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Are 3D Printers the Future of Frames?

From your favorite magazine to your must-read blogs, you have probably seen an article trying to answer this question: “What are the best glasses for my face shape?” In fact, the secret behind the question is that every face is unique and few, if any, have a perfectly typical face that can be suited to a certain frame shape. The rules still apply, but most spectacle-wearers will need to combine ideas from two or more categories and then apply it to their own personal style.

Luckily, we live in a time where deep customization is just around the corner. Thanks to on-demand manufacturing, retail companies are taking personal measurements and applying them to suits and dresses to provide a fit that is just right. And 3D printing offers the same customization for product prototypes to children’s toys. Based on models found online, these things can be printed at home, as long as the right materials are available.

Will 3D printing play a part in the future of eyewear?

The potential
Last year, Protos completed a successful crowd-funding campaign to 3D print custom eyewear based on individual facial measurements. The custom glasses are scheduled to ship to customers in July 2014. To participate, customers would send photos of their faces (one with a credit card to show scale) and an algorithm would alter a frame design to fit the individual’s face from a size and design perspective.

But not all players in the industry see 3D printing as an opportunity for a final product. Tom Davies once envisioned 3D printers in every optician’s office in order to prefit customers with eyewear, as a precursor to the real frames Davies would then create with luxury materials.

And not all players have vision needs in mind. Networks such as Thingiverse, where people with personal, at-home 3D printers can share 3D designs, host models of eyewear, but they do not seem to be made with prescription lenses.

The road to printing your own glasses at home may be long, and the innovations required come down to materials.

The challenges
From industrial 3D printers to the at-home machines popularized in the past year, the biggest challenge with printing eyewear is the material. A 3D printer requires a model to be split into layers, which the printer essentially stacks over the number of hours required to set each layer individually.

3D printed products suffer from quality compared to traditionally manufactured products due to both strength and finish. Frames are traditionally made by Selective Laser Sintering machines, which mix base materials such as polyamide with a fill, such as glass or carbon fiber. This process is expensive and not suited to creating custom designs.

But, the interest in 3D printing and the possibilities for glasses will surely inspire designers to think about customization, which could spur a greater selection for consumers in the future.


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