Alireza: Welcome to this third episode of 3DP&Me podcast. For those of you who are new to this podcast, my name is Alireza Parandian, Business Development Director of the business line eyewear at Materialise and I'm very excited about today's episode on business benefits of 3D printing. So what if your business wants to design, test, and launch new collections, and bring them to market with less risk, less waste, and lower upfront cost? But above that, how can you try to be more responsive to the market conditions? On top of that, how can you differentiate yourself by adding customization benefits to your product portfolio? Today helping me is Paul Marchal, CEO of transformative autofocal eyewear brand, Morrow. He's a trained engineer, and I know him as an entrepreneur. He started envisioning this business together with his partner Jelle in 2016, and he has achieved that vision. Paul, welcome.
Paul: Thank you, Alireza. I'm very glad to be here today.
Alireza: Paul, for our listeners, could you just briefly tell us a little bit more about yourself and Morrow?
Paul: So indeed, I'm a trained engineer. I worked 15 years in IMEC, next door in Leuven, where I developed semi-conductor technologies, and advanced packaging, which is used today in most of the server farms in the cloud.
Paul: Yes. And in 2012, I moved to San Francisco, the Bay Area, to support some of our customers over there from IMEC. I met a lot of entrepreneurs and I realized that I'm no different than them and I could start my own business. And at that time I met Jelle De Smet, who developed a tunable contact lens. And I found it was an amazing idea, but it was very far away from any market. We decided to transform the technology, take it, but introduce it in eyewear and develop a new product to fix an age-old problem, which is Presbyopia.
Paul: Everybody among us, at the age of 45 and above, we get trouble reading. And 60% of the people in that gaze will turn to multi-focal glasses, which are glasses, which are compromised. Unconsciously people really don't like them. There is a lot of aberration in the glass: it causes nausea, it's hard to go biking, or hiking outdoor, and sitting in your sofa doesn't work any longer. And we're fixing that problem by removing some of that compromise and adding an electronically tunable lens.
Alireza: There are multifocal lenses already on the market. You can buy them in glass form. How is your product different?
Paul: Well, a multifocal lens consists of two parts. One is for distance vision at the top and then the near vision part at the bottom. And these are two lenses with two different curvatures. So you have to blend both lenses into one another, which caused a lot of aberrations. By adding the tunable lens, we can reduce the addition that is required to the difference between the top and the bottom part of the lens, making the blending much lower, and hence, reducing the number of aberrations. And at least this is what we're doing for the first minimum viable product.
Alireza: And how, when you were envisioning doing your product, did 3D printing become a part of your story?
Paul: At the core, obviously, our vision is to improve people's vision, so it's "Improving yours". That means that we are a lens company first. We're a company that thinks about eyecare and vision first. The first thing why people buy glasses is to see better again. It's not about fashion, it's about how you make people see better. And starting from that point, we realized that, okay, you can make lenses, but you have to hold them and guide them into something and that thing is called eyeglasses or a frame, and that needs to contain some electronics. And then you look at how can we make electronic frames. How are we going to do that? So we partnered with Achilles Design who developed our first generation where we integrated the electronics in the frame. And we decided to opt for 3D printing because this was the easiest way forward to do the prototyping, to get the learning, and to get a product out there that could work.
Alireza: So that's interesting. You became interested in 3D printing because of the advantages of prototyping, fast prototyping, and iterating your product. And what did you find out in that process that made you more interested in using the technology more as an end part manufacturing technology?
Paul: I think initially we were doing one frame and it was a black one and it looked good. And we got very positive feedback on the frame itself from a lot of our test users who want to just buy the frame and use it. And that was good. And then we needed to... We hired a commercial person, Pieter Hertecant, and his basically first thing was "We need to have more frames. We need to give people choice. The more choice we have, the more we will sell."
Paul: And we started to think what is the best way in generating more choice while not breaking the bank in terms of making injection molds and other stuff, while we still fine-tuning the technology because the product was not ready yet. We were very pleasantly surprised obviously by the build quality of the current product, people were buying it, so we decided to do more 3D printing. And we partnered with Bieke Hoet who was more of an eyewear designer and that's something that we really needed to bring on board. She also brought the experience of doing 3D printed designs. And that's become very successful with having more than 156 different frames now on our website available for people to try on.
