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How 3D printing makes UE Pro’s bespoke in-ear monitors faster, smarter, better

The burgeoning 3D printing industry has been making a lot of headlines these days. The fledgling technology often stirs up images of misanthropes making pieces for a homemade board game, or fan-fiction Star Wars dolls. However, as the technology rises from novelty to a viable tool of industry with near infinite applications, the manner in which today’s top craftsmen are using 3D printing is much more sensible — and a lot cooler too.

Ultimate Ears Pro, one of the pioneers of the sort of in-ear stage monitors professional musicians use, is a great example of a company taking 3D printing from the world of oddity into concrete, real-world applications. We recently spoke with Mike Dias, director of sales for UE Pro, to find out more about the company’s recent sojourn into 3D printing technology, and why he believes the move has made UE’s devices better than ever before.

Related: Students hold first ever concert with 3D-printed instruments

The past

Before jumping in, Dias wanted to remind us of UE Pro’s roots which, as he likes to say, began “on the back of a tour bus,” when Van Halen’s monitor engineer, Jerry Harvey, started it all. As Dias tells it, the drummer for the infamously loud band, Alex Van Halen, was essentially going deaf on stage. His ears were seizing up, and he was temporarily losing his hearing on a regular basis.

“There are no less steps in our manufacturing process, but it makes us think about our manufacturing in a different way.”

To solve the issue, Harvey drafted up one of the first passive crossover in-ear sets, copies of which were quickly adopted by all of the band members. Before long, Van Halen’s opener, Skid Row, wanted in on this new miracle of monitoring and threw down a few grand for their own sets. Building from word of mouth, Harvey’s creations continued to gain prestige, and the resulting company, Ultimate Ears, helped to pioneer the field of custom in-ear monitors.

You’ll now be hard-pressed to see any artist of measure on stage without in-ear monitors, over 50,000 of which are from UE Pro. In fact, in-ears offer such excellent sound from a small package, they’ve begun to make their way off the stage and into music lovers’ everyday lives.

The present

Dias reminds us of UE Pro’s past because he’s trying to make a point about how deeply his company is rooted in the industry — and how big a step it was to pull up those roots and switch to an all new method for crafting its wares.

“Bringing this process in required a tremendous investment in capital, time, resources and training.” Dias explains, which is why 3D printing hasn’t lowered the price points for the devices, as we had imagined. In fact, the company apparently had to take a hit just to keep the pricing the same. Apart from throwing down a hefty load for equipment and software, all of the craftsman who had been working with UE Pro’s in-ear monitors in the traditional method had to completely relearn their craft to work with the new 3D printing technology. As difficult as the process was, the company believes it was necessary to create a revolution in “speed, fit, quality, and comfort” for UE Pro’s monitors.

UE3 Pro

As one might imagine, 3D printing saves a lot of time in the custom in-ear process. But what’s interesting is the fact that what Dias stressed as the most important aspect of using the new technology wasn’t the turn-around time — which is cut nearly in half — but the absolute precision and near perfection that 3D printing allows.

“There are no less steps in our manufacturing process [with 3D printing], but it makes us think about our manufacturing in a different way,” Dias said. “There are no gains of efficiency, there are gains of quality.”

Part of what makes the new process superior is what Dias calls the “undo” button provided by working in the digital realm. The re-trained artisans at UE Pro use their skills to augment the digital models as they once did with actual silicone pieces. Only now, the designers can be more brazen with their sculpting, allowing them to create a fit for each user that is virtually perfect. And when it comes to in-ears, it’s all about the fit.

Related: Professor develops 3D-printed saxophone

The process

The new technology still requires some leg work for the user, including going to an audiologist to get fitted for your new earpieces for both the sound performance and the fit — both of which are tailored to each user. While the new headphone startup, Normal, relies on a picture snapped from a smartphone app to 3D-print a custom attachment to a standardized shell, fully custom-created earpieces still require a more hands-on approach — for now anyway.

This is not an off the shelf product…it’s like buying an Armani suit which then get’s tailored to fit your body.”

The process begins much as it did before, with the injection of a two-part silicone goo into your ear, that becomes a solid mold. The mold is than scanned by a precision 3D scanner to create a Computer Animated Design (CAD), to bring the model of your inner-ear into the digital realm. After being tailored for a flawless seal, the digital model is then sent to the 3D-printer.

Once printed, the resulting shells are scrutinized for quality, embedded with electronics, fixed with faceplates, and then sent out to the end user. From the time of receipt of the digital file from the Audiologist, UE Pro’s process now takes about 7-10 business days.

With sound reproduction tailored for each user, and a final product that creates a near impervious fit, Dias says the new earpieces sound better than ever before. UE Pro has been rolling out its new process under the radar for the last 18 months, but has waited to get customer feedback before making the new process public knowledge. Aside from anecdotal evidence from customers, who Dias claims have been remarking about even better sound, the company’s already low customer issues have gone down by 50 percent.

Faster, smarter, better. It’s like the in-ear version of the $6 million man.

The future, Conan?

We asked Dias where he sees the industry heading in the future, specifically if customers will eventually be able to replace the time-consuming process of going in for mold injections to create a digital impression for a scanning system. Dias called the idea “the holy grail” of custom in-ear monitors. He said that the idea is a ways off, but a scanning system of some sort is in the works.

“This is not an off the shelf product…it’s like buying an Armani suit which then get’s tailored to fit  your body…We don’t ever want to simplify or remove the part of it being fully custom. However, we do want eliminate any of the obstacles. Visiting an audiologist is a friction point,” Dias said.

In the future, users may be able to go to the local music shop to get scanned, or possibly further down the line, scan themselves. These baby steps in the advancement of 3D printing are a small glimpse into the future of what this technology will soon bring to bear. And the possibilities are just beginning to be revealed. UE Pro’s new process can be seen as a microcosm of the technology, which will no doubt soon permeate virtually every industry of production on the planet.

The cheapest pair of UE Pro’s new 3D-printed in-ear monitors still start at $400 for dual driver sets, and move all the way up to its $1,350 set, which sports 6 balanced armature drivers, separated by multiple crossover points. For comparison, the aforementioned Normal headphones, which only utilize 3D printing for a portion of the earpiece, and aren’t electronically tuned for your ears, will cost you $200. Other standardized in-ear monitors like Westone’s W40, and NuForce’s Primo 8s (which sport quad driver configurations) run around $500.

Stay with us for part two of this report as we step through the process and find out firsthand just how good UE Pro’s new 3D creations sound.