Monica Sokolowski – “3D Printing lives at the intersection of technology, creativity and business”

Monica Sokolowski studied medical imaging, managed dental imaging centers and thought out-loud about the challenges of finding eyeglasses that fit each unique face perfectly.  Her current project in Custom 3D printed eyewear was born from her background in dental surgical guides and a desire to wear glasses that fit.  She lives and works in Toronto, Canada

Monica, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?

I’m a medical radiation technologist, so I initially worked in a hospital setting acquiring images of patients through MRI and nuclear medicine. My husband (an oral radiologist) opened Canaray (an oral radiology practice) in November 2010 and once it started growing, I took over the management of the imaging at all of the locations. We realized that dentistry was transitioning from analog to digital, and decided to start producing CAD/CAM surgical guides in January 2012, based on 3D surface scans of dental models and 3D cone beam CT data. Eventually, we procured our first 3D printer, in order to eliminate several lab steps.  At the time we were one of the first small companies to make the leap to 3D printed surgical guides to directly distribute to our customers. We lost money on probably every guide we made for the first 3 years, but the desire to keep learning and improving kept us going, I think…It was more about building a foundation for the future than a short term moneymaking gambit. The field was young, our customers were forgiving, and we spent a lot of time fiddling with techniques and parameters (because online information was sparse at the time) until we established a workflow that consistently produced good results. From there, we slowly increased the numbers and types of printers in our lab.

An example of CAD models of a dental surgical guide (shown in white) on a surface scan of a dental arch (shown in blue). Both items would be 3D printed, but in different materials with properties pertinent to their function.

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An example of a finished 3D printed surgical guide, with metal sleeves inserted.

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What was your very first experience with 3D Printing? 

Before we had a 3D printer, we produced dental implant surgical guides with a system the calculated coordinates in a computer program. The coordinates were transferred to a hand-calibrated drill press, and we physically drilled holes in stone models and moulded a curable plastic material on the model to produce the guide. It was terribly inefficient, and not all that accurate…Every guide we made was verified with a cone beam CT scan, and almost every one needed to be remade in order to ensure adequate accuracy for surgery. At the time, we felt that it was a poor solution, and were ready to throw in the towel, but the software received an update to permit 3D printed guides, and after we sent a single STL file to the printer distributor for testing, we knew that we had to have a 3D printer, so we purchased our first Stratasys Orthodesk 30 that was able to produce dental surgical guides with a material that was approved for surgical use. (At the time, companies like FormLabs were not well-established, and did not have a competitive product at a lower price.) So my first 3D printing experience was rather atypical, because the workflow for Stratasys printers entailed jetting off soluble support material rather than cutting off printing support struts, and the final product did not require any finishing. We are basically end-users of Stratasys printers, and don’t have much expertise in the minutiae of calibrating them etc, as this is all done by a service technician.

The evolution of our process from handmade to 3D printed. The 3D printed item in this picture was the sample we received from the printer vendor, and as soon as we saw it we knew there was no other way forward than 3D printing, and all our handmade goods instantly became obsolete.

Could you explain furthermore what Specsy is about and the services that you are providing?

It turned out that our expertise in 4 areas at Canaray were the building blocks necessary to start Specsy. We had developed in-house software for secure patient management and for our digital workflow, as well as several web-based 3D viewing and modeling tools. We worked with many independent healthcare professionals who acquired 3D x-ray data, and managed, processed and reported on that data. We operated 3D printers. We developed a decent level of expertise merging 3D data from various sources into an accurate digital representation of the patient’s facial area. So it wasn’t a big leap to apply this knowledge towards starting Specsy, and an example of the fruits of our labour is our interactive demo, which you can try online at specsy.com. This demo is actually based on my own 3D facial scan, and is accurately sized to produce custom eyewear that is adjustable by the end-user in any dimension, and permits unlimited color/shape/pattern combinations.

With Specsy, we are aiming to produce eyewear that is indistinguishable from anything you can find at a retail store. But we want to also produce frames that you can’t find anywhere else. For example, our ability to 3D print in smooth full color allows us to produce these wonderful color patterns, and essentially results in us being able to say “if you have a photo or picture, it can be applied to any frame”. For many examples of us doing just that, check out our instagram page or try uploading your own images onto some of our frames in the demo app at https://specsy.com

Here are some examples of 3D textured computer  models, and their corresponding 3D printed counterparts.

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We are continuously working on color, and I feel like this is the next big evolutionary step for 3D printing. Once you have the single color items printing accurately, you’re going to start thinking about how to also color them accurately. Filament-based printers are not going to transition well into full-color printing, so for any application that will eventually need color baked-in, my opinion is that is is not worthwhile to invest in building knowledge or expertise in filament-based printing solutions.

How did you come to build the company?

Initially it was just this idea we started sharing with our friends on Facebook. My husband posted “we can do this with our dental technology and we’re going to make a pair for Monica, isn’t that cool?”  And the feedback we received was – most people can’t find exactly what they want in fit/color/shape.  So since we felt like we still have our “regular” jobs and it isn’t super risky compared to diving into something we know nothing about, why not give it a try…we obviously had to put all our aspirations for home ownership or savings on hold to get this going, but when it’s the right idea at the right time, you just have to go for it!

