TURNHOUT, Belgium—Luxexcel and IFB Solutions are preparing to commercialize the 3D printing of ophthalmic lenses, a technological feat that is an industry first. Next week, IFB will take delivery of a 3D printing platform, developed by Luxexcel, at its optical laboratory in Winston-Salem, N.C. A new era of eyeglass manufacturing will begin when the first lenses come off the production line in late October.

Guido Groet, chief commercial officer of Luxexcel, commented, “In IFB Solutions we found a partner that is keen to adopt this unique technology and develop the market for the unique products possible with 3D printing. It is our intention to overcome today’s challenges in the ophthalmic world by making lenses outside the mainstream, enabling eye glasses with new capabilities compared to the existing product offerings. The Luxexcel Vision Platform represents the next level of lens manufacturing solutions for ophthalmic labs and provides an opportunity to differentiate and develop unique ophthalmic products.”

Dan Kelly, chief operating office for IFB Solutions, told VMail that he believes that embracing the new technology is essential for remaining competitive. “In all industries today, the trend is toward additive manufacturing,” said Kelly, using the technical term for 3D printing. “We want to be ahead of the curve. You don’t want to be the guy in the darkroom when everyone else has moved to digital photography.”

Kelly said the IFB lab produces about 1,100 pairs of spectacle lenses a day, including a significant number of special lenses such as slab-offs and prism lenses for low vision patients. Being able to print these custom lenses in-house instead of relying on conventional lens surfacing technology will allow IFB to slash its turnaround time, he noted. “Our turn time will be a few days rather than a few weeks, which is comparable for standard eyeglasses. That’s a huge competitive advantage.”

Another advantage to the Luxexcel technology is ease of use for the lab technician. It replaces several pieces of conventional lens processing equipment, such as generators, blockers, tapers and polishers. The simpler operation is especially important for IFB Solutions, which is the largest employer of individuals who are blind or visually impaired in the U.S., including more than 75 percent of its optical lab work force. IFB plans to have individuals who are blind or visually impaired operate the Luxexcel machinery. The Luxexcel platform will be delivered to IFB Solutions on a pay per use model.

The Luxexcel platform consists of industrial grade optical 3D-printers, lens-design software and workflow integration tools which enables customers like IFB Solutions to manufacture 3D printed ophthalmic quality lenses that meet all industry standards. The technology is initially focusing on difficult-to-manufacture medical specialty lenses.

IFB has been working with Luxexcel for the past 18 months, testing lenses that Luxexcel produced at its facility in Belgium both in the lab and with customers. During that time, Luxexcel has steadily improved the optical quality of the lenses, which Kelly said is now quite good. “Our opticians and inspectors are extremely comfortable with the progress they’ve made,” he said.

IFB Solutions is 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 U.S.

As the largest employer of people who are blind or visually impaired in the U.S., IFB operates the optical lab and a large-scale manufacturing facility in Winston-Salem, N.C., along with manufacturing facilities in Asheville, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. Through its operations and community support, IFB Solutions funds programs for adults and children who are blind or visually impaired.