3D Printing is Revolutionizing Custom Molded In-Ear Monitors

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It’s always an impressive feat to see a company grow and adapt to present-day technologies. It’s even more impressive when it does so, invisibly, right in front of the consumer’s eye.

The professional side of Logitech’s personal audio brand, Ultimate Ears, is in the process of turning to 3D printing to transform the way it makes custom fitting in-ear monitors. Once a task that could take a month or more now only takes 5-7 days—without losing the handcrafted touch. We got to take a tour of the labs of Ultimate Ears in Irvine, California to see how 3D printing is changing the game.

Catering to performing musicians and audio enthusiasts, custom fitting in-ear monitors can offer a much high level of fidelity than off the shelf universal fitting models. In part, this is because of the noise reduction a perfect fitting seal creates within the ear.

In the past, after UE Pro received a rubber-like mold of a listener’s ear from an audiologist, a person would manually cut away unnecessary pieces of the mold—with little recourse if a mistake occurred. The mold was then further modified and used to create another mold which was finally used to create the shell of the in-ear monitor. The entire process (still used for custom colors) is incredibly tedious and one that requires months of training before an employee is allowed to work in a live production environment.

There’s many other steps after this point, all done by real humans, but it’s this beginning part that UE Pro is upgrading with 3D printing. Now, when the company receives a mold of a listener’s ear it quickly scans it into a digital model so that all the cuts and modifications can be made on the computer, instead of on the original mold.

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Once the digital model of the ear is modified it goes immediately to being printed out of the same acrylic the company has long used. The outrageously expensive (a six figure number) 3D printer uses an ultra-violet printing process so the printed product is even able to skip the buffing and polishing step that was also manually done over a watchful eye.

From here, the 3-D printed shell gets added back into the production flow and the electronic internals are installed by hand, tested against UE’s signature sound design, and finally packaged and checked for quality one final time.

With such a personal, artisan-like level of craftsmanship, the thought of adding a 3-D printing element might have presented a barrier for most companies. It’s easy to see how some might begin inadvertently preserving the past, strictly for nostalgia’s sake, rather than delivering on updated customer expectations. For example, we now live in a world were other companies like Normal are using the 3-D printing process to craft better fitting, basic level, earbuds and have them delivered in 2 days.

With the announcement that UE Pro is moving to 3D printing also comes the surprise that the company is already more than a year into the process. It’s been secretly shipping customers 3D printed in-ear monitors in place of ones going through the typical manual process for the last 12 months. The company wanted to see real results, unaffected by information that might subconsciously influence the perception of the product.

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Customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive—a 50-percent reduction in returns related to fit and comfort—to a product that customers didn’t know was any different. So much so, UE Pro kept extending the testing period just to make sure things were actually as they seemed. At this point, however, things are looking good and plans are in place to further expand the use of 3D printing as necessarily.

“We decided to embrace digital to better serve our customers,” says Ultimate Ears general manager Philippe Depallens. “In order to leverage the benefits of 3D scanning, digital sharing and digital detailing and bring these benefits to a solid finish, we invested in a state-of-the-art printing solution.”

“Transitioning to 3D printing was a bit of a challenge for the team,” Depallens explains. “We compared both processes side-by-side so we could vet and test everything. Due to the difficulty of the process, we decided to double down in our investment, as we knew it would ultimately become a competitive advantage and a great benefit to our customers.”

For consumers, 3D printing is usually still an ambiguous concept. It’s hard to grasp the real-world benefits when it’s still very much a rarity for the person buying the product. That’s beginning to change. The UPS Store, for example, is rolling out 3D printers to a 100 of its stores nationwide. These are mid-range printers that anyone with an idea will have access to.

More specifically on the music side, earbuds are extremely ripe to be disrupted by 3D printing. It’s why Normal is using the process, why Ownphones will be using the process, and why Logitech, through UE Pro, has been getting its house in order with the technology too—good fitting, universal, earbuds will always be a problem.

Will UE’s bet on 3D printing pay off? We can’t know for sure, but so far, the quality has improved in certain instances and the customer waiting time has even gone down. It’s hard to argue with results like that.

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