Innovators show 3D printed eyewear at MIDO 2023
Materialise and Hoet are leading the sustainable transition with bio-sourced materials. And there's a lot more to "see"
Oh look, 3D printed eyewear. Ever since 3D printing began its “massification” process, eyewear was one of the first consumer product applications that companies and startups imagined as a “killer application”. Custom, on-demand, original, innovative, sustainable: there are many things that 3D printed eyewear can be and that standard eyewear is not. Nearly a decade into it, 3D printed eyewear is here and it’s here to stay, however, it represents just a tiny fraction of global eyewear industrial production, and the recent MIDO 2023 fair in Milan, the leading global event for the eyewear industry, certainly confirmed this.
Fashion and big brand names continue to drive an eyewear industry dominated by EssilorLuxottica (and the company is not blind to additive manufacturing in prototyping and tooling, while its production demands are much too large). However, while smartglasses are definitely “out” (at least for the time being), additive manufacturing is seen as a key enabling technology and an opportunity to explore, especially for high-end models, as confirmed by the President of MIDO, Giovanni Vitaloni. “I recently visited a company in Northern Italy that produced frames using 3D printing and this technology is very interesting in terms of geometry and exploring new designs,” he told 3dpbm during the MIDO official press conference. “It is certainly something that will continue to be part of the industry, especially for some high-end and luxury models.”
(More) sustainable eyewear
Arkema and Materialise, two companies leading the 3D printed eyewear revolution, took the MIDO 2023 very seriously, presenting Arkema’s portfolio of innovative polymers tailored for both the injection molding and additive manufacturing (3D printing) of lightweight frames. The fact that Arkema’s materials are suitable for traditional eyewear manufacturing was certainly a factor in the company’s large presence.
Several new biobased and recycled materials are being highlighted at the booth, along with transparent polyamide 11 grades designed to unleash unlimited options in terms of creative and fashionable eyewear design. Highlights include low-density Rilsan Polyamide 11 grades, enabling eyewear to float in the water, unique Pebax Rnew elastomer grades with up to 97% bio-based content for flexibility in the production of unbreakable frames for kids, carbon-filled grades for cycling sport frames with 30% recycled content, 100% bio-based Rilsan polyamide 11 grades with natural or mineral fillers, and Rilsan Clear Rnew grades for transparency.
Arkema’s polyamide 11 materials are derived 100% from renewable castor seeds. These advanced polymers offer a substantial reduction in product carbon footprint – made even lower now due to Arkema’s recently announced investment in renewable energy in its global polyamide 11 production network.
Arkema’s partner Materialise, a leader in 3D printed eyewear, is also present at the booth to showcase how polyamide 11 is used to create beautiful advanced eyewear solutions in a range of fashionable styles. The translucency delivers both beautiful pastel and intense dark tones. The company is also presenting the new Custom Fit Eyewear Suite, taking personalized eyewear and customer experience to the next level.
New (business) models
Either leveraging Materialise or another service provider as production partners – or by conducting some production in-house, a few other interesting startups and companies were present at with 3D printed eyewear at MIDO 2023. Almost all of these were in the “Academy” area, dedicated to new and original companies, while at least two of them, Götti Switzerland and TPI – Tech Print Industries, had a standard, larger booth. It should be noted that while Götti does have a large 3D printed eyewear offer it also carries traditionally manufactured models. TPI, on the other hand, is a company developing advanced software to color-customize 3D printed frames. The company is currently using HP’s full-color MJF technology, leveraging an internal facility. However, due to the fact that HP is no longer supporting color 3D printing, the company is also actively looking for color 3D printing alternatives that can guarantee comparable durability in the long term.
Over 30 companies and startups have entered the 3D printed eyewear market over the past few years [you can find all of them here in the dedicated section of 3dpbm’s 3D Printing Business Directory]. As indicated in the directory, many of these have since shut down, with COVID playing a considerable part in creating a challenging economic environment – especially for the sunglasses industry. However, the ones that have remained operational are now seeing a definite uptick in demand, with some of these companies – that have been in business making 3D printed frames for six or more years – recording sales in the order of several thousand 3D printed frames per year.
Among the 3D printing technologies used in eyewear manufacturing, Italian company Sisma, a specialist from the jewelry industry, has been providing both metal PBF and polymer DLP technologies to eyewear manufacturers that use it for prototyping and tooling as well as some end-use production. Sisma’s Everes 3D printer can build a complete frame with a functional resin in less than 3 hours. The stainless steel AISI 316L frames in the photo below (first on the right-hand side) were built in on a medium-sized MYSINT200 metal PBF machine.
Beyond and along with Materialise, the company that pioneered 3D printed eyewear, Hoet, continues to introduce new designs, including (it is currently the only company to do so) titanium 3D printed frames. The newest Hoet Couture model (that you can see me wear in the image below – or that you can try on yourself by scanning the QR code, also in the gallery below) was launched at MIDO 2023 and the company is also continuing development and research on the polymer 3D printed side, even going as far as exploring photopolymer technologies.
It was also refreshing to see other companies reporting growing demand of 3D printed eyewear and presenting many original design that leveraged 3D printing in different ways. Among these German company Klenze & Baum, located in the heart of Munich’s Glockenbachviertel, situated at the corner of two streets – Klenze Street and Baum Street, produce 3D printed, custom-made frames that are more robust and durable through a unique integrated and patented ball hinge.
French company V & M L’Atelier presented several original and stylish designs at MIDO 2023, with geometries that cannot be produced by traditional manufacturing. The designs differentiate themselves beyond the use of 3D printing by incorporating a unique and patented insert system: the LINOTEC insert holder. This method offers the possibility of a morphological, tailor-made adaptation, maximizing nasal comfort.
As did Luxemburg-based Impressio, both using 3D printing to push the limits of what can be done in terms of frame geometry. The only limit is that while 3D printing is ideal for creative designs that stand out in thick frames that can be ideal for sunglasses or to make a fashion statement, the technology is not always suitable at this time for light, metallic frames, targeting those who want to minimize the presence of corrective glasses.
At another booth, German company Weareannu, a collection of international designers, thinkers and makers, presented its collection that uses 3D printing in order to avoid overproduction, reduce carbon emissions and drastically reduce waste by only making what’s needed. Finally, the startup Francis Pike, presented its own designs that leverage 3D printing to integrate magnetic hinges: a perfect example of how 3D printing can help bring an idea into reality, quickly and inexpensively. The global eyewear industry wants to innovate and become more sustainable: judging by the relatively slow degree of innovation in traditional high-end eyewear and the many nearly identical (non-sustainable) acetate frames that were present in many of the other booths at the show, the eyewear industry can truly benefit from additive manufacturing in the years to come.