Manufacturing custom optics for small and medium volume series of luminaires has previously been too expensive to consider for most market segments. Inherently high volume manufacturing methods such as glass-molding, wafer-level replication, and injection molding have dominated this industry, achieving low unit costs, but requiring large up front commitments of capital, severely limiting product diversity and innovation. All of those methods require several weeks of tooling costing five-figure amounts of dollars/euros. For the relative few mass market products with a longer life cycles and very high volumes that might be acceptable but profit margins are small for such products and the risks are high. High minimum economic order quantities entail large initial inventories for new products. Meanwhile, in the rapidly changing LED industry, competitors are always introducing new and better products so that write-offs of obsolete inventory can easily erase several months of profit.
Greater Product Variety and Mass Customization
Higher profit margins are achievable by addressing Customers’ demands for greater variety and customization. However, most lighting manufacturers have slow, painful development cycles. It typically takes about 12 months to introduce new product and sales regularly has opportunities to respond to customer requests but needs product variants that manufacturing can’t deliver fast enough. This causes major internal friction. Further it is a struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of improvements in LED chips/modules/light engines (these become better every year – like Intel CPUs). Also the Injection Molding tooling cost and extremely high minimum order commitments require more certainty in forecasting than is realistically possible. No one can be sure which fixtures will be well received at a trade show. Having to order a minimum of 50,000 pieces before customers have seen a working fixture, severely limits risk-taking in new product introductions. The today lighting CFO’s are facing a significant drain on company profits from high inventories and frequent write-offs of molded optics.
Optical Quality Surfaces – No post-Processing
For those industries where customization and the ability to react fast on customer demands is getting more and more important, companies have to change their way of working. Additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) is emerging as an attractive alternative for small and medium volume manufacturing. A great variety of plastic and metal parts can be made very fast and quite inexpensively. Unfortunately, additive manufacturing for optics has been almost missing because of the challenges in achieving optical quality surfaces. Any extra post-processing step required to achieve an optical quality surface would eliminate the advantages of additive manufacturing: delivery time and cost. Additive manufacturing is targeted to eliminate grinding and polishing, not to use them
Rapid Prototyping and Volume Manufacturing
Last year, LUXeXceL, a Dutch company, formed by a team of LED lighting professionals and serial entrepreneurs presented their Printoptical® Technology, a new fast digital additive manufacturing process resulting in smooth surfaces. This Printoptical process is an amazing breakthrough. The speed, reliability and scalability of production is already industrial grade because of the exploitation of modified state-of-the-art industrial inkjet printers. So the process is already capable of not only rapid prototyping, but is also equally capable of being used for volume manufacturing, with identical methods, equipment, and results. Today these printed optics are already used in the LED lighting industry for serial manufacturing of lighting fixtures.
Unlimited Design Freedom
Today the optic designer can send their optic in the form of a CAD file to LUXeXceL and receive their order back as a prototype within a few days. Complex optical structures or even combinations of optics and full color textures are free to design. And even optics arrays or structures of up to 4×10 feet are now available to order. In fact it is now possible to make an optic for every fixture and exactly that will change that industry.
Affordable Project Solutions
Imagine that every lighting designer is able to order exactly the right optic fulfilling the request of the end-user and improving the optical landscape. Streetlights can be perfectly light up and even a square picture will deserve a square light beam. Instead of focusing on high volumes for a few products, the lighting manufacturer will focus on a broad flexible offering with easy changeable optics and becomes project/customer driven instead of volume driven! Product development cost will be reduced, product introductions will be a lot faster, JIT (just-in-time) production helps to reduce inventories and this all allow fixture designers to afford to try more products. Lighting companies will develop higher margins, become more specialized and will able to “Ride the Long Tale” by offering more diverse products.
It may be expected that this technology will find its way in many more optical markets as the precision will increase even beyond lighting into general optics applications. New design freedom requires creative thinking in order to be put to good use but when that happens, this technology will inspire innovation!