An Ultimate Ears technician shapes a digitized ear impression using 3D CAD software. NEW YORK, NY—The 3D printing revolution is quite the rage, with the devices being used for rapid prototyping and for on-site creation of product elements. For the past six months, in-ear-monitor specialist Ultimate Ears has quietly incorporated 3D printing into its manufacturing process, with around half of its production of custom- fitted IEMs now being produced with the technology. “It’s not just digital for the sake of digital, but it’s really digital for serving our customer better,” says Logitech vice president and Ultimate Ears division general manager Philippe Depallens.
The impetus for exploring the process was to create a better “customer journey,” says Depallens; “Getting better has no finish line.” A full 40 percent to 45 percent of UE’s customers are ordering from outside the USA. Getting an impression in Europe, for example, shipping that to the California factory, then following the steps of the traditional manufacturing process could take 10-15 days before return shipping. Ultimate Ears’ German affiliate has begun to digitize customer ear impressions locally, then electronically share the digitized information directly with the factory. Future technology is expected to allow direct digital mapping of customer ear canals, avoiding the impression stage entirely.
Currently, the process of creating custom IEM devices using 3D printing still begins in the traditional fashion, with an audiologist injecting a quick-setting pliable goo into a customer’s ears. The hardened (yet still too soft to be a final housing) impression is then trimmed and shaped by specialists before being used to create a mold for the permanent IEM shell. UE’s new process diverges from a manual trim and shaping of the impression by scanning the raw impression digitally and performing the adjustments with a 3D CAD program. The resulting data file is then fed to a 3D printer that outputs the customer’s IEM shell. The rest of the process follows the traditional form—drivers and crossover are fitted and inserted into the shell, the driver outputs are coupled to the exit ports by plastic tubes and an outer cap is placed onto the shell. An additional benefit of the digital methodology is that steps can be “undone,” whereas if too much material was removed from an impression manually, it could not be restored. UE personnel experienced with the physical process of shaping impressions have been trained on the CAD approach, maintaining the integrity of the new operating mode. None of the traditional steps in the process are bypassed, but instead are simply done digitally, with the bonus ability to revisit a custom data set if fine tuning is needed, and with rapid repeatability if, for instance, a set of IEMs needs to be replaced.
Incorporating 3D printing into the process was not as simple as just ordering a printer and feeding it the data files. “The biggest challenge that we had,” says DePallens, “is to actually get an ear that was clear.” The manufacturer of the 3D printer could not get UE all the way to the goal of a printed shell that is indistinguishable from a molded product, with no internal striations or outer ridges. Through experimentation, UE developed proprietary processes to reach that goal. “I will candidly tell you this is one of the advantages of being partner with a bigger company like Logitech,” DePallens confides, the parent company providing personnel and other resources in the R&D phase.
Despite UE’s substantial investment, DePallens says there is no change in pricing for the customer. The biggest benefit to UE customers is the time savings. A process that could have taken weeks for a foreign customer is now standardized to seven business days (down from a 12-15 day standard, sans shipping). Five-day turnaround is expected to be the standard soon (and is available now with a rush fee). A future is envisioned in which numerous regional customer contact centers can be established (with “serving every zip code” a stated concept) to further improve customer convenience and tighten the production timeframe. Says DePallens, “Our ability to serve them fast and serve them where they are is really crucial.”