In our previous post, we shared our design principles and the steps involved in creating our new, more sustainable packaging. This time, I’d like to tell you about how we make our frames — dirty details included.
When I started working in the Supply Chain team in 2015, Ace & Tate had just opened its first flagship store in Amsterdam. The number of frames we were looking to produce was pretty low and far from a good deal for most factories. We still count ourselves lucky that a company based in Cadore, Italy took the leap and agreed to take on our small orders.
I soon realised that the eyewear industry can be quite particular. While we see many industries undergoing so-called ‘disruption’, the eyewear business keeps change at bay. This applies to both its use of materials (in our case: acetate and metal) as well as its organisation of supply chains, which tend to be shrouded in quite a bit of secrecy.
When I began writing about our factories and manufacturing process, I soon realised that one post wouldn’t be enough to cover such weighty topics. Since I’m set on giving you the complete story, what you’re reading now is part one of two. First, I’ll clarify how our product is made and explain what this means in terms of waste. In part two I’ll cover the operational challenges that we’re facing as we move towards a more sustainable production. We hope this information will be of value to you, and that you’ll learn a thing or two with us.
It might come as a surprise, but making a typical pair of Ace & Tate glasses takes over one hundred steps. Every pair’s journey kicks off with the Design team at our in-house studio in Amsterdam. Once the designs are finalised, production begins.
The raw material we use to make our frames is called cellulose acetate*: a high-quality plastic that allows for blending in rich colours (like our Caramel and Lemonade) and creating detailed finishings. This cellulose acetate is shaped into sheets using special machines. These sheets are sprinkled with pigments and rerolled a few times to create the intended colour or pattern.
Next, the sheets are chopped