August 3rd, 2015, Kruiningen (NL), The optics industry is an old analogue industry. For a few thousand years people have been making optics in the same way, using polishing and grinding processes. This is time-consuming, expensive and difficult to scale up. In the 1950's, injection moulding arrived and standard lenses could be made in high volumes. Now, Luxexcel's new additive manufacturing techniques are allowing new possibilities in optics and photonics.
IDTechEx interviewed Luxexcel's founder, Richard van de Vrie, for his opinions on this new way of making functional optics and how digital computing will extend the possibilities for many optical products and markets.
Mr. Van de Vrie, what is unique about Luxexcel's additive manufacturing technique?
"The well-known 3D printing methods layer material. Our team did a lot of research because we understood that with printing layer-on-layer we never would achieve the smooth surface necessary for functional optics. After a lot of learning, we finally had the know-how to develop a solid process with fully dedicated digital printers to make optics in the additive way. Our digital process we named Printoptical Technology®. Individual droplets of a UV-curable material are jetted by sophisticated piezoelectric print heads staging a 'Fluent Dynamic Dance of Droplets' - a unique management of jetting, flowing and merging droplets before curing. The in-house developed printer software and algorithms control very precise digital platforms to allow the printing of optical components directly from a CAD file. The process is easily scalable and the printed products are smooth and do not require any post processing. For optical components the smoothness, precision, shape consistency and transparency are very important and especially recently our R&D showed huge progress. I am happy that we add new capabilities to our service regularly".
How do you envision the role of 3D printing in the optical market?
"A new era has started for optics design and manufacturing. Optics, like many other sectors, suffer from long prototyping time and the lack of cost-effective manufacturing methods for low and even medium volumes. Optical designers and buyers are used to the fact that customization costs lots of extra money, if even available. Several products have not been commercialized because of the entrance barriers of initial investments. Additive Manufacturing is now changing these paradigms in many industries. Luxexcel's Printoptical Technology make this also available to optics. Now optics designers and product engineers can continue to access new optical applications and markets. Up to now our process was not ready for ophthalmic or imaging type of lenses but recent independent smoothness measurements showed that we are approaching that level. An average smoothness of 7.4 nm is unique. Further improvement is primarily a matter of fine-tuning algorithms."
Will Additive Manufacturing lead to the discovery of new optical or photonic functions?
"Every day we see examples how Additive Manufacturing has demonstrated revolutionary possibilities to re-invent mechanical supportive structures. Novel lattice and hollow structures, which cannot be manufactured with any conventional technology, will introduce new levels of rigidity, mechanical resistance, and weight savings. According to optical scientists and specialists, optics lattices and hollow structures will open new possibilities to make integrated optical systems. At Luxexcel, we like to challenge the optical designers to think out-of-the-box. Don't think that only outer surfaces of optical components have optical function. How about designing and manufacturing lenses inside lenses? In fact, now every single position inside an optical component can have an own optical function. This will open new possibilities. There are optics scientist that believe that in less than 5 years we will see new types of optics not described in optics books today."
Freeform lenses are a hot topic in Optics. Will Additive Manufacturing boost the design possibilities?
"Indeed that development has started. 3D Printing is and will further boost both the design and manufacturing possibilities of freeform optics. Freeform surfaces will truly be made from micrometre-scale building blocks droplet-by-droplet instead of optimizing kinematics in ultra-precision diamond turning machines. It will become possible that droplets with different refractive indexes can be jetted, offering the designer even more options."
This month Luxexcel announced the completion of a € 7.5 million B-round. Do you expect more M&A developments coming years?
"With the funding of our new round we will expand our global sales, our online ordering platform and business development activities. Next to that, we will develop additional printing capabilities. Unfortunately I can't answer this question, but be sure that we are encountering strategic interest and speak about collaborations with market leading players from various different optical markets and markets closely connected to optics."