We've told you about 3D-printing your own analog camera -- but minus the lens. The day when you can 3D-print that too may not be far away. Dutch company LUXeXceL, which has developed a proprietary process to print plastic lenses and other non-imaging optical-quality components, has 3D-printed complete pairs of eyeglasses to demonstrate the capabilities of the process.
The eyewear, made for the Dutch king and queen, was made in a single print job, including both frame and lenses, using the company's Printopical technology. No post-processing steps such as grinding or polishing are needed with this technology. It prints lenses with smooth surfaces from CAD files. The lenses can be combined with colored and textured surfaces, such as frames, in the same object -- no mean feat.
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The Printoptical process is based on modified wide-format industrial inkjet printing methods, which are especially suited to printing higher volumes than normally possible with many 3D printing techniques. It can produce optics such as Fresnel lenses or replicas of stained glass art. It can create window treatments and foils, digital art, and advertising graphics. The process may also be applicable to improving the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells.
LUXeXceL's main focus is making rapid prototypes and producing small batches (and some higher volumes) of LED optical components, structures, and diffusers, primarily for the lighting industry. Its process is expected to aid in the broader adoption of LED technology in general lighting than currently possible with the standard injection-molding method used for LED optics. The reason is that, especially when producing LEDs in small batches, the process reduces the cost, complexity, and time required.
These difficulties are considerable, as I learned when reporting on this subject for our sister publication EDN and looking into LED lighting systems used for machine vision. The technology's benefits are significant enough to have won the 2012 European Frost & Sullivan Enabling Technology Award in the advanced optics market -- one indication of its potential.
In the Printoptical process, transparent droplets of the polymer are jetted and cured by powerful ultraviolet (UV) lamps integrated into the print head, according to the company's blog. The print head, which has a minimum resolution of 1,440 dpi, is controlled by piezoelectricity. Delaying the time elapsed between when the polymer droplets are jetted and when the UV light is applied gives the droplets enough time to lose their shape and flow together, resulting in a smooth surface.
The company is partnering with the University of Eastern Finland's Institute of Photonics to build a 3D printer optimized for photonics manufacturing R&D at the university's Joensuu campus. The university aims to combine Printoptical capabilities with other photonics manufacturing technologies such as laser ablation, said Professor Jyrki Saarinen in a press release . The new printer is expected to be operational by the end of 2013.