Richard van de Vrie
In this post CES world it is easy to become swept up with the hype of consumer 3D Printing, people are talking about the technology and now asking the right questions, just last night I was asked, “What is the real use of 3D printing in the home?” other than the usual spare parts answers I found myself coming back to industrial applications such as those for the aerospace industry.
But there was one particular application that kept creeping up in the avid defence of the technology and it was one I’d learned about just hours before said debate in an interview with one of its creators merely hours before. The rapid manufacturing of optics by Dutch outfit LUXeXceL.
LUXeXceL’s patented “printoptical” process is a unique digital technology able to print functional optics. As this one step “CAD-to-Optic” process allows for printing optically smooth structures and surfaces, the printed product does not require post processing.
Chairman and founder of LUXeXceL, Richard van de Vrie, explained how this innovative and potentially ground-breaking process first came to light: “I came out of the lighting industry, my old company was a lighting manufacturer. In the lighting space LED chips are developed at a rate that the development of optics could not match, this meant we had problems, what were our problems? Every LED chip needs an optic so we had to make significant investments in moulding for optics.”
Those significant investments often took too long to be processed and can be crippling for an LED lighting manufacturer, as Richard detailed, “Every time you started a new process you had to invest €1million into optics; the customer wanted to have 4 different types of optics, 4 times the moulds at €40,000 and then you need 50,000 pieces because injection moulding can’t be started for little batch runs. We often wasted the whole inventories because the products managers of the likes of Phillips that we were manufacturing for, came back and said ‘look guys, the chips have already improved the chip so we’ll need to change the optics.”
It would be enough to put most people off for life but Richard is not the sort to take a challenge lying down, instead of succumbing to this increasing obstacle of the time and money it costs to produce optics, he knew there was a way to improve the process:
“I sat down with a few friends and said “is there a way to make optics in a very easy way, on-demand, without tools?” And then of course you think about 3D Printing, we went to look at some machines from well-known brands and thought ‘those are rather slow and they are printing layer on layer’. This would mean some post-processing, which is not the route we wanted to take, we needed very precise structures for optics. We needed to have a smoothness that was not known in the 3D printing industry.
“We put aside all those slow 3D printers and tried find printers that are available on the market that print fast. We ended up with some wide format inkjet printers, which we adapted with our technology. Finally we managed to print optical structures without the need for post processing. We do it in a completely different way, if you think about a little bit more than a water drop. We’ve made a one-step CAD to optic manufacturing process, which doesn’t need any post processing. This means complexity is free.”
This innovative manufacturing process from LUXeXceL has recently received recognition as winner of both the Deloitte Fast-50 2013 Most-Disruptive-Technology Award and the Belgium/Dutch Accenture Innovation Award 2013. This sort of attention has not gone unnoticed to investors, as LUXeXceL have just put the final touches to a financial package worth millions from Munich Venture Partners, ChrysalixSET and Filsa Capital.
We’d imagine, just as we were, those investors were rubbing their eyes with disbelief when Richard told them the speeds that their process could manufacture optics at, “Just to give you an idea; if we received an order to print batch of 50mm optics, which is quite common in the LED lighting space, then with one printer, within normal working hours we will print over 1.2million pieces a year with excellent precision – our process is able to print within one micron accuracy.”
“LED chip manufacturers have a process, for example Phillips – they make 75 new LED chips every year, the photometric data goes to an injection moulder, they have a meeting internally and decide ‘let’s put three optics in our inventory let’s do a 20 degree angle and a 50mm diameter, let’s have a a 70 degree angle” so they pick out a few then a few months later they have some optics in stock. The future will be completely different, ours is a digital technology, we are developing a software were we can say “this is the photometric data let’s design a thousand different optics and put them in an online library, akin to Shapeways”, we can design optics one hour after a new chip appears on the market. This gives the possibility for every LED manufacturer to order optics from our online library and three days after getting the information about a new chip they can have the required optics. This will decrease the whole development time; the optic has always been the bottleneck in the LED lighting industry. We’ve tried this process ourselves; it is possible within five days to manufacture a whole lighting fixture from scratch whereas in the past you needed almost 8-15 months to manufacture.”
This technology looks set to shake-up the LED lighting industry, but LUXeXceL will not be content with revolutionising just the one industry. They recently showcased other applications of their technology and garnered a royal seal of approval: “We had to welcome our new Dutch King, and we said ‘let’s do something funny, let’s print a whole pair of glasses, frame and optics in one.’ It worked. He was very happy with his glasses. This is the future; just scan your eyes and we will print the perfect pair of glasses. If you look at some glasses they have a separate optic built in for reading as well as the part for distance. Actually if you look at the structure of your eye and make a 3D picture of your eye you can see precisely where the weak points are. With this technology you can print optical structures wherever you want, you can make vast improvements in the glasses, you can actually print the perfect lens for an individual’s eye.”
LUXeXceL is not yet five-years old and already it is taking one market by storm, a technology and an application born of frustration is certainly one to savour. The next time somebody asks you for a real world application to rapid additive manufacturing point them LUXeXceL’s way.