It seems that as each new technology is introduced into the optical field, the speed of its development progresses faster than that which came before and its acceptance as a product available for consumption by end users arrives sooner than anything introduced prior.

The latest technology for which this formula appears to be in effect is the 3D printing of frames. (Lenses are another story, but they are also being manufactured using 3D printing; see page 56.) Just a few short years after additive manufacturing (another name for 3D printing) was first implemented as a means of fast tracking the prototyping of new frame styles, there are now a host of 3D-printed frames available on the market and being fitted on patients by eyecare professionals far and wide.

Frames made with additive manufacturing can be divided into two categories – ready-to-wear and customized. Ready-to-wear are distributed from frame boards just as traditional frames are; they’re just manufactured using a technique that builds them up layer by layer. The customized versions of 3D-printed frames are similarly manufactured, but they are personalized to the individual wearer’s unique facial measurements by taking 360-degree scans of their head.

“A lot of companies have been dabbling in it for five to 10 years,” optician Perry Brill of Brill Eye Center in Mission, KS, told us about 3D printing, “but the creative process and the materials are still in their infancy.” He sees it as a way to reduce the time from design to final product and a means for smaller companies to enter the business. “Traditional crafting required extensive tooling and big conglomerates, but this allows you to cut down on manufacturing time without as much legacy knowledge,” he said.

It’s a new way to produce frames, and some companies are betting on it becoming an even more prominent way. While still in its formative stages, the possibilities are seemingly as infinite as the shapes and sizes that can be created.

When discussing where 3D-printed frames might be headed, Jack Erker III (who distributes 3D-printed Monoqool frames through his Studio Optyx world headquarters in St. Louis) said, “In the future any designer out there could have their own set of files that you might buy with a click fee,” in a way similar to the way lens designs are paid for these days. Eyecare professionals could then print out their own frames in their office.

Of course, this would require that the cost of 3D printers comes way down. But with the typical trajectory of technology, with costs dramatically reduced as the technology becomes more mainstream, this would not be out of the question and could come to fruition sooner than we might expect.

For example, a search for industrial-quality 3D printers capable of performing selective laser sintering on nylon polyamides (the technique and materials used to produce finished frames), showed price ranges from $100,000 to $250,000. Professional quality desktop 3D printers capable of producing prototype-level frames were available for less than 10% of the lower portion of that range. It would not be inconceivable that given enough volume eyecare practices could soon make a profit printing frames in-house as the cost of machines capable of additive manufacturing comes down.

But that’s down the road. For now, as some frame manufacturers further refine the finishes of their ready-to-wear offerings and others work out the kinks of creating customized eyewear made-to-measure for individual patients based on their unique facial measurements, printing finished frames in the ECP’s office is just a gleam in the eye of some forward-thinking eyewear companies . . . or perhaps a goal in their five-year plan.

As Eileen D. Mielcarek, COE, of Media Eye Works Ltd. in Media, PA, told us, “3D printing is here to stay; it’s not going away.”

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