The global eyewear industry, valued at $102.66 billion in 2015, is comprised of non-US and international companies who manufacture and sell corrective, lifestyle, sun-protection, luxury, fashion, and sports eyewear. 3D printing creates a major opportunity in the eyewear industry.

3D printing provides different opportunities as it will decrease waste and increase product availability while reducing cost. The benefits outweigh the detriments; custom eyewear is more expensive and time consuming to produce compared to standard mass produced prescription frames. For example, taking facial measurements and making clay molds, although both necessary, adds to the optician’s duties during the eyewear production process. Furthermore, mistakes at any stage of the process are expensive and require recalibration of measurements.

Whether the run consists of one frame or a dozen the 3D prints are made to scale. However, any mistakes can be quickly corrected by using 3D printing services such as Shapeways and i.materialise which allow the user to upload 3D printable files and then print those objects. However, there are some drawbacks which include the strength, finish, and variety of frames. Optometry firms who utilize 3D printing can innovate and bring products to market at a quicker rate.

3D printing in the eyewear industry is still relatively a new phenomenon. Manufacturers are embracing the technology and innovation incorporating 3D printing has to offer, which has the ability to differentiate their products from that of competitors. Companies and designers engaging in research and development of 3D printing eyewear are now eligible for state and federal R&D tax credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • Technological in nature
  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Elimination of Uncertainty
  • Process of Elimination

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent.  On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax and start-up businesses can utilize the credit against payroll taxes.

Eyewear Companies Employing 3D Printing  

Two of the first eyewear company initializers of 3D printing were MYKITA MYLON, based in Germany, and Sneaking Duck, based in Australia. MYKITA MYLON was the first company to create an entire eyewear collection called Mylon. The prices of the frames were as high as €419 Euros ($491.99) with a limited choice of colors. Soon after, new eyewear lines were introduced for both sun protection and prescription lenses. Sneaking Duck used 3D printing as a means of offering high-end and original designs. They offer four different designs between prescription optics and sunglasses; in addition to size is a range of 21 colors to select from. In the future, many of their 3D printed eyewear frames will provide “a perfect fit and perfect optics” as each product will be 3D measured to fit each individual’s face.

Warby Parker, an American online brand of prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses, valued at more than $1.2 billion, has succeeded in getting consumers to spend less on fashionable eyeglasses in addition to becoming a more vertically integrated company. Now, Warby Parker is able to manufacture and sell a formerly $500 product for $95 by designing the frames themselves and using the best materials on the market.

Safilo Group, based in Italy, is the second largest global producer of eyewear. The company uses 3D printing technology to innovate and advance their design process. Some of Safilo Group’s brands include Dior, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, and Hugo Boss. Safilo Group uses a full color, multi-material 3D printer that has an ability to produce a large capacity of frames. 3D printing has provided Safilo Group with an increase in productivity and efficiency.  According to the product sample coordinator at Safilo Group, Daniel Tomasin, 3D printing produces the exact same color and texture products and allows for an accelerated development of new eyeglass frames. He continues by stating that the 3D printer prototyping cycle decreases from 15 hours to 3 hours which provides a turnaround time approximately 60% faster than manual labor.

Luxottica Group SpA, an Italian company valued at $25.9 billion, includes letting brands such as Ray Bans, Oakley, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany, Valentino and many more mass produce their frames using generic molds to reach the eyes of over 500 million people. Constantly looking to improve systems and innovate in the market, Luxottica Group SpA has been investigating ways to speed up their manufacturing with the use of 3D printing. 3D printing provides flexibility and increased customization as the digital model can be easily edited, updated and adapted. They are revolutionizing design and manufacturing in the eyewear sector by refining the materials used as well as using more unique and tailored products. They have been testing 3D printing technologies for over a decade to speed up the manufacturing processes in the prototyping phase. One of the major advantages for Luxottica Group is the increase of speed and simplicity when the developed prototype from the digital model is transferred to and from different plants and offices. Because of the flexibility associated with 3D printing, designers no longer have creative restrictions in glasses design that incorporates unique and sometimes complex shapes. As 3D printing technology is evolving, Luxottica Group is seeking to expand its application of 3D printing to more than just the prototyping phase of design.

The Benefits

3D printing technologies are revolutionizing manufacturing in the global eyewear industry. 3D printing does not require a mold and therefore produces custom parts without increasing the costs of production. Instead, the 3D printing cost of producing one item will be the same cost for producing 10,000 of them.  Marc Levinson, the CEO of Protos, a start-up based in San Francisco, states that “3D printing is not constrained by the same rules or properties so each pair of glasses can be unique.” Protos customizes their 3D printed eyewear to fit the user’s face and dimensions. Also, the company is able to manufacture in America versus overseas in China which provides a more scalable and cost-effective approach.  As materials and processes continue to be developed, 3D printing of eyewear will become more prominent.

Google Glass and 3D printing

[Image: Glasskap]

Google Glass went public in April 2012 and was marketed as a way to share what individuals are doing as it happens. Over the years, Google Glass’s attraction decreased not related to the technology, but because customers did not know why they needed the glasses. Some people used it for everyday routines and others used it for more extreme sports like skydiving. Now, designers are adding more features to Google Glass as it became more popular in the market with the rise of 3D manufacturing. Moreover, app developers would be interested in developing new apps for the Google Glass as the prototypes are 3D printed. Although it is not yet determined how it would affect the mass market, many entrepreneurs are finding ways to 3D print the head mounted computer also known as Google Glasses. One in particular, Todd Blatt, is a mechanical engineer who creates 3D models of accessories for Google Glasses. Blatt’s company, Glasskap, provides a visual cue to people around the wearer, letting them know they are not being recorded without their knowledge or consent. 3D printers are available for purchase for the public and other entrepreneurs are engaging in the world of re-inventing the world of Google Glass applications.

Conclusion

The 3D printing platform will allow many eyewear companies to improve their company’s performance while decreasing their costs. It is not only a benefit to smaller eyewear manufacturers but also to global giants in the eyewear industry. Additionally, it’s a start of a new age for designers since there are a multitude of color definitions and transparency options that can be used to try new solutions. 3D printing also allows for flexibility and increased customization as the digital file can be edited and updated. Today, companies, designers, and other individuals engaging in research and development of 3D printed eyewear are eligible for R&D federal and state tax credits.


Charles R. Goulding and Alizé Margulis of R+D Tax Savers discuss 3D printed eyewear.

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