I recently had the opportunity to interview Marco de Visser, Founder & Editor-in-Chief, 3DPrinting.Lighting, on the topic of the future of 3D printed lighting for an article I wrote for the April 2019 issue of tED Magazine, the official publication of the NAED.
DiLouie: What is 3D printed lighting?
de Visser: 3D printing lighting includes the fabrication of novel lighting systems, fixtures, modules, and individual components utilizing the benefits of additive manufacturing technology while aiming to overcome the bottlenecks and constraints of traditional fabrication systems. In addition, the novel capabilities of 3D printing technology are used to generate novel design features and performances. In fact, it is twofold: using the unique benefits of 3DP tech to overcome frustrations/bottlenecks in todays fabrication, at the other hand it opens up doors to new applications by providing a novel set of design and fabrication capabilities for the future.
DiLouie: What are the benefits of 3D printed lighting?
de Visser: 3D Printing, also known as ‘additive manufacturing’, encompasses a 3D printing technology utilized to produce custom parts directly from a CAD file. In sharp contrast to conventional subtractive processes of milling, turning, grinding and polishing, additive manufacturing creates parts by building them up with progressive computer-controlled deposition of material, in a process that resembles printing, but with multiple passes until the desired 3D shape is achieved. Speed (delivery of parts in days, rather than weeks or months), flexibility (easy design variations/iterations) and cost-efficiency (no tooling, no MOQ involved, direct CAD-to-part manufacture) are the core benefits for the industry.
• No Upfront Investments, no MOQ: With 3D printing, no extraordinary upfront investments in tooling and inventory are required. Ordering only one part is as easy as ordering hundreds or even thousands.
• Greater Product Variety: Apart from the printer itself, 3D printing only requires a digital CAD file and some raw materials to create an infinite variety of shapes.
• Complexity is Free: Printing a complex lighting design is no more expensive than printing a simple one.
• Easy Iterations: Creating and manufacturing multiple product variations is one, making sure they perfectly fit the needs is two. The digital flexibility and the printing speed enable the fabrication of multiple product variations in a short time frame for functional “trial-and-error” testing or “form-and-fit” purposes.
• No Assembly Required: Traditional manufacturing requires assembling many parts, 3D printing however can print fully assembled end products and significantly reduce labor, handling, supply and shipping cost.
• Short Lead Times: Products can be readily available: printed “on demand”. With just one step from CAD-file to product, printing a finished product has become as easy as printing just a piece of paper, resulting in shorter cycle times and faster product marketing.
• Unparalleled Design Freedom: 3D printers can print shapes that were never possible before when using traditional manufacturing methods.
• Zero Manufacturing Skills: Operating a 3D printer requires less skilled operators than traditional manufacturing methods does.
• Reduced Material Waste: Depending on the materials involved, 3D printing significantly reduce when compared to traditional machining methods.
• Multi-material Applications: Blending and mixing-up different kinds of raw materials in one run into a single product is now possible in new ways with 3D printing.
• Exact Part Replication: Digital 3D modeling allows unlimited copying of designs without loss of quality. Similarly, the 3D model/file will not degrade, regardless of how many times the object is being printed.
DiLouie: What are typical applications for 3D printed lighting?
de Visser: Since the initial inception of 3D printing technology several decades ago, 3D printing equipment manufacturers and service providers have been seeking actively the cooperation with trend-setting designers to highlight the arrival of 3D printing technology and to demonstrate its unique capabilities. Primarily, decorative parts, such as lamp-shades and chandeliers were created to inspire and impress.
With the arrival of novel 3D process variations and print materials however, other lighting components such as functional PCB’s, optics and reflectors become printable, effectively enabling the use of 3D printing technology to design and build novel lighting systems for a variety of light application areas, and quickly demonstrate their appearance or validate their performance.
DiLouie: Is it for individual components such as optics or everything?
de Visser: In 3D printing, customization is key. Previously, we went to the Far-East to get multitudes of identical parts fabricated at low prices. Today, we see 3D printing bringing back production and jobs to the West thanks to the fact that small numbers now become affordable. Parts prices and efforts may still supersede conventional approaches, but in return, individualized parts of any kind or low volumes can be obtained at interesting rates to fit any project scenario.
