There are rumors circulating within the fashion eyewear industry of a coming revolution made possible by 3D printing. As the thinking goes, the designer sunglasses of the future will be manufactured primarily through 3D printing rather than more traditional methods. This will supposedly offer more opportunities for customization and artistic flair. But will 3D printing really change things all that much?
Answering that question requires understanding how sunglasses are currently made. Let’s start with the basic assumption that most designer sunglasses consist of plastic frames and lenses. Yes, you can buy frames made of other materials – like wood and stainless steel – but plastic is the clear choice for the vast majority of designers out there.
Another thing to consider is how sunglasses are assembled. High-priced brands marketed as artisan products assembled by hand cost more, in part, because such meticulous hand assembly is labor-intensive. But here’s a dirty little secret: all sunglasses are assembled by hand. The only question is how much time is spent doing it.
3D Printing vs. Injection Molding
With those two points established, we now have a basis for discussing the impact of 3D printing on the eyewear industry. Olympic Eyewear, a Utah-based designer and wholesaler of fashion sunglasses, explains that plastic frames are manufactured via injection molding. That’s why they can be made so cheaply.
Injection molding is a process that involves melting plastic pellets and forcing them into a die by way of high-pressure injection. The plastic cools and hardens in the die, the part is ejected, and a new round of plastic is forced into the die. A typical pair of frames can be produced in seconds using this method.
At the current time, 3D printing cannot hold a candle to injection molding in terms of speed, efficiency, and cost. It would take an hour or more to produce just a single pair of frames with a 3D printer. Meanwhile, an injection mold machine on the factory floor would have pumped out hundreds of pairs.
3D Printing vs. Stamping
The process for creating metal frames generally involves stamping. This is a process in which a large sheet of aluminum or stainless steel is laid out on a table and stamped with a hydraulic press. This essentially cuts the frames out of the sheet. Excess material can then be sent out for recycling.
Like injection molding, stamping can be done in no time at all. 3D printing simply cannot keep up. What’s more, there would be no point in deploying a 3D printing process if you’re trying to manufacture steel or aluminum frames. 3D printing is for thermoplastic materials, not metals.
Carbon Fiber 3D Printing
Things do not look good for 3D printing thus far, but there is hope. 3D printing technology could come in handy among manufacturers looking to use carbon fiber as their primary material. Carbon fiber has a lot of appeal these days as a replacement for plastics, metals, and wood.
The challenge of carbon fiber is its cost. It’s expensive to begin with, but using manual layup processes to create something as small as a pair of sunglasses just isn’t financially practical. A 3D printing process could change that. 3D printers could churn out carbon fiber sunglasses faster than manual layups. The finished product would still cost a lot more than plastic, but there are definitely customers who would be willing to buy it.
It doesn’t appear as though 3D printing is anywhere close to supplanting traditional manufacturing methods for sunglasses. Maybe something will change a few decades from now, but don’t hold your breath.