Alireza: That's really an important point that you talk about Bieke Hoet. I think it's really interesting that this ecosystem is taking shape here in Belgium as well, where you have a designer that already thinks in 3D, collaborate with you guys, and incorporates all the electronics and the functions of the technology into a design that would actually look beautiful on someone's face and then printing it eventually in the right way.
Paul: Yeah. I think Belgium is a small country, but indeed there is a lot of eyewear innovation ongoing. We have Anteena, our supplier, Tokai Optical; we have Materialise here. We have Luxexcel in Turnhout; we have us, we have the people from Iristick. So there is a lot of innovation going on in eyewear. And it's really good to have that ecosystem because that helps and innovates. And having short distances means also fast iterations and innovation.
Alireza: Yeah. I believe from personal experience as well, that proximity and innovation help you can communicate quickly with each other and try to iterate that product. We are now at a phase where you have introduced your product into the market. Do you have the first initial feedback from customers on what the frame looks like? Because you say it's a fashion product.
Paul: Yeah. Obviously, our frame is designed to be lightweight. We have a minimum amount of electronics, the smallest possible battery, and we have a nice form factor that goes with it and we get positive feedback on it. I mean, four out of five people like our frames and/or don't have any big complaints about them, which is for us a good starting point for where we want to be. And, well, it's a lot that has to do with the quality that we get today from Materialise.
Alireza: The reason why I asked this question is not necessary to highlight the quality of the product itself. It's also to try to ask you about the usage of 3D printing technology and what kind of benefits it brings you in terms of continuous product development. I mean, in terms of shapes that you want to offer to your customers, in terms of new technology that you would like to integrate, can you reflect a little bit on this aspect of flexibility?
Paul: As I indicated, we needed to have 156 different frames or more, and that basically was only possible because of the 3D printing part. And the reason why we could do it was because the build quality is really there. And well, we worked a lot together. Thank you for the support and all that offered.
Paul: But that basically helped us make this possible and move forward. This is a contingency-evolving product, so we'll need to add more features there, which means implying more changes. And besides that, I think there is another aspect of 3D printing, which is really interesting, we learned the ways, that you can fairly easily start customizing and personalizing the frames to people's faces. And that is a very important next step, I think, in view of all the evolution that is ongoing in eyewear.
Alireza: We'll get to customization in a second, but there's the aspect of sustainability, which I hold very dear to my heart. I do a lot of research, but I wanted to hear your opinion firsthand. How does 3D printing allow you to maintain your stocks at a low level, be more flexible and keep costs under control?
Paul: That is obviously an important point. One of the key things is that we are in eyewear and we're making vision first, as I indicated, so we don't want to have a big stock of frames in there. And I'm personally the shorter the lead time on the frames, the better because it allows us to reduce our working capital in that aspect. And on the other end, we can also keep learning what people want and how we can improve as a short note. And I think that is an important step as well. I think what keeps pleasing me even more in that is that we don't waste a lot of plastic and you don't have an inventory of which you have to throw 50%, 60% of the way at the end of the season. And that is a lot of waste in my view and if we can avoid that, obviously that's the better.
Alireza: For you, it's important to de-risk your business, not have a huge inventory, have lower development cycles, be more reactive in the market and what you say now, obviously I believe also important to your end users not to pollute by creating waste as well.
Alireza: Let's look at the next topic, which is more customization and the benefits it could bring to your brand to differentiate itself in the marketplace. Can you discuss the topic of individuality a little bit more regarding your product?
Paul: Yeah. One of the things to realize is, I think, there are a few important reasons why people buy eyewear in the first one: obviously to see better. The second one is that the glasses that you put on your face need to fit well and look good. And there are several approaches to that. One approach to that is making 3000, 4000, 5000 different frames, I mean, there are 200,000 frame designs every year or so. That helps, then there is a frame for everyone, every person. That approach oversees a lot of waste, very expensive; the other approach is how can we personalize the frame to a person's choice? And I think there 3D printing can really help in doing that. Obviously, you can chart changing the shapes, the sizes, the colors, there are a lot of opportunities there to optimize. I think the other one there is that it also fits better the modern customer journey, where once you have a face scanned, basically you can keep adding and choosing different frames and having them easily customized.