I’m between kids and adult size and I wanted a specific color, which is so hard to find when your size is not exactly average. I know that I’m a tough customer, so if we can produce a frame that I would be proud to wear, I know we’ll have achieved something worthwhile.

Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company to share with us?

  • Canaray was already an overflowing plate of work. We already worked evenings and weekends, and did it nonstop for the last 7 years. Specsy is like that, but worse because everything is open-ended, and there are technical problems that arise from doing something new that we don’t even know are solvable when we discover them. The long days and late nights are equally grueling and exhilarating. Creating something new requires lots of time and hard work, but the result is a direct reflection of the time and effort put in. We will have all nighters where we are on the brink of breaking, and then the next day, a work of art comes off the printer, and it’s like watching a flower that nobody has ever seen blossom for the first time, and that feeling alone is enough to make all the past and future sleepless nights and long days every day worth it.
  • Fun story: Enjoying the fruits of our labour, by wearing each version of the eyewear prototype, starting from the first bulky monstrosity we produced in clear dental guide material, up to the current version with a wood grain print. Seeing improvements in every version is so exciting!
  • Not so fun: The long days leading up to and during our first public show. It was the first time we introduced Specsy to the public, so it was tons of work getting to that point (e.g. creating booth, finishing product, and then actually working at the actual booth as the exhibition after the long days and nights leading up to it). We had nothing but technical difficulties, no professional branding yet, and the development company we initially hired had not produced a software product that was even remotely ready for use by anyone. So our in-house team (aka my husband) whipped together the software based on his early demo software prototypes that he had provided to the software company as a means of providing design direction … it had a non-intuitive user interface, and it was still being programmed the day the show started. Also, as healthcare professionals, we were not used to exhibiting products and we certainly did not have a readymade booth waiting. The booth we designed was very heavy to transport and cumbersome to assemble, and expensive. There is a picture of it below. At least it looked nice. Anyway, despite all the drama, we somehow pulled it off, and the reward of introducing Specsy was worth it, because the feedback we received from the show attendees was invaluable in helping us determine our product market and strategy.

The first version of the Specsy app (shown at our first exhibition) looked similar to this image below. To produce 3D printable files, we needed custom design software for our eyewear product, which we produced in-house:

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Our first booth at an exhibition. In this picture, I am smiling on the outside, but on the inside I want to die of exhaustion and stress.

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As a woman entrepreneur, what was/ is your biggest challenge?

Daily interactions with people who normally expect to interact with a man and inherently (and subconsciously) assume that I are less knowledgeable and competent. This can range from service techs to bookkeepers. It’s something I know to expect, but nevertheless, still takes me by surprise when it happens. I will sometimes compare responses sent from my “female” email to the ones sent from a “male” email account, and it can be quite astounding – particularly in how timely the response is, but I still feel like there’s a lean to the boys club. I’m lucky to be involved with a company that believes in diversity and equal rights. In the past I have experienced chauvinist perspectives at other jobs and I still do from people that are outside our company, such as being assumed to be a secretary or an assistant to some as-yet-unintroduced boss.

What was the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?

I attended the 3DHeals conference in San Francisco in April 2017.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning about 3D bioprinting of tissues and organs.  I also read about 3D printed houses as well as fabrics for clothing.   It’s demonstrating that 3D printing has mass consumer applications and the power to disrupt existing industries (e.g. optical).  It isn’t just a novelty for hobbyists.

What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you as a business person and designer?

That it lives at the intersection of technology, creativity and business. It’s exciting to be working with a technology that is still relatively new. The ability to have the inception of an idea and a 3D printed prototype within hours is pretty significant.

And so, in your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?

As with any technology based industry – focus on getting more women in tech and acquiring technical knowledge and knowhow. Just because women are underrepresented in university engineering and science programs doesn’t mean they can’t acquire that knowledge further into their career. Making sure women have this technical knowledge is essential to get them involved with 3D printing.

What do you think of the 3D printing industry today?

It is still in its infancy. It’s still relatively inaccessible due to price point for a good 3D printer and the technical knowledge required to produce 3D models of sufficient quality within the constraints of what 3D printers will allow in terms of material and esthetic properties. This limits the number of creative people and non-technical entrepreneurs who can try new application for 3D printer. Once these barriers to entry are reduced we will see some really interesting things coming out of 3D printing.

I like that right now it is limited to people who are really invested, so the biggest investment is time and second is money.  You have to be able to sit down and figure it out without getting so frustrated that you quit.

And how would you like to see it evolve?

Lower barriers to entry – financial and technical. Creative people will find exciting and imaginative applications for 3D printing. Need to make it easier for them.

Would also like to see a more open ecosystem for 3D printing material – not be locked into a single vendor for all materials, support, etc.  This stifles innovation and makes it difficult to try new things. E.g. limited by which materials we can use for the frames which affects our polishing process. Also makes it harder to try new patterns and prints.

It would be nice, of course, if printing speed improved dramatically, perhaps even to the point that you could watch the entire item be 3D printed within a matter of seconds!


Thank you for reading and for sharing! 

We invite you to join Women in 3D Printing on LinkedIn and to like our Facebook page for further discussion.

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