LED optics, as a specialty and high-end niche application, are a critical component in the overall fixture design and development process. In this particular case, it is not just about ‘shape’ but also ‘function’. Printed optics for illumination applications have come a long way since its inception back in 2009, but have grown further towards maturity over the last decade. They have proven to be a very helpful tool in validating novel lighting system performance and to generate quick event/customer demonstrators.
In addition, projects can have now a very high grade of customization as, with the arrival of compelling ‘target-to-source’ optics design software, optics can now be tailored to any project situation and put the light exactly where needed.
Do you envision this for prototypes, custom luminaires, modification, or all luminaires?
We may fairly conclude that 3D printing mainly plays an important role in developing new lighting systems to date. The speed, flexibility and cost-efficiency significantly reduce cycle-times and shortens the time to market. It effectively enables testing and validation of novel luminaires before market launch, and ramp-up for exhibitions and product launches by means of creating pre-manufacturing series.
‘Design Variations’ (alterations of a particular design) or ‘Design Iterations’ (improved design and functionality) can easily be obtained and implemented during the process to ensure the exact requirements are met. 3D printing greatly encourages ‘trial-and-error’ as multiple solutions now can be tested rapidly and cost-efficiently.
As 3D printing technologies are nearing the capabilities of manufacturing larger volumes, we will soon witness the use of AM technology for production of small-mid series. This may include either (semi-)functional components, or full luminaire bodies including various components (multi-material printing).
DiLouie: What technologies are involved?
de Visser: In fact, any of the available 3D printing methodologies comes with a unique set of features that outperforms the others from a capabilities and/or materials perspective.
Additive Optics Fabrication (custom LED optics), for example, is excellent for obtaining functional illumination optics, textured and smooth surfaces (e.g. for functional reflectors), while for other purposes (luminaire bodies, design luminaires) technologies like Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) might be more suitable.
Meanwhile, a range of novel printing materials is coming to the scene, fitting the available print systems, or used with next generations equipment. They include metals, nylon, glass-filled polyamide, epoxy resins, wax, and photopolymers, any of them coming with different strengths and features, and suited for a variety of lighting applications.
It remains important to note that material properties matter. Lifespan and safety issues may determine whether a material can be utilized for its purposes, or not (yet). Unlike any novel technology, clear and uniform validation methods lack, so it is important to validate the viability of a particular material for its sole purpose.
DiLouie: How would a typical project involving 3D printed lighting work from the manufacturer, lighting designer/engineer, and distributor’s point of view?
de Visser: Generally, the life of a lighting system designer isn’t easy. It is though work to keep the company’s product sellable, and it’s rather frustrating that during the product development cycle, continuously better LED modules arrive on stage. Before a new light fixture is ready, it may already need an update. In addition, it’s quite time consuming for the company to invest in expensive molds and volumes of molded parts.
Obsolescence is causing a huge waste, straining both environment and balance sheets. In many cases, system engineers are forced to use standard parts and ‘off-the-shelf’ lenses. The result is that many fixtures look identical and there are not much attractive options to customize the lighting for a project or application.
The arrival of 3D printing creates winning approaches for anyone involved in the fixture design process. Customized products can now be made digitally and super-fast, in exact quantities as needed. There is no need to buy minimum order quantities of thousands of components. If you only needs 25 pieces, simply print 25 pieces. This is saving a lot of money and valued engineering/production time.
Now, the process to develop and test a novel lighting product becomes easy. A CAD file of the design, typically provided by a mechanical- or optics engineer, is all you need. This file can be directly loaded into the 3D printer. If needs for change arise along the way, the design engineer can simply change his design and have it printed again. Printed parts now allows the engineer to do his development easier, faster and better, and ultimately test and validate systems before investing in costly tooling. If this is still needed at all.
Finally, the cooperation between system engineers at the one hand, and the lighting designers at the other hand, becomes at once increasingly interesting. With designing fixtures with easy interchangeable components, such as optics, for every lighting project the companies engineers can now present a perfect light distribution to their designers with ease.
DiLouie: What unique problems would it solve during this process?
de Visser: Above from the afore mentioned process benefits, such as removal of tooling and design constraints, also the role of a typical ‘catalogue seller’ is changing. Rather than providing many fixtures that all look the same, whereby the available portfolio hardly meets the final applications’ requirements, a perfect match can now be made between the real ‘wants-and-needs’ of the end-user, and the modelling of the fixture and shaping of the light. This is a huge topic in todays lighting specification process.
