3D-Printed Lenses Begin in U.S. Lab

Ophthalmic-quality 3D-printed lenses are about to become a reality, as the first lens printing equipment has been sent to a U.S. optical lab. Luxexcel, the Belgium-based tech company that has been developing the equipment and introducing the concept to the optical industry, has partnered with IFB Optical, a lab in Winston-Salem, NC, to produce the first commercial lenses.
IFB Optical is expected to begin printing the lenses by the beginning of October.
After debuting its technology (and product applications) to the optical industry in March during Vision Expo East, Luxexcel received serious inquiries from “more than 200” labs, says Guido Groet, Luxexcel’s chief commercial officer, in an exclusive interview with Eyecare Business. Groet says his company was looking to partner with a lab “with the right attitude toward innovation.”
IFB Optical is part of IFB Solutions, a nonprofit corporation that provides employment, training, and services for people who are blind or visually impaired. In 2000, IFB began producing eyeglasses for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a customer partnership that remains today with IFB supplying eyeglasses to nearly 40 VA locations in the United States. 
 (Watch this space for an exclusive interview with IFB Solutions, tomorrow)
Says Dan Kelly, chief operating officer for IFB Solutions: “We recognize that 3D printing is the future of the optical industry, and we want to be early innovators and adopters of this emerging technology.  With the Luxexcel platform, we can now deliver specialty lenses to our customers in a matter of days, and that’s a huge advantage for our organization that is known for exceptional service and quality.”
Kelly notes that another significant advantage to the Luxexcel technology is ease of use for the lab technician.  IFB Solutions is the largest employer of individuals who are blind or visually impaired in the U.S., including more than 75% of its optical lab workforce. The Luxexcel platform will be delivered to IFB Solutions on a pay per use model.
Through the 3D-printing process, spectacle lenses are created to a patient’s Rx needs. There is no need for blocking, surfacing, or polishing. Ophthalmic labs receive the complete platform, which includes a printer, resins, support, and software solutions in return for a click-fee payment. Lenses produced with the 3D print solution are ISO compliant and compatible with today’s industry coatings and customary processes like edging and frame mounting. The Luxexcel platform can be integrated into today's proven ophthalmic lab workflow. 
Because the 3D-printing process takes longer than conventional lens production, Groet told EB that its best, immediate application would be for lens designs that are more challenging to produce, such as slab-offs, high prisms, tri- and quadfocals, and multifocals that require unusual placement of intermediate and reading zones (such as for pilots, or shooters).
“Labs don’t like to make these because they’re difficult to make, they take extra time, and you have to do them separately from larger lots,” Groet says. “So we’re solving an obvious problem, while at the same time proving that the technology works.”
He said Luxexcel was looking to partner with a small, independent lab located in the U.S. or Western Europe with enough of the “difficult” jobs to make the install worthwhile. Additionally, they were looking for lab “that gets it…that wants to work with us, and wants to understand how this technology works and where it can go.”
According to Groet, Luxexcel plans to have two more 3D-printing machines ready by the end of the year, though he says it has not been established where they will go.
About Luxexcel: Luxexcel is a Belgium technology company that developed the first 3D-printing process capable of producing ophthalmic-quality lenses. Each lens is built from very small droplets which are seamlessly merged together to create the lens. The material is similar to that used in ophthalmic lenses today, the company notes, and passes the standard industry tests, like the drop ball test. The material is also ISO 8980-1:2004 Focal Power compliant.  The material has an Abbe number of 45 and a refractive index of 1.53. The specific weight is 1,15 g/cm3 lighter than most ophthalmic materials. Additional materials with higher refractive index are being developed.
Pictured: Guido Groet, chief commercial officer for Luxexcel, and the company’s 3D printer that produces spectacle lenses
—Susan Tarrant