I’ve tried dozens of earbuds and earphones, but the problem is always the same: They never fit exactly right. I’ve been tempted on a number of occasions to get custom molded ones, but the hassle and time of going to an ear specialist for the molds has kept me from pulling the trigger. Obviously, I care a lot about listening to music, but I'm not about to go get a head orthotic.
Normal earphones could change all that. The company is allowing customers to take pictures of their ears via mobile app and have custom 3-D printed earphones assembled and delivered in as little as 48 hours.
Normal is claiming to be one of the first to mass produce a 3-D consumer product. To do this, the company uses Stratasys 3-D printers to print ABS earform parts, complete with soft touch coating, making each pair of earphones custom fit.
"At the Normal factory in New York City, we currently have 10 Fortus 250mc printers, two paint booths, two cleaning stations, two smoothing stations, and one laser cutter," says Normal founder and CEO Nikki Kaufman. "After the 3-D modeling and printing process, the earphones are assembled and tested on site. Our laser cutter is used to etch a carrying case with the customer’s name as well as cut an acrylic insert to fit the unique shape of each pair of Normals. A customer’s Normals will only fit in their carrying case and their ears."
Because the earphones are tied to the customization process, the only way to order right now, or maybe ever, is using the app. Available on iOS and Android, the app talks you through a guided process that involves holding a quarter on you face for scale while you rotate you head for 10 pictures. The same step is done for both ears because each ear is unique.[/figure]
In the future you’ll be able to visit the company’s retail location in New York to have your ears scanned and the molds custom printed while you wait. The store opens in early August, the same time the Normal earphones begin shipping to people pre-ordering now.
Combining on-demand 3-D printed parts along with a mobile commerce system, the company is testing a new merchandising strategy. Services like Uber have succeeded by selling via mobile, but selling a product—only one product—through a dedicated mobile app is still new territory, as far I know.
The 3-D printing aspect is new ground as well. The UPS Store was the first retail location to start deploying 3-D printers which consumers could go and use, but mass production of a single 3-D-printed item is still relatively rare.
As far as the actual earphones are concerned, they're fairly standard, including a black or clear cable with mic and volume rocker. There isn’t necessarily anything innovative about the audio portion of the product, unlike what some other companies are doing in the personal audio space.
Earin, for example, is testing the limits of small wireless earbuds connected by Bluetooth. The goal Earin has isn’t for a custom fit, but two in independent earbuds that nearly disappear inside a listener’s ear. There’s also Dash which is doing something similar, but including activity, and heart rate tracking to its list of features.
Outdoor Technology founder Caro Krissman indicated to me in the past that if the earphones incumbents don’t start to get innovative in their pricing and approach, they’re going to get clobbered by the startups. If their risks pan out, Normal may be another piece of proof.