Among the thousands of companies that make up the rapidly evolving global landscape for additive manufacturing, there are some that stand out for the uniqueness of their technology and applications. Companies that have driven their technological approach to AM in new directions, such as the production of houses, food, electronics and optics. One of these companies is certainly Luxexcel, the only company that is today able to digitally manufacture ophthalmic lenses for complex prescriptions.
Companies such as Luxexcel often go down a somewhat dangerous path by creating an entirely new market. As they often have no competitors, the rewards can be enormous eventually. However, having no competitors can also mean that the road ahead is too difficult. Founded in 2009, Luxexecl is now closer than ever to demonstrate the value of its technology, with a functioning system already installed and producing lenses at partner labs. Future vertical commercially expansion may be why Fabio Esposito, who previously built wax 3D printing company Solidscape from a promising venture into a jewelry production leader, has been called in as CEO.
We took the opportunity of a recent trip to Belgium to see for ourselves what is going on at Luxexcel’s Tornhout facility, where the technology is being developed. Fabio helped us understand more clearly what Luxexel’s business model for digital, 3D printed and mass-produced prescription lenses will look like. But first, let’s take a step back and understand how the very idea for this technology emerged.
A closer look
Luxexcel 3D printing technology is an additive fabrication process for 3D printing functional lenses. Much like other 3D printing applications, the company’s VisionPlatform is fundamentally different from traditional methods in that it produces less waste and enables the production of more complex customized products. Traditional ophthalmic lens fabrication methods begin with semifinished lens blanks then grind and polish the lens, producing a lot of waste material as a result. Luxexcel technology 3D prints the lenses which are optically clear and smooth and immediately ready for coating processes when they leave the 3D printer.
Luxexcel’s 3D printing is a type of material jetting technology, where lenses are built up from tiny droplets. Semi-finished blanks are not needed, as the lenses are built in the shape and prescription required without requiring any polishing. They are ready to be coated and edged right out of the printer.
Eyeing the complete digital workflow
The launch of this technology is not aimed to enter into mass market solutions or compete with the price of traditional and legacy lenses. The primary goal is to add value for the users, primarily independent ophthalmic labs – by enabling- them to offer unique products to their customers.
“In 2015 the company decided to shift entirely toward focusing on ophthalmic lenses,” Fabio Esposito explains. “Over these past two years, we were able to build the first working prototype of the machine – which is the solution currently working with our first customers in the US – in order to visibly prove the concept. The overall idea – he explains – is to provide a suite of tools that allow us to basically connect the doctor with the prescription all the way to the patient.”
Luxexcel’s offering includes a full turnkey solution called the Luxexcel VisionPlatform to 3D print ophthalmic lenses. The VisionEngine printer, the VisionClear materials, the lens designs, license, support, and maintenance are delivered directly to the partner ophthalmic lab. The company’s proprietary VisionMaster lens design software is included and allows the lab and its customers to create custom lens products adapted to the needs of the eye care professional and patient. The Luxexcel VisionMaster allows ophthalmic labs and eye care professionals to design custom lenses for their patients. After the design is ready for print, the liquid material is loaded into the printer and the correct print settings and resolution are applied.
“Today – Fabio continues – you have to go get your prescription, which the doctor then sends to a lab. The lab works on the lenses and sends them back. We have developed a platform where the end users can actually enter their prescription, and the prescription is sent directly to be manufactured in our printers. So, it can be point-of-use and fed into a distributed manufacturing structure. You can be an optician in Milano, enter the prescription and send it to somebody in Sydney, Australia where there is the printer that will print the lenses.”.
Luxexcel’s objective is to ‘change the way ophthalmic lenses are made’ and create unique new eyeglasses not possible with legacy technology. This goal will be primarily achieved through close partnerships with independent ophthalmic labs. Benefits of using the Luxexcel VisionPlatform also include the ability to eliminate initial Cap-Ex for the lab, as Luxexcel will provide a full 3D print setup. No blanks (the raw polymer parts that are lenses are traditionally carved – or edged – out of) are required, resulting in a reduction of inventory and of manpower for stock picking. There is no need to reconfigure generators, polishers, blockers and laser markers, the 3D print setup will provide lenses ready to be coated. The process also eliminates waste, swarf from generators or polishers, toxic metals for blocking, and water.