Alireza: You are certainly one of the people that I know that are really making use of all these emerging trends of individuality, customization, and bringing electronics into, well, important accessories like eyewear. How do you see this shaping and evolving further as we move forward? What kind of impact is it going to have on the new products that are going to be rolled out in the eyewear industry?
Paul: I think eyewear is an industry that's on the brink of disruptive change. I mean, it is changing quite fast. We get the D2C revolution, which was in my view in the 2010s. And in this decade, we're already one decade ahead, I think you will see the evolution towards more electronics and even more D2C, even more consciously balancing what type of experiences we want to bring people offline and what we want to bring online.
Paul: 56% of all eyewear sales start online today just to imagine. So I think that evolution will go there, but the human touch is very important. The question is where and how much and what is supposed to be that touch? And I am very pleased. I mean, at Materialise, you're working together with several of the companies to optimize that journey. So that is obviously the right path to go.
Alireza: I'm very intrigued by the fact that eyewear is an accessory that is close to your senses, most of your senses, and that adding electronics and information to the users will be a part of the journey of the eyewear industry in the future. But can you reflect on what is holding everything back? What kind of developments need to take place to make this transformation move faster?
Paul: I think there are two hurdles that need to be taken: one the eyewear that is made needs to look good on people's faces. I mean, you cannot put a nerd machine on your face and expect people to wear that throughout the day. And you can see it in some augmented reality attempts. They end up being for professional use, which is a really, really good application, but to go to the large community and have people carry it for the entire day. I think that requires eyewear that is lightweight, that is comfortable and first does the basic well, which is to improve people's vision, and that needs to be run first. And that's our entry point in the business.
Paul: The second part, I think, which is really important is that we need to think through how values and profits are distributed in the channel. And that I think has been a big hurdle for the eyewear industry to change. I see that there's a lot of evolution there ongoing today. And this is where the entire D2C, the Warby Parkers, the Gentle Monsters, and there's plenty of others following that example, that's basically the last decade story... Is happening. And I think with people like EssilorLuxottica being vertically integrated, that will obviously help to make that shift towards more electronics.
Alireza: Super interesting to hear. So 10 years from now, will we all be wearing electronic eyewear?
Paul: I think there is a chance that there will be more electronics integrated into your frame because it's just the next logical thing. I mean, you had your smartwatch and nobody thought that Apple would conquer the world with smartwatches, but they did. And the next thing will be something that helps you to see better and gives you probably some more information at the right time.
Alireza: I really think that's interesting because, at the time that they were talking about Apple, it was a watch with a lot of functionalities. But the watch was a watch first and the eyewear is going to be something you see better with first, and then there's going to be more functionality added to. I believe in that.
Alireza: Maybe a final question to you. What's next on the horizon for Morrow? What kind of new developments are you guys planning to bring with your new products?
Paul: The exciting news is that we're just at the beginning, so we're still developing our technology making it better, so we can improve people's vision. That will happen next two years. We want to expand our reach, today we're mainly active in Flanders. We want to expand that to a bigger part of Europe, obviously, and make sure that this product will succeed, and improving people's vision and learn from what the customers want, and then adding there our secret sauce.
Alireza: If I want to buy a Morrow frame, what do I have to do now?
Paul: It's just going to our website, and doing a self-assessment. There we will be able to check if we can improve you, if help you or not today. In any way, you can reach out to us and we will do anything to improve your vision. But the self-assessment is the first test. If you do the success self-assessment shows that your Morrow score improves, then please contact us. We can come to you and help you out.
Alireza: Thank you very much, Paul, for accompanying me here today.
Paul: Thank you, Ali, for having me over today. It was my pleasure.
Alireza: Thank you very much to our listeners. If you've been inspired by this episode, to look more closely into the business benefits of additive manufacturing for eyewear, make sure you go to our website, www.materialise.com/eyewear. There we have created an accompanying guideline for you to be able to dig into these topics more deeply. Thank you.