This immediately impacts hot topics like tooling losses, overstock, light pollution, blinding, among other factors that frustrates today’s design, fabrication and application methods.
DiLouie: What is the current level of adoption? What manufacturers in the lighting industry are currently using it, and for what purpose?
de Visser: As we speak, the majority of manufacturers in the industry is starting to discover the possibilities with 3DP technology. Special teams and task-forces are formed to investigate various technologies, and smoothly embed 3D printing into the companies processes.
Firstly, they intend to overcome painful or frustrating bottlenecks such as time and material losses during the development cycle.
As a next step they adopt it for optimization of the process chain itself. 3D printing may ease, optimize or even disrupt particular steps of it and remove the necessity for stock-keeping.
In the end, we believe 3D printing is paving the path to novel design approaches and development of systems that has never seen the light before.
Remarkable is that, from a pure fabrication perspective, we do see some very interesting examples of firms that are utilizing 3D printing technology for inhouse production.
As we speak, the first generation manufacturing plants sees the light, effectively enabling the production of lighting modules and components in larger volumes. This may include either many of the same printers running identical pieces (scaling by hardware), or having more advanced equipment that gets suitable for larger mfg. batches (process innovation).
These so-called ‘3D Printing Farms’ may not be the final answer to using 3DP technology for volume production, but at least they are starting to build extensive experience with the design and manufacturing process that will lead with no doubt to further interesting excesses in the near future.
DiLouie: What do you see as adoption of 3D printed lighting in the near and longer-term future?
de Visser: What is interesting to mention here first is the general market trend of declining volumes. Rather than planning many of the same fixtures, projects become highly diversified due to changing customer needs and growing awareness about the importance of light for human well-being.
Luminaire types, custom optics, interchangeable covers and shades, light designers are utilizing the highest standards of customization to create tailored solutions. Rather than ‘pumping’ lumens into a given room or space, designs become experiential and emotional in order to create living spaces. 3D printing perfectly hooks in here, as it brings mass-customization closer, both from a decorative and functional perspective. With no tools involved, its becoming extremely easy and affordable to tailor individual lighting concepts to the exact project needs.
DiLouie: Who are the early adopters?
de Visser: Primarily, early adopters has been a creative crowd of industrial designers, intentionally using 3D printing to create eye-catching and stunning decorative lighting objects. Uncertainty about the final outcome, performance, etc. is acceptable as long as design and safety requirements are met. Technology imperfections are used in a positive way to create a different appearance.
As we are moving to the next stages in the adoption of innovation cycle, thanks to the improvement of hardware and material quality, more critical lighting designers and system engineers start to use 3DP technology to address the lacks in today’s engineering process and lighting portfolio. This starts by using 3DP to overcome the constraints of conventional fabrication methodologies – either from a cost or capabilities point of view – towards working on smarter designs. A certain amount of imperfection is still acceptable, but the total mix of system benefits should overrule any lack of quality.
In a next stage, we would see the ODM/OEM manufacturers starting to adopt 3D printing for fabrication of larger product series. To date, scaling from engineering to production environments is challenging, as most of the 3DP technologies out there are still working towards maturity: they are ripe for prototyping, sometimes also small series manufacture, but traditional mfg. quantities cannot be met so far.
DiLouie: How close is the technology to prime time?
de Visser: On the contrary to what we were used to before, the phenomenon of big lighting firms outperforming the smaller ones, we see a change of state in the era of 3D printing: It is no longer about the ‘big eating the small’, it’s now about the ‘fast eating the slow’. Size and financial power does not matter as much as before, and suddenly the pace of flexibility and speed a company can act at, is creating a difference.
This is clearly marked by the ‘downfall’ of the large OEMs and the scattered landscape of project lighting companies, that we are witnessing before our very eyes. With new design tools coming up, availability of new materials, and a creative community of young(er) design professionals on the rise, we see even an established conventional industry like the lighting industry shake on its foundations.
Once the dust has settled, fresh expertise – primarily from abroad, lighting related industries – will flow in and build a brand new lighting ecosystem, with system intelligence and additive manufacturing as key drivers. I expect we will witness an industry broad adoption of AM in the next 5-10 years.
