Almost two years ago, I predicted in this column that one day soon we might be using 3D printing technology to produce not only eyeglass frames, but lenses too.

That day hasn’t arrived yet, but it may not be far off. According to The Economist, a Dutch company, Luxexcel, has developed a way to print objects in a transparent material with a precise shape and a surface that is smooth enough to be used as a lens. Luxexcel has already used the technology to print some reading glasses. “These are not yet as good as prescription spectacles, the lenses of which are individually polished. But it is early days and as the firm improves its process it is busy with other applications,” The Economist reports.

Given the rapid growth and increasing sophistication of 3D printing technology, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first 3D- printed lenses hit the market in the next year or two. After all, it wasn’t long ago that 3D printers could only make somewhat crude objects with rough surfaces. Now they are being used to make replacement body parts with detailed shapes and even a vascular structure. As 3D printing has become more refined, the cost of 3D printers has dropped considerably, leading to the proliferation of everything from industrial-grade printers to compact printers for consumers.

The prospect of producing spectacle lenses and contact lenses with 3D printing leads to some interesting possibilities. For instance, it might lower material and manufacturing costs for prescription labs, and could possibly speed up delivery times for Rx jobs. It might also give ECPs an alternative way of producing lenses in-office and on-demand. And although consumers can print their own frames, we would have to limit their access to lens printing technology, since eyeglasses are a medical device that can be purchased only with a prescription.

Whatever the future holds for 3D-printed lenses, we need to start thinking about the implications of this technology now.

—Andrew Karp
Group Editor, Lenses and Technology