days of producing a single, low quality prototype over a number of days or weeks are gone."
Direct digital manufacturing
But as 3D printing systems become better and cheaper, the technology is being used for the manufacturing of finished products as well. "We’re also seeing an increase in manufacturers using 3D printing to produce short-run production parts that can be used directly in the final product, which is a big step forward from the world of prototyping to direct digital manufacturing," observed Middleton.
Marc Levinson is the CEO of Protos, a start-up based in San Francisco that makes 3D-printed eyewear. "When studying industrial design in college, I was looking to start a venture that combined my specialised interest and knowledge in 3D printing with the skills of some of my classmates," said Levinson. "With all of the interesting implications behind 3D printing, it was still very much a process meant for prototyping. We've spent the last few years developing a proprietary material and workflow that yields a product we are very proud to sell directly to customers."
Importantly, digital fabrication processes like 3D printing make the per item cost of producing one of something the same as the per item cost of producing 10,000. And while, at high volumes, 3D printing systems are not as cost-efficient as traditional mass production techniques, like metal cutting or plastic injection moulding, they are set to become better and cheaper over time, radically lowering barriers to entry for start-ups like Protos, no matter how small their production runs.
"With traditional methods of manufacturing, eyewear companies need to mass produce thousands of the same exact frame. With 3D printing, we are not constrained by the same rules or properties, so each pair of glasses can be unique," said Levinson.
This means two things. Firstly, it frees companies to manufacture a much broader spectrum of designs, including those that may not have been previously selected for mass production. And secondly, it means consumers can have their very own custom-made glasses based on their aesthetic sensibilities and the specific dimensions and contours of their faces, which is exactly what Protos has in mind.
"We resolved to make a truly consumer grade product through the process of 3D printing and decided that customisable eyewear was the perfect thing to start with," explained Levinson. "I think 3D printing will flip the process of buying eyewear on it's head. Instead of you searching endlessly to find a frame that kind of fits, the perfect frames will come to you."
The opportunity is not lost on large players like Luxottica, however. "These technologies will allow us to create products that would not otherwise be produced following the normal process of industrialisation," said Miyakawa. "There are huge opportunities which consist in constantly refining the materials used, giving rise to products that are more and more unique and tailor-made."
At the moment, sales of 3D printing systems remain a tiny fraction of comparable sales of traditional 'subtractive' manufacturing tools. But that may be set to change. "3D printing has been supported by governments as the technology to revolutionise manufacturing. US president Obama’s administration has already pledged funding of up to $60 million to a National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The EU have mirrored such backing with the release of a report detailing how the continent plans to prioritise 3D printing for the purpose of reviving their manufacturing sector," said Middleton. "We envisage a scenario where every workstation, office or department — involved in design, engineering and production — has this technology."
3D printing is also finding its way into the hands of small-time 'kitchen-table' producers, hobbyists and end consumers in the form of accessibly-priced machines made by companies like Brooklyn-based Makerbot, as well as online 3D printing marketplaces and communities like the venture-backed Shapeways, which lets users share 3D product design files and make, buy and sell their own products, turning design and manufacturing into another cloud computing service, available at the click of a mouse.
Professional grade 3D printers are also starting to appear on the local high street. Last week, global office supply giant Staples announced the opening of their first 3D printing 'Experience Centre,' offering 3D printing services to end consumers. "This is the first time a major mainstream retailer has provided 3D printing to the public," said Dr Conor MacCormack, CEO of Mcor Technologies, which is providing Staples with the 3D printers it needs to power the new centres.
For the eyewear industry, all this raises important questions for intellectual property and brand copyright. When digital design files are as easily exchanged as mp3s and access to 3D printers is available at the click of a mouse or a stroll to the local print shop, what's to stop people from simply downloading and printing off a pair of designer sunglasses, all for a fraction of the retail price (which can often be in the region of $400)?
The answer is, not much.
A team at Virginia Tech University is experimenting with embedding quantum dots into 3D printed materials to help companies tag products with identifying markers in order to help prevent counterfeiting, but it may be years before the technology is widespread. Eyewear manufacturers could also start to differentiate their products by using non-plastic materials that can’t yet be 3D-printed, but this would, of course, cut into profit margins.
Lawsuits are another option, but here lessons from the music industry — where the Internet, mp3s and digital audio players have had dramatic consequences for copyright — are instructive. Indeed, aggressive lawsuits may only alienate consumers and ultimately fail to prevent piracy, anyway. Which begs the ultimate question: should forward-thinking eyewear manufacturers get ahead of the change that new digital fabrication technologies will inevitably bring and negotiate iTunes- or Spotify-like deals with companies like Shapeways, for example, that make it easy for consumers to access and pay for designer eyewear that they can print out?