Some eyewear brands have moved to a new level by offering to personalise and 3D-print the customer’s spectacle frames. This approach to manufacturing would appear to hold great promise but so far we are seeing very few similar initiatives in other sectors.

Slow Take-off for On-Demand 3D Printing

Until quite recently, retail stores – whether of the bricks-and-mortar or virtual online variety – functioned exclusively as points of sale for products ordered from the manufacturers. Now with the advent of 3D printing, a shop can be transformed into a venue where all kinds of goods and accessories can be designed and made-to-measure on the spot. In the eyewear sector, Lissac, part of French optical and sunglasses retail network Optic 2000, has begun to put this idea into practice by 3D-printing prototype spectacle frames. However, this approach still means that the customer has to go to the store twice, and in the end the pair of glasses is still manufactured in exactly the same way as standard spectacles.

On-demand production, but limited range of materials

However, Sneaking Duck, an Australian online eyewear retailer, is taking the on-demand printing experience a step further. In addition to its wide range of off-the-shelf frames, the firm has recently begun to offer four models by designer Andrew Simpson at design house and studio practice Vert Design, which are then made by the additive layer manufacturing (ALM) process, aka 3D printing. Although the customer cannot as yet dictate the exact shape of his/her desired frames, s/he can nevertheless give them a personal touch by choosing the colour, type of glass and frame arm length, and can even have a message written on the outside of the left arm. In switching to an on-demand approach for part of its product range, Sneaking Duck might well provide inspiration to other types of brands, designers or manufacturers. To date however, not all items can be digitised and the range of materials which 3D-printers can use to make items is quite small.

Meeting customers’ real needs

At the moment Sneaking Duck is selling the novelty aspect of its new approach and trying to capitalise on its position as an early mover in 3D printing of glasses frames. Aside from the ‘early adopter’ buzz however, most customers still want to be sure that the model they have chosen really suits their faces. And having to shell out A$360 when you order online from the Sneaking Duck site without first trying the frames on could prove an inhibiting factor. A second drawback might be that the company will accept returns for on-demand made spectacles or sunglasses only for proven material reasons – eyeglasses not corresponding to your optician’s prescription or a particular manufacturing fault. In-store direct 3D printing could therefore have greater appeal for the customer, but this would involve a radical change in the business model –i.e. online stores would have to create or arrange to share bricks-and-mortar outlets. All in all then, 3D printing is still a promising concept in search of interested brands.

By Lucie Frontière