14. Nov 2014

Interview with Luxexcel CEO Richard van de Vrie and Professor Jyrki Saarinen from the University of Eastern Finland

Text: Joachim Ritter

The world of optics and photonics is undergoing a reawakening – thanks to new additive manufacturing techniques. Two visionary entrepreneurs explain how they view new-generation functional optics and how digital computing will extend the possibilities for all optical products and markets.

It only makes sense to develop LEDs if they are used more efficiently? A deliberate provocation? No. It is a technical fact that the LED is a point source, and that the light emitted by an LED needs to be dispersed or reflected if we want to use the light to illuminate surfaces or specific elements or objects within a space. This sounds like a real challenge, but in fact offers us new scope for our planning and design work. Thanks to new 3D printing processes for the manufacture of optical lenses, even individual solutions are possible today. That means light can be applied more efficiently and gives rise to less light spill. The Dutch manufacturer of optical components, Luxexcel, is now able to produce printed optics fast and efficiently using new additive manufacturing techniques. With these new capabilities, the Luxexcel process is ready to compete with injection moulding for the production of small and medium series of optical components. The company offers a fast and effective service for prototyping, series production and the manufacturing of optics, cutting out the need for costly and inflexible tooling. The whole process is digital, allowing full flexibility and ordering on demand. This means that large inventory costs are no longer necessary. Small series or individual optics can be made in the space of a few days. Unique optical designs and components can be tested quickly and new designs validated. Luxexcel have now also introduced a new material, LUX-Opticlear, enabling the manufacture of highquality optics up to 20 millimetres in height.

Mr. van de Vrie, what are the main challenges the lighting industry is facing with regard to optics?
If we are able to control the light output from a source and tailor that to every application or project, we can save energy and avoid light spill. To manage the light output the lighting industry uses lenses or reflectors. The mass production processes for making lenses require expensive moulds and volume orders to make the investment worthwhile. As a consequence, lighting manufacturers are in an awkward position. Investments in moulds and optics inventories are huge, but LED light sources are improving so fast that lens production needs regular updates. This leads to high financial write-offs and mountains of wasted lenses, moulds and other components. The manufacturers often end up using the standard lenses available, which do not control the light properly, waste energy, and generate light spill. We are, in fact, surrounded by poor lighting solutions: greenhouses cause serious light pollution, half of the street lighting shines into our bedrooms, we except circular light distribution on rectangular paintings… How difficult is it to deliver the light to the right surface with the right effect? It’s all about the optics!

How long does it take to print lenses?
If we take a 0.5 centimetre lens with a diameter of three centimetres, we can now print between 400 and 500 lenses per hour.

Last year Luxexcel came up with the first fully functional 3D printed glasses. When do you think we can expect customised 3D printed lenses for eyewear?
Several major companies from the eyewear sector are interested in collaborating to develop 3D printed glasses. Important for the printing of ophthalmic quality lenses are: surface roughness, optical homogeneity and transmittance. We are also collaborating with the University of Eastern Finland. Professor Jyrki Saarinen is leading a project funded by the EU and Tekes in Finland, which will help Luxexcel and a group of companies to refine our printing processes to enable us to deliver 3D printing for photonics applications.

Prof. Saarinen, how do you rate the importance of Additive Manufacturing for optics?
Prof. Saarinen: Optics, like many other sectors before Additive Manufacturing, suffer from long prototyping time and the lack of cost-effective manufacturing methods for low and even medium volumes. Customers are used to the fact that customisation is more expensive than mass production. For example, consumers are ready to pay quite a lot of money to make their smart phones look unique. Other interesting gadgets and products have not been commercialised because of high initial investments. Additive Manufacturing is now changing these paradigms. And thanks to Luxexcel’s Printoptical technology, this is also available to optics. Before learning about their technology, I was very worried that optics would suffer a setback, with engineers turning back to mechanical or electronic solutions, where Additive Manufacturing is already available, instead of choosing an approach more suitable to optics. Fortunately, optics can now continue its quest to access new applications and markets.

Richard van de Vrie is the founder and Managing Director of Luxexcel, inventor of 3D printed optics.
Prof. Jyrki Saarinen, based at the University of Eastern Finland, is Professor for Photonics Applications and Commercialisation. He is the founder of Heptagon, the worldleading developer and manufacturer of the wafer-level optics and optoelectronics, and Executive Director of the European Optical Society.

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