Guest blog by Mikko Vartio, Industrial management M.Sc. student, B.Sc. in mechanical and production engineering
How 3D-printing will affect the supply chain of eyewear?
Have you ever really thought of how 3D-printing will change the way goods are delivered to customers? I think the change will eventually be huge, and the companies that are ready for this change will have a significant competitive edge in the future.
My fellow student Krista Sorri and I did some research on this subject, and our example was the 3D-printing of eyewear. Different technologies involved in this change are developing side by side, and during the transition period, some technologies will be more developed than others. Give me a minute to draw a road map for this interesting but winding road ahead.
Our research envisioned eyewear purchasing process that is completely free from the boundaries of time and place. Some solutions are ready, and some things need to be improved, maybe even invented, before this will happen. We looked at the development of some sprouting new technologies and just assumed them to happen. It’s called seeing in the future. On the other hand, where there’s will, isn’t there a road? Maybe the technology pull will eventually hasten these developments?
In the bright future
You could test your vision at home, scan the shape of your head and print eyewear that fits you perfectly. And perfectly doesn’t just mean the fit with the placement of your ears, but any color and shape that ensure a perfect fit to your face and style. All this through a web-based portal. You could print glasses every month, week or even day. You could print outrageously colored eyewear just for one evening’s use. Single print or monthly subscription? You name it!
All you’d need is the material that could be obtained online, or at a supermarket in the office supplies section. Maybe borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbour will sound more like: “Can I borrow your print reel for a while?”
And after the passing fancy for your bright lime green cat’s eye glasses, you’d toss them into your personal plastic grinding machine that turns them into re-usable material, ready to be fed into the printer once again. The printer’s ink cartridge could color it with a different shade on the next run.
Requirements of the new model
The future scenario needs multiple technologies, and they will develop each with their own pace.
- Vision test equipment
- Speed and quality of the 3D-printing process
- Multiple materials and colors with different printing heads in the same machine
- New materials (strong, biodegradable, water soluble, recyclable)
- Printing of optics
- Widespread equipment
Which one will be ready next? We already have quite speedy printing, but the surface quality is not pretty enough. People’s trust on the expertise of opticians will delay the market pull for vision test equipment, but you don’t need to check your vision every time anyway. Printing of optics is not ready yet, but will definitely be some day. And you could print just frames first, leaving the demanding lens part still with the dedicated lens factories. Printers are still not common, but maybe you don’t need them in every household after all?
What we do have already is the 3D-scanning equipment. Also all the frames are designed with 3D-design software. Maybe we could combine this data with the existing technologies? How about this:
- Vision test with a professional optician
- 3D-scan of the head
- Trying the frame design virtually on your own digital head
- Ordering the eyewear online
You’d do the boring part involving vision test and head scanning in a retail store, but could then continue using the service online. Many people buy at least two glasses with the same prescription, since your vision tends not to change dramatically over time. With the dramatically reduced prices of today, you probably would buy much more often if you could order new pair just by logging onto the service and virtually fitting new designs to your digitized head. Click, click, click…instead of the in-store shuffling switching between your existing glasses and the candidates, and not seeing them properly anyway with your bat’s vision.
This could also result in a dramatically reduced inventory of frames in store, but the catch here is the easier buying process. If the frames needed some bending behind the ears, it could be done in store as usual.
Software as core competence
In the end, it will be all about giving the customers easy access to designs that fit their heads, not delivering the eyewear itself. That’s why the core competence will be the software that the customer uses to find the right product.
But isn’t the software a key thing already in the “near future” scenario envisioned above? Could we start to take steps towards this new model already? My opinion is yes. Eyewear retail chains could quite easily offer this kind of service. Maybe as a nice toy-like extra feature at first, but with gradually expanding possibilities.
End notes 3D printing eyewear
Style is the reason why eyewear can and will remain as a desired accessory even in the future. Corrective laser surgery might eventually be available with a flick of a switch, but person’s will to enhance his or her looks is immortal. We are talking about eyewear that has designs that can be stretched and shrunk to fit automatically recognized facial features. A classic eyewear style that you’ve wanted to wear, but felt that it won’t flatter your face because of its width or narrowness? Sounds ridiculous when you start to really think about it in this light.
And let us not forget new kind of additional value this computerized selection process offers. The software could recognize the tone of your skin and color of your eyes, and propose well-matching candidates to you. Or you could post these candidates to social media to ask your trusted circle of friends what they think of them.
The eyewear business has maybe one the biggest potentials out there for digitalization and improved new supply chain models. The future is not here yet, but little grains of it will, if we open our eyes to see them.