Copenhagen-based MONOQOOL brings the effortlessly sleek and functional elements of Danish design into the eyewear field with its stylish 3D printed frames. Founded in 2008, the company has been working with 3D printing for roughly eight years, initially using the technology to prototype new eyewear designs and eventually transitioning into full-scale production.
Like many other 3D printed eyewear brands, MONOQOOL has relied on selective laser sintering (SLS) to produce its frames, leveraging the technology’s high resolution and durable print capabilities to create unique frame designs that integrate a novel hingeless mechanism.
Considering the rapidly expanding market for 3D printed eyewear—made up primarily of new companies—we spoke to MONOQOOL’s founder Allan Petersen to learn more about how the company not only benefits from 3D printing and addresses challenges with the technology, but how it stands out within the 3D printed eyewear segment.
3dpbm: When did MONOQOOL begin working with additive manufacturing? And how has it transitioned from prototyping to production?
Allen Petersen: We’ve been fiddling with 3D printing for seven or eight years. In the beginning, it was for prototyping, then in 2012 or 2013, we started manufacturing 3D printed glasses. We just jumped into it and faced the problems that occur when you’re new to a technology and when you work with suppliers who are very good at making prototypes but do not have any experience in production. Production is a whole different ballgame.
Prototyping is more forgiving because you can polish and improve on the prototype, but that’s very difficult to do with the production of a frame. So it’s been a learning process to figure out how to manufacture in the best way. But we’ve learned fast and we’ve been doing production for five or six years now and it seems like interest is increasing.
The number of competitors is mind-blowing because it’s fairly easy to get started because it requires little investment. In the beginning, we saw mainly new companies appearing in 3D printed eyewear, but recently we’ve also seen some more of the established companies going into it.
I think what we see is that 3D printing enables smaller companies to compete with eyewear giants that are generally slower in adopting new styles. Is that the case? And are you able to scale up with 3D printing?
Petersen: I think there are two reasons why the really big companies have not been going after 3D printing. The first is that it’s relatively expensive to produce still. The second thing is that you have very limited economies of scale. For example, if you produce 1,000 frames or 100,000, it’s not dramatically less expensive to use 3D printing. If you did the same in China—like most of the big eyewear producers—you would get enormous discounts that come with a million frames.
3D printing for eyewear is scalable, but you don’t get the big economies of scale that you would see in many other industries. It’s a little bit flat in cost price structure. We are not benefitting from selling more or producing more, something that you would see with other manufacturing processes.
Are all your products 3D printed?
Petersen: We only have 3D printed frames—we do nothing else but printing. There’s no plan B. We do add elements of other materials like metal into our products to take away some of the disadvantages of fully 3D printed frames, but also just to vary the look a little bit.
Is your business model based on designer eyewear rather that custom eyewear? Are you considering the introduction of a 3D scanning element into your business model?
Petersen: We actually looked at this right from the beginning when we started 3D printing because it’s obvious to look for customized 3D printed frames. In the beginning, we looked at doing it ourselves with our own money, but we soon found the complexity of this is incredible.
We have a collaboration with the Dutch company Sfered and they are developing a platform which is basically an open platform that hosts several players. We’ve been working on this now for four years and so far the result is that we are beta testing it in some stores in Holland, where the optician will have to invest in the advanced scanner system and scan the face of the customer 270 degrees.
The customer can then pick from a library of frame shapes and then the computer uses an algorithm to calculate how the frames would look on the customer’s face, taking into consideration all the unique features of the face. It’s something we are working on, but it’s a much bigger process than we ever believed.
I was just in Belgium to visit Luxexcel, which 3D prints lenses. As I learned, the company isn’t really focused on making custom shaped lenses for eyewear, but is this something that you think would be possible—3D printing lenses for your frames?
Petersen: What Luxexcel is doing is certainly very interesting. I think they have a really interesting concept and I look forward to see how commercial it will be in the end. We have so many obstructions to this, however. If you work through a distribution system where you have opticians selling your frames who have certain ties to factories, it will be hard to convince them that they should also buy a 3D printed lens.
At the moment, I don’t see the purpose of buying a 3D printed lens unless you have some kind of special need. I think it’s way out in the future. But I do think the Luxexcel guys would beg to differ, and I truly hope that will be the case because they are doing an amazing job.
Can you give me an idea of how big MONOQOOL’s business is right now?
Petersen: I can say that we are selling our frames in around 1,000 stores around the world. It sounds bigger than it is—the stores are not really buying huge quantities though.
And what about the finish for the products? Do clients prefer the fully smooth injection molded products, or do you think that the rougher 3D printed finish is becoming more accepted?
Petersen: I think it’s acceptable to the customer. We have experiments to make a finish that looks very much like an injection molded frame, but it ends up looking really cheap when you do it. It loses character.
In the beginning, when we made really rough frames, some people thought it was really good and asked how we made them. Sometimes you have a problem and you can sell it as a virtue. We’ve moved on from that level, but it’s still much rougher than if you use injection molding.
Strangely, a lot of people are excited and say 3D printing is a new technology. In reality, I think it’s an old technology that is not developing fast enough. We are frustrated that there are not more materials available. There are a lot of materials, but they’re not useful for producing products where the requirements are very high.
We have SLS technology and we have invested in PA, and then titanium 3D printing is also a possibility, but it makes very little sense at the moment because the volumes you can get out of it are fairly low, the price is too high and the post-processing is extensive.
With HP on the market, have you looked into its technology as far as lowering costs? Which materials are you printing with?
Petersen: We’re purely working with nylon at this point. And yes, we’ve looked at HP. We even had a few test products made, but we felt that it wasn’t quite at the same level of quality that we have seen from others on the market. We haven’t gone on with it, but it is really exciting to see the development and I’m sure they will nail it at some point. They’re putting lots of money into it and we need some disruption in the industry. We need a delinking of raw material from the machine.
What about Carbon’s layer-less 3D printing technology? And are you using an in-house 3D printer or working with an external service?
Petersen: We use an external service to produce our products. Carbon’s technology is certainly interesting and we also tested it, but the quality is not good enough in my opinion. It’s fine for prototyping and for similar things but for something you wear on your head for 16-20 hours a day…it’s unfortunately not ready for that yet.
I know there are some carbon fiber composites or glass fiber composites for SLS that provide quite a nice finish. Have you worked with those?
Petersen: We did test the glass fiber composite material, but it’s still very limited. I think this has something to do with the kind of monopoly situation that links the warranty of the purchase of powder to your machine supplier. This tie will eventually break and hopefully will result in more new materials on the market.
It was like that for 20 years; it was monopolistic and closed and then now it’s opening up because lots of companies are entering the market. The problem is that even though it’s opened up, not that many materials have. My understanding is that HP is adopting a more open materials model, but it’s really hard to optimize materials for that technology.
Petersen: That’s what I hear. Everything on the agenda at HP is exciting, what we need to see is if it will work.