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Marco de Visser is the head of sales at Luxexcel, inventor of 3D printed optics, and Editor-in-Chief for 3DPrinting.Lighting and Inspiration.Lighting. He is actively involved with the global lighting, optics and maker movements.
What are the major changes that appear in the lighting industry with the 3D printing revolution?
In the global lighting industry, amongst other industries, there is a revolution going on as part of the rapid shift to LED and smart lighting technologies. The Internet of Things (IoT), a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity dominates the actual market strategies. In parallel, the arrival of digital production methods force the lighting industry to act and think in a different way when it comes to fabricate lighting solutions. Understanding the digital revolution and how to adopt the possibilities arising from it, is key for lighting professionals.
When it comes to digital fabrication, 3D printing (also known as ‘additive manufacturing’) is today still perceived as a ‘hype’ that is expected to flatten out after it will finally reach its peak. Many state that the value of this technology would be ‘limited’ to the ‘creative minds’ only, shaping a future with beautiful “one-of- a-kind” products. It does have no or limited potential for upscaling.
I do not agree with that view. Undoubtedly, 3D printing has established itself over the past decade as a serious fabrication solution: disruptive, distinctive and complementary. It will impact any level of the lighting value chain and has the potential to radically change it. The various 3D printing technologies that are available today grow steadily and get mature in its hardware, software and materials offering.
Now, rapid prototyping of functional parts and low volume series are getting within the reach of every lighting company, both large and small. No matter if they have the emphasis on the engineering or application side of the market, business wise they will all be able to benefit from the mass-customization options that get available. Along with that, chances for novel products and a new competitive edge appear, they can’t go around it.
How does 3D printing influence the manufacture of lighting devices in terms of scientific progress, quality and innovation?
When it comes to the physical fabrication of lenses and other lighting components, instead of the time-losses and extraordinary expenses for generating functional prototypes by molding, the next gen “molds” will be digital: the physical tool is eliminated. Functional parts are now printed straight from the CAD file. Build blocks for lighting fixtures can now be printed on demand, either as individual parts or – increasingly – as interconnected components, in exact quantities and be delivered on a ‘just-in-time’ base.
This challenges the industry on various levels. On a scientific level, researchers will be forced to come up with new drivers that will further enrich the manufacturing systems. Think primarily about novel print materials, the implementation thereof, also the combination and fusion of materials. Multi-material solutions will pave the path to novel lighting solutions, driven by the optical engines. All apart from the operational supply chain advances by the way, that comes along with this digitization process. It is printing only that can achieve these next steps, conventional fabrication technologies lack and are already pushed against the limits.
From a quality perspective, this new way of making requires a different methodology. Both in thinking and approach, for independent test institutes and quality-minded OEM companies themselves. Project customization requires new standards, outdated models – mostly tailored at mass production – cannot be applied any longer to the tailored solutions that are generated today. From a system or product perspective, the quality of printed parts and the ways to post-process them is continuously evolving, what results in enhanced product quality and stability.
Innovation, finally, is not limited to the manufacturing systems itself and the products arising from it. It is increasingly found in the ability of individual staff and companies as a whole to adopt the new digital possibilities and embed them into the DNA of their organization and business models.
Tell me about Printoptical Technology and why it made a revolution in the industry.
Printoptical Technology, invented back in 2009 by the Dutch company Luxexcel, 3D prints optical structures and elements using industrial jetting equipment. Transparent droplets of a UV-curable acrylic are jetted and then cured by strong UV-lamps which are integrated onto the print heads. The results of the process are geometric or freeform shapes including optically functional lenses. Even though the material is deposited in discrete drops, the resulting surface is smooth. Optical quality surfaces are achieved with no post processing.
The practical reasons for adopting Printoptical Technology are fairly obvious: no tooling is required, new design opportunities, easy design variations or iterations can be implemented, products come rapidly available. Consider the effects that it can have on the scale and reach of projects. Designers are no longer constrained by space or low volume limitations of a tool, like when they use injection molding. They can build greener, smarter and more freeform. Experimenting with all types of new layouts without loss of tooling and investments provide more freedom than ever before, at lower risk. Printoptical Technology gives the freedom to suit nearly every optical application, giving the design freedom to achieve the exact optic the maker wants, without compromise.
Why are lenses important in the lighting industry?
An important trend going on in project lighting is customization. Large manufacturing badges with identical lighting products are getting smaller and smaller. Optics – one of the most crucial components in the fixture’s bill of materials – are an excellent tool to help a lighting designer or specifier customizing his lighting project and tailor the lighting to a specific situation.
With 3D printed optics, there are no minimum order quantities. If an engineer only needs 50 pieces for a custom project, he can simply order the exact 50 pieces and get them delivered in days. This is saving a lot of upfront investments and time, and the process to develop and test new lenses becomes easy. For that purpose, all you need is a CAD file of the optical design. This file is directly loaded into a 3D printer. If you want to change something, the designer can simply iterate his CAD file and have it printed again, or, at the same time, trial-and-error with various lens variations and finally pick the best one.
In fact, 3D printed optics allows to do an easier, faster and better development job. For every lighting project, a perfect light distribution can be provided for any specific situation, with ease.
How does the 3D printing of lenses change the work of a lighting designer?
Today, many companies offer “standard lenses” for a broad range of fast-evolving led engines. Apart from huge stock levels, using the same lens for a light source that is different from the one the lens was originally designed for, leads to poor performance, not matching the customers’ requirements. With printed optics customization is easily possible, meaning that printing 1 x 1,000 identical lenses (exact part replication) is as easy as printing 1,000x one (mass customization). Even within the project you can now have printed lenses with a different functionality. Optical components play an all more important role in deciding the success of a light fixture, and thus the success and impact of the overall lighting project.
Designers should be motivated to change their ‘mindset’. They are now able to start a completely different way of thinking: what might have been impossible to create before due to tooling restrictions, might now be a very realistic scenario. For a 3D printer, there is not such a thing as complexity, at least not during the build. The creativity of many designers is unparalleled, but it is now often limited due to the conventional way of making and the large offering of non-matching shelf optics they need to work with. New lens ideas and items can be realized, and that will be reflected in their projects. 3D printing comes along with a design freedom that was never available before and will lead the path to novel products and designs.
What do you think the industry of lighting design will look like in the future, considering the major change that 3D printing brings regarding lens?
3D printing of lenses is amazingly powerful and will continue to develop into a major part of the product development process. Printed optics brings revolutionary advances in the additive manufacturing of LED lighting optics. This novel technology enables to experience a whole new way to develop optics and launch the lighting industry into ‘mass customization’: a tailored optical module for any application.
Adopting digital manufacturing of optics isn’t just a good idea – it’s a necessity for any company committed to retaining (or creating) competitive advantage within the highly crowded global lighting place. Rest assured, once 3D printing optics is experienced in-house, more applications and cost saving will be discovered. For that reason, 3D printing must be a part of every companies portfolio.
Today, Luxexcel is re-engineering its business model from ‘manufacturing-as-a-service’ (printing physical parts and components) into providing the hardware, software and materials itself on a licensing basis, following almost 7 years of initial technology development and market research.
As a final recommendation, I strongly advise adopters not to look back onto what didn’t work in the past or keep on building on proven business models only. Keep on moving: To stand still is to regress! It is not about ‘the big-eating the small’ anymore, it’s now about ‘the fast eating the slow’!
Photo source: www.luxexcel.com