3-D printanje.jpg
Photograph: Photo by Amy Buser, used under CC BY-SA

One-off eyeglasses, made using 3-D printing, are about to take off as a trend, thanks to smart technology that matches them to a wearer's face to give the most flattering appearance.

German 3-D printing company Framelapp presented a scanner at the recent Opti trade fair in Munich that can scan a person’s head and send the data to a printer. Based on the nose shape, distance between the eyes and other facial features, it makes the ideal spectacles.

After the initial scepticism, there are many opticians across Germany offering customers the option of 3-D printed glasses.

"3-D printing is going to revolutionize the industry sooner or later," thinks Hendrik Wieburg from Framelapp, which makes several thousand 3-D printed spectacles a year on behalf of opticians.

That’s still a small number compared to the entire German market but the big spectacle makers are watching developments very closely.

"3-D printing is no longer treated as something exotic. It’s going to establish itself in the market," says Ingo Ruetten from Germany’s association of opticians, the ZVA. It costs more, but the advantage is that the 3-D spectacles are custom-made to match the face.

Despite the optimism, some of Germany's biggest providers want to see how the smaller operators succeed before piling on board.

At online spectacle shop Mister Spex, management believes the technology has huge potential.

"We don’t have any glasses made using a 3-D printer yet, but we regularly review the technology," says Mister Spex founder, Dirk Graber.

Germany’s biggest high-street optician chain Fielmann, which sells stock frames in massive numbers, also sees big potential.

"We are watching developments," says Stefan Thies from Fielmann. 3-D printing technology would be a practicable way to supply Fielmann's designer glasses and prototypes, according to Thiess.

One down-side to 3-D printed spectacles is the price: a pair can cost the equivalent of 300 dollars retail to buy.

For a high-street optician, operating a scanner and a printer would be a service to offer to customers that online providers cannot match.

Last year about 650 000 spectacles were bought online in Germany according to the country’s optometrists’ association – that was about 33 per cent more than in 2013.

Nevertheless, Germany’s opticians will still have plenty of customers in future. About 40 million Germans wear corrective lenses.

More young Germans are also wearing spectacles than before. Nobody knows if smartphones are having a negative impact on eyesight. But staring at some kind of screen for large parts of the day cannot be easy on the eyes.

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