A post on UK design site Dezeen (via CNET) reports that a UK-based company called Fripp Design has developed a method for speeding up the process of making artificial eyes—through the use of 3D printers. Fripp has teamed up with Manchester Metropolitan University to crank out 150 prosthetic eyes per hour. Once printed, the eyes are covered in resin, then hand-painted to match the patient’s real eye.

“Although we have not perfected color matching yet, because we can print so many in such a short space of time the color change between each one is so slight that the chances of getting a good match is very good,” Fripp is quoted as saying. Fripp also explained that the 3D printing process reduces the cost of an artificial eye from roughly £3,000 to a mere £100, with a drastic reduction from the usual ten-week creation time.

Fripp also noted that his company has gotten attention from India, where, “because of the high number of relatively poor individuals in the country, they tend to simply go without. However, our system will allow them to purchase a prosthesis.”

This is great news for helping those who have to suffer through the loss of an eye—but 3D printing may not be the best solution for what’s traditionally a very delicate product. A friend of mine here in Minneapolis actually used to make prosthetic eyes in the UK the old fashioned way: by hand.

I asked him what he thought about the possibilities of 3D printing for making artificial eyes and he saw some benefits to the method, along with more than a few drawbacks.

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“There is already a product like this—looks just like it in fact—that are made in quantity and sold to clinics where they are used mostly as short term replacements until a custom eye can be made,” he told me. “They come in a few sizes and a mixture of colors and the prosthetist adjusts the basic shape to fit the individual socket. I can see the advantage in developing countries where these could be fitted quite quickly and cheaply to fill a need.”

But while 3D printing could offer a stopgap solution for a short while, making a prosthetic eye is more than simply making an eye-shaped sphere with an iris painted on.

“Although the color is super important, the shape is just as important,” my friend continued, “because without the correct fit the eye won’t be comfortable, won’t sit correctly—it could look the wrong way—and could be prone to falling out. Unless they find a way to incorporate a mechanism to adjust the shape to fit, then this will never replace the custom handmade eye, the ten week wait, or the large price tag.”

It’ll be interesting to see how or if Fripp and its 3D printing technique could address concerns like these. But in the meantime, the latest and greatest tech is still not quite a match for the human element.

[Image via Dezeen.]


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