Eyewear company charts a path for growth at YBI


A cutting-edge additive manufacturer of children’s eyewear has found a perfect fit in the Mahoning Valley.

Fitz Frames, a Los Angeles-based maker and distributor of low-cost, custom-fit prescription glasses, sunglasses and blue-light lenses for children, will begin operations in the sprawling campus of the Youngstown Business Incubator next week. It will be housed in YBI’s 2-year-old Tech Block Building 5, the 65,000-square-foot former headquarters of The Vindicator Printing Co.

Count us among those excited about the newest addition to the downtown business incubator that promises more growth and more acclaim for both the startup eyewear company and the internationally acclaimed YBI.

Barb Ewing, the industrious and energetic chief executive officer of YBI, minces no words in the significance of the newest addition to Tech Block Building 5, the incubator’s centerpiece for 3-D printing technologies.

“This is one of the milestones in additive manufacturing,” said Ewing. “We see a lot of new technologies being developed that are either related to the development of new pieces of AM equipment or materials, or products that are for low-volume production, like aerospace or race cars. This is the next step in the evolution of the additive manufacturing market, and is another important milestone for the industry.”

She said for Youngstown, “this is a watershed event. Being able to attract a company of this caliber from Southern California to Youngstown is really a validation of our expertise in the market.”

It is also a validation of the ongoing growth of the YBI and its increasing impact on the much needed diversification of the Valley economy. The incubator began its operations about 25 years ago in a dilapidated former furniture store on West Federal Street and today has grown to five rejuvenated historic buildings on the downtown’s West End with about 200 employees that generated $1.35 million in revenue and attracted more than $2 million in capital investment in 2018.

Fitz Frames is sure to add to that impressive growth.

IMPRESSED WITH YOUNGSTOWN

Heidi Hertel, co-CEO of the eyewear company, is an unabashed enthusiast in the potential YBI offers her business.

“The more research we did, the more we were impressed with the city and saw it to be the Silicon Valley of all things 3D printing,” Hertel said.

And why shouldn’t she be impressed? YBI is strategically positioned at the vanguard of new manufacturing technologies that drive the new economy.

Strengthening that robust position for YBI’s future is the incubator’s collaboration with a host of supportive and powerful local, state and federal partners ranging from Youngstown State University, JobsOhio, the U.S. Economic Development Administration and America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute based downtown.

The addition of Fitz Frames to the YBI portfolio of some two dozen start-up companies also demonstrates the viability of additive manufacturing on practical consumer applications.

Additive manufacturing creates products very precisely “adding” layers of material only where they are needed. Traditional manufacturing is usually “subtractive” manufacturing, meaning that materials are removed by drilling, grinding machining. In that process, waste is reduced and so are costs.

By using AM, Fitz Frames enters the lucrative market of vision care at a definite competitive advantage. Instead of prices that range about $300 per pair of conventionally manufactured prescription glasses, Fitz Frames sells its glasses for as low as $95 per pair, Hertel has said.

But price alone is not the only way in which the startup distinguishes itself from its competitors. Fitz places a premium on fit. Through its app, the company performs facial mapping and lifelike virtual try-ons for children to guarantee a custom fit. Additionally, the frames are printed using a polyamide powder and electricity, then dyed. The powder results in frames that are impact-resistant and can be easily heated for resizing.

With so much going for it, it’s hardly surprising that Fitz already has a waiting list of more than 5,000 customers. It also garnered a spot on the prestigious Goop 15, the list of products and services recommended by actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s international natural-health company. It’s in great company there, sandwiched among Gucci fashions and Hermes watches.

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