DiLouie: What potential impacts will 3D printed lighting have on product development and possibly its democratization?
de Visser: The use of 3D printing technology to build novel lighting modules and systems comes along with capabilities that we only could dream of before. Think about typical freeform (hollow) shapes and complicated patterned textures. Hence, lighter, stronger and less-material consuming structures can be build.
In addition, complexity is free: with 3D printing it is no more difficult to build a complicated shape than an easy one. When using conventional fabrication methods, this is very complicated. Particular shapes and textures cannot or can only hardly be fabricated, at the expense of extraordinary cost.
Interestingly, we see major 3DP service providers establishing guidelines for ‘dummies’ and home fabricators when it comes to the development of electrical equipment and lighting. Although it remains pure hobby rather than profession, the bar for designing lighting equipment has been lowered significantly.
We do not expect that lighting will be finally ‘home-made’, as the lighting profession is complicated and requires a lot of understanding about safety and application, but it is certainly an interesting development to watch.
DiLouie: What potential impacts will 3D printed lighting have on manufacturers and their overall supply chains?
de Visser: Manufacturers do feel the pain of project diversification and the rapid changing market environment today. This trend will continue and intensify when additive manufacturing is finally adopted.
Ultimately, we see the power in the market shift from OEM ‘catalogue sellers’ to the lighting design community, as they are now able to tailor lighting solutions to their exact needs. Optical modules generated by smart design software solutions are enabling this revolution. Some great innovations are on the way and close to market entrance, we can’t wait to see them coming.
DiLouie: What potential impacts will 3D printed lighting have on electrical distribution, where distributors traditionally carry standardized inventory?
de Visser: The most disruptive scenario for 3D printing in the lighting industry includes bypassing the traditional luminaire designer, wholesaler or even the manufacturer itself by the professional ‘end-user’. This occurs when project specifiers and lighting designers start to design and print their own customized luminaires for their projects.
Both hardware and software solutions have meanwhile arrived at a level that is significantly helps to lower the bar for developers. It makes 3D printing technology accessible for not only highly skilled professionals, but even professionals with some ‘basic understanding’ of light design and engineering can now do an affordable and effective job.
DiLouie: Will electrical distributors and contractors require new skills to work with 3D printed lighting?
de Visser: With no doubt, they have to! Time is running out. In the actual supply chain, they are in a most weakening position. Initially, those involved will need to understand how the 3D printing revolution will impact (or bypass?) their actual supply-chain position.
Next, a critical internal assessment has to be done whether they are capable of embedding 3D printing into their actual processes and business model. If so, new strategies are required related to product sourcing, stock-keeping (stock is getting digital, in fact!), and distribution.
We realize this may sound utterly painful for companies that have been established over decades ago, and run (even until today) healthy businesses. But we can’t go around the fact that technology is rapidly evolving, today at a pace like never before. Businesses are forced to act accordingly.
DiLouie: What standards are in effect here? How will 3D printed lighting, which has the potential to diffuse product development and manufacturing, work with safety standards such as UL?
de Visser: As with any novel technology in the works, good standards are lacking, or at least coming far behind. UL Additive Manufacturing (AM), for example, collaborates with the 3D Printing/AM Industry to advance product and process innovation, safety and quality. They do a great job in helping companies navigate through industry issues involving workforce development, printing equipment and material compliance, as well as safety of production environments. In addition, they facilitate companies in getting an understanding of the key gaps and how to bridge them across the entire AM value chain. As such, they are not only important to set and monitor the standards, but also become a key player in shaping a future compliant infrastructure for the lighting industry when it comes to 3D printing.
DiLouie: If you could tell the U.S. electrical industry just one thing about 3D printed lighting, what would it be?
de Visser: 3D printing has been seen as a ‘hype’ for a long time, that would finally flatten out or even decline. That thought is no longer viable. You can’t ignore the fact that 3DP technology gets rapidly adopted and evolves even faster. Start looking into your portfolio today, whatever it may include, and make sure you join this mighty movement. Secure your future by adopting the AM technology of your choice!
DiLouie: Is there anything else you’d like to add about this topic?
de Visser: Don’t wait for perfection of 3DP systems, software and materials before adopting it. The majority of technologies out there are not perfect yet. Better start a stepwise integration of additive manufacturing technology into your company workflows to raise the understanding and awareness, and gain experiences and expertise. From there, further optimize and start the diversification process using the intricate values of 3D printing and set yourself apart from any competition.
The adoption of 3D printing requires a change of mindset!