Only the lonely
After emphasizing that the company is not working on “eyewear” but only and very specifically on “lenses”, Fabio Esposito offered me a very clear view of the global eyewear market (which includes lenses). This is a $100+ billion market today where mass produced frames and lenses for common prescription represent the large majority of the business, along with sunglasses (which include lenses within their own category). This is not the market that Luxexcel is targeting simply because – much like any other 3D printing technology – it cannot yet compete with injection molding process on batches of several hundred thousand and millions of parts.
Instead, Luxexcel is initially targeting a market that today is dramatically underserved: the market for rare prescriptions cause by diseases of rare conditions. This is a segment where producing lenses by traditional methods is either impossible or overly expensive. Using Luxexcel’s technology, on the other hand, creating a lens for a very complex and rare prescription is no more expensive or time-consuming than creating any other type of lens. IN the future these conditions may even become more common, judging by current global trends that see the lack of eye vision be considered more similar to a disease, affecting more and more people, more heavily than in the past.
“The market for specialty lenses is very small simply because today it is impossible and not at all cost-effective to cater to it,” Fabio explains. “If you are a minus 30, plus 28 diopters, and you look for glasses, you probably get a pair of lenses that are minus 18 plus 20 diopters, which is the closest thing available. It may not matter since you’d be almost blind and any improvement helps, however, you will not be able to see very well. Better lenses may not exist, or insurance may not cover the costs and people just cannot afford them: Luxexcel technology can cater to needs of people with such conditions in a way that they can afford it. Our initial goal – he concludes – is to target low-volume, high-value lens production.”
Production on the horizon
Fabio Esposito’s task is to now build Luxexcel into a full production network. Among the reasons why he may be the best person for the job is his experience at Solidscape, a 3D printer manufacturer that he built into a global powerhouse for the vertical jewelry segment, by always targeting production rather than prototyping.
“Luxexcel is obviously quite different because by the time I left Solidscape was totally consolidated and Luxexcel is still in a very early phase, Mr. Esposito reveals. “It is a little bit of a de ja vous since when I arrived Solidscape was also just a startup. There are some substantial differences between the two organizations in terms of people, product and market, but – much like Solidscape – Luxexcel is also very unique in its approach. For one I very much like the fact that we deal directly with functional parts. We don’t deal with prototyping, which is one of the things that interests me the most. I come from capital equipment for the manufacturing world. I like to work with processes or into industries and software, rather than selling the prototyping tools for tinkerers.”
Now that the first systems have been installed and are operational, the company is learning a lot on how to best approach the market. “We learn how they work, what they use, the complexity requirements, wishes and desires, the mass that they like to have and the properties that master needs to have, Mr. Esposito goes on. “We have collected all this feedback our efforts are focused on making sure that all this feedback will be implemented in the systems, to put the finishing touches on our products. In 2019 we’re going to transition into full blown production, by ramping up our commercial activities.”
Looking farther ahead
However, the specialty lenses market is not the only one that Luxexcel is targeting. The company has raised several millions from five main financial partners who are looking at a much larger pie: the future market for prescription-integrated AR and VR visors, smart glasses, occupational-wear and integrated electronics. Luxexcel expects that this market – which will also include features such as switchable diopters, electrochromic lenses, integrated filters and more – could be even larger than the traditional eyewear market is today.
Today the Vision platform can already be used to print specialty lenses (high powers, prisms, lenticulars, slab-offs), customized (optics bi/tri/quadri focals: where the ophthalmic lab can position the additions where required), customized cosmetics where the user or the lab can add custom visible markings, sports figures, names, brands and decorations) and prescription lenses for AR/VR goggles, allowing the use of goggles with a wider field of view and without wearing regular glasses underneath.
“We expect the future for this technology to be in a market area where the technology will open up doors to new applications that are not possible to create today. The print platform offers ophthalmic labs the freedom to create revolutionary lens designs and smart-glass functionalities in a mainstream ophthalmic process,” Fabio says.
This can lead to the creation of an entirely new market and some fascinating new products. For example Embedded Devices, that lenses with RX power that can change color and transmission like photochromic glasses but switch instantly. Thin films, electronics, camera’s, sensors, lens filters, chips, and sensors, amongst other materials, both optical and non-optical, can be seamlessly embedded in the lenses and printing process in order to create novel lens features and applications. These future lenses can also have unique designs – perhaps associated with innovative 3D printed frame designs – as 3D printing enables physically ‘shaping’ new lens designs, both on the optical surface (aspherical, prismatic) and lens contours. Mass customization will be within the reach of any eyewear professional, as commodity niche applications can be served with tailored products. “These are the trends that are out there and these are exactly the types of applications that our technology is perfect for.”