In today’s world, the term ‘perfection’ is being replaced by ‘customization’.
If a product isn’t uniquely designed to fit a person’s needs, it might not be perfect, which makes perfectionism highly subjective and relative to each and every one of us. Or at least that’s what Bassel Idriss, cofounder of customized earphones GENERICS, believes.
Idriss, who previously worked as a marketing director at Procter & Gamble, was fascinated by 3D printing when he was first introduced to it by a friend, during a trip to his company’s HQ in Cincinnati, Ohio. “I told myself if I ever leave the corporate world, I want to go into this,” he said in an interview with Wamda.
And so he did.
GENERICS is an on-demand 3D-printed earphone. It aims to solve the problem of uncomfortable earphones that cause pain after long usage.
“Ears are like a fingerprint so the standards solution doesn’t work for everyone. 53% are fine with it, 47% complain."
To request it, users need to download the app (which will be available on Android and iOS by mid-December) and select the initials they want engraved on the outer part of the earphones and the colors of the wire and earphones. Once this is done, the app will ask for a friend's assistance to film their ears using a card to benchmark against. “To be able to take ear measurement, we need to benchmark the ear against a common size, so we use an ID card, credit card, license etc..”
The app’s built-in camera is smart as it notifies the user if there was no ear or card in the frame, and if the camera was too close or too far. It will also give them directions on where to move and what to capture. Once the video gets submitted, the GENERICS team, which is comprised of 6 full-time engineers, will 3D-print the earphone within five working days and have it shipped worldwide. GENERICS can be pre-ordered for now on Kickstarter, and once available, it will work on second generation smartphones (2015 releases) and above, otherwise the smart video features will become buggy, according to Idriss.
Show me how it’s made
Once a video is submitted, the team uses a program called Rhinoceros for 3d modelling, and Grasshopper add-on, which is a parametric software that allows the team to select specific measurement points, automate the process and produce a ready-to-print mould. The latter is 3D-printed with a liquid called resin that hardens once is exposed to light. Once they have the 3D-printed mould, the team injects it with a biocompatible silicone to produce the ear fits.
Once the materials harden, they get unmolded. The team takes the silicone part that took the ear shape, clean it, process it and add to it the wire and the sound technology.
Idriss bought the sound speakers technology from Danish company Sonion and the semi-finished earphones are being manufactred by China’s Lyand Acoustic Technology. His team assembles the earfits and semi-earphones at their micro factory in the UK Lebanon Tech Hub, where the 3D-printing also takes place.
Hardware, a capital-intensive industry
Hardware startups are challenging and face many obstacles. The famous example of Jawbone puts things into perspective: the smart fitness bracelet which was once valued at US$3 billion is now a collapsing unicorn. After raising funds from famous VCs such as Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital, the company started looking for a buyer but failed to find one and had to go into liquidation in June 2017. Why did it fail? One of the reasons was it faced difficulties competing with cheaper products like Apple, Fitbit and other product from China.
Idriss didn’t shy away from talking about manufacturing cost, especially that 3D-printing is still relatively expensive. “The typical plastic you use in mass production would cost around $2-3 per kilogram. Similar material for 3D-printing would cost about $200 per kilogram,” explained Idriss. “If you increase the area in which you want to 3D print by double, the price increases by six folds. If you triple it, it [increases] by 20 folds.”
This factor, coupled with the fact that the bigger the 3D-printers the more expensive they are, Idriss opted to manufacture earphones. “Small volume, small printers, less materials. In digital fabrication, we need a 100 square meter [factory], a 100k [of capital] to set up a manufactory, and we can start. Looking ahead, we will set up micro manufactories where the demand is [...] to decrease our supply chain cost and serve consumers more.”
Annually there are 350 million earphones sold worldwide, according to the cofounder, aside from the 1.3 billion that are given away with smartphones. “Yearly you have 1.65 billion earphones in the market. The theoretic market size is 800 million users and the average price of earphones is US$43.” GENERICS will be sold at $125, three times that amount, given that it will be customized and 3D-printed.
Idriss tested the product with 90 beta testers in Lebanon and had 9 prototypes over 15 months, before launching the final one on Kickstarter. He will be shipping the products via DHL once the campaign is over.
Customizing time and wellness
Customized earphones aren’t new to the market. In fact, many professionals and musicians get their earphones customized because they use them heavily. What makes GENERICS unique is the fact that the customization part happens via an app, according to Idriss. Typically, people would go to an audiologist to do a physical ear impression and the latter then gets 3D-printed. “They [audiologists] will create a beautiful pair but you have to wait for two weeks and pay starting $500 up to $5k.”
But for the rest of us, who want an earphone to make calls, jog or listen to music at work, GENERICS can be a cheaper alternative. It has passive noise cancellation because it fits well in the ear. “We don’t claim to be as good as custom-made earphone with impression, because the latter goes into your ear canal. We [provide] 75% of performance for 25% of the price.”
Perhaps a former competitor to GENERICS, which also allows users to request via the app, is Normal. The company launched in 2014 but went out of business in early 2017. “We judge they failed because their earphone sound and feel were poor; their custom part was a hard plastic which made any ear measure errors unforgiving; and they were poor value for money. [The] retail price was US$199,” Idriss commented.
GENERICS’ crowdfunding campaign aims to raise awareness about the product, yet the feedback it received was impatient. Idriss revealed that most of it demanded wireless earphones. “It’s another device you need to charge and consumes a lot of power. And if you want to put a bigger battery, you will have a big ear piece,” commented Idriss. However his team is currently looking for the best tech that will allow them to connect earphones wirelessly, while maintaining good sound quality and weight. “We will keep both [wire and wireless] and then the market will dictate.”
Another challenge for the cofounder was mass production. Although he managed to raise around US$1.5 million from 15 angel investors - including Raymond Abou Adal from manufacturing and logistics company Holdal, Albert Aoun, chairman of IFP Group and other people he worked with at Procter and Gamble - the production and 3D rendering processes aren’t fully automated yet. Their monthly capacity is at 500 earphones and can be raised to 1500, but it’s far from their 10k ultimate target.
Tech for social good
Idriss is looking to scale the product vertically by producing a wireless earphone in the future, but also horizontally by making customized earphones for those who have hearing difficulties. “About 1.5 month ago, the Hearing Aid act in the US declassified hearing aids from being a medical device to an over-the-counter device. So when this act comes into effect, you don’t need to have a medical certification for your hearing aid. This gets a lot of innovation in the hearing aid sector because it’s been dormant and because the barrier to entry was high behind all these legalities.” The target audience would be those who have hearing problems but not bad enough to require a hearing aid. He might also consider a noise cancellation device in crowded places.
Today, audio is becoming an alternative for visual data. Audiobooks, podcasts, intelligent personal assistants like Cortana, Siri, Google and other innovations are passing information to people without causing damage to their eyes. Only time and some ‘tech geniuses’ can tell us what lies ahead.