3-D printed earbuds: for your ears only

You’re in the middle of a great run, the perfect song comes on and you’re getting your sweat on when an earbud pops out. You’re probably familiar with this endorphin buzzkill.  Nikki Kaufman, the founder and CEO of Normal, decided to do something about this all-too common problem.

Kaufman set out to create customized headphones using a 3-D printer. With just a rough prototype, she was able to secure $5 million in funding from investors to start the company.

“A lot of consumers say, ‘my right ear’s so weird. Nothing stays in. It falls out when I run,’ and the reality is, no, your ear is not weird, you’re completely normal” that’s how Kaufman says she chose the name for her start-up.

Normal headphones

Normal headphones

Now Kaufman’s 24-person firm has a New York retail store that doubles as a factory. Customers can walk in and create headphones that are designed to fit their ears. For $199 users can customize their cable length, choose the color of the ear piece and watch as a 3-D printer churns out the product. When all is said and done the headphones take about two hours to produce. Quite different from the old school trip to the doctor’s office to get silicone squirted into your ears to make a mold and a weeks of waiting for the earphone to come back.

The headphones are also available for purchase through Normal’s app, where customers can design their earbuds and have them shipped within about 48 hours.

Kaufman is no stranger to the world of start-ups. She was a founding member of Quirky, a company that brings people’s inventions to life. It was at Quirky that she realized how customizing products for the masses is becoming a whole lot easier with 3-D printers. They can be programmed to make subtle changes from one print to the next, which she finds ideal for making products like earphones, because no two ears, even two ears on the same head, are exactly the same.

Normal's 3D Printers

Normal’s 3D Printers

Up until recently, it was difficult to envision mass manufacturing using 3-D printers, but that’s beginning to change. Companies are using 3-D printers to produce products. GE and Boeing for instance are using the machines to make parts for aircraft.

The printers are evolving and making far more finished products now than they had in the past. Normal is using 10 Fortus 250 3-D printers, made by Stratasys, a 3-D printer manufacturer in Minnesota. The base cost is about $60,000, according to Bruce Bradshaw, Stratasys’ vice president of marketing for North America.

Stratasys makes printers that sell for as little as a few thousand dollars, all the way up to half a million and Bradshaw thinks we’re at the beginning of a 3-D manufacturing boom, “We’re finding more and more materials that can be used in the printers.” He also sees a future where regional 3-D printing hubs will handle the manufacturing needs of multiple companies.

Kaufman says Normal is one of the first companies to use 3-D printing to mass produce a consumer good and she believes the potential for manufacturing with 3-D printers is untapped and set to grow, “The idea could be much larger than headphones and earphones, right? There are other wearables, or other products or other things that you could make mass customized by 3-D printing.”

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