3-D printing and optometry: ‘Doctor, can you print my glasses now?’August 28, 2013
By Dominick M. Maino, O.D., and Geoffrey W. Goodfellow, O.D.
It was the year 2020. Our patient previously completed an at-home self-refraction (she emailed us the results), so we had some preliminary information on what the power of her glasses might be. After verifying this, we completed a full comprehensive eye and vision examination moments later. At the end of this evaluation, the patient than asked, “Doctor, can you print my new glasses now?”
Science fact or science fiction?
Printing in 3-D is a manufacturing technique resulting in the creation of a real-world object by placing material in layers using an additive methodology.
Over the last year, 3-D printing has been frequently in the news with stories about printing working guns (3-D-printed guns may face regulations” on CNET news [http://tinyurl.com/CNET3Dprint] and the “Dawn of a Revolution, How 3D Printing will Change the World Dawn of a Revolution” feature on CNN [http://tinyurl.com/ CNN3Dprint] and several YouTube videos [http://tinyurl.com/YouTube3Dprint]).
New York University even offers a course on 3-D printing (http://tinyurl.com/ NYU3Dprintcourse).
The Chicago Tribune (3-D technology reshapes Chicago manufacturing, April 21, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/ CT3Darticle) published a story that begins, “The machine, no larger than a coffee maker and encased in black like Darth Vader’s helmet, hums at a whisper.”
It then goes on to describe how 3-D printing will boost manufacturing in the United States.
The May 2013 edition of Scientific American, in a story titled “To Print the Impossible,” tells how a prosthetic hand can be printed out of titanium (http://tinyurl.com/sciammagmanufacturing).
The expanding utilization of 3-D printing will continue and will undoubtedly affect the profession of optometry.
How does 3-D printing work?
The 3-D printer operator chooses the material (plastic, metal, rubber, etc.) and it is then sprayed onto a base or platform. The 3-D printer moves back and forth (similar to how an inkjet printer works) over the platform while depositing layer upon layer to create the final result.
In an earlier AOA News article, (see “DIY refractions: Disruptive innovation that affects science, people and the economy”) we mentioned not only the Netra auto/self-refraction device, invented by Vitor Pamplona, Ph.D., and fellow Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists, but also briefly noted that 3-D printing was coming of age and could have a major impact upon the practice of optometry.
As to the scenario above, this was not a Star Trek episode where, as the featured alien optometrists, we used the replicator (a machine capable of creating objects seemingly out of thin air) to create new eyeglasses for our patient. It is, however, an event that will take place sooner rather than later, according to Dr. Pamplona.
We asked Dr. Pamplona if a 3-D printer can “print” a pair of glasses. He then sent us a photograph of himself wearing a freshly printed pair of glasses sitting right on his face. He also noted the 3-D printer can be adjusted so the frame size can better match the patient’s face using different temple lengths, exact patient pupillary distance, placement of nose pads with precision and more. Although Dr. Pamplona’s printer cannot produce optical-quality lenses, other 3-D printers can (http://tinyurl.com/luxexcel3Dprintedglasses).
How and when will this impact optometry? What should you do now to position yourself and your practice so that both will not only survive but thrive?
As to how this will affect the profession, this not only depends upon how well we anticipate the rate of change, but also upon how our ophthalmic partners, frame and lens manufacturers, and others prepare as well.
One future scenario is where each office has its own 3-D printer and laser-guided facial features measurement system. The office would need to purchase the raw materials to make the frame and the computer program necessary to provide the patient with a truly customized pair of glasses that literally “fit” like a glove…and would have done all this “in about an hour”!
Is this future likely to occur? As events unfold, the profession appears to be moving in the right direction overall. We are expanding our scope of practice, while stressing the services provided. We are increasing various residency programs throughout the United States so optometric specialties are now becoming a reality. We also expect all members of the profession to demonstrate ongoing competency as well.
As long as optometrists continue to stress the importance of high-quality service, as well as the value-added practicality of purchasing materials from an office with trusted staff, the profession of optometry will continue well into the future. Are you ready?
Dr. Maino is a professor at the Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) and a recipient of the Leonardo di Vinci Award for Excellence in Medicine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Goodfellow is an associate professor of optometry at ICO and the college’s assistant dean for curriculum and assessment. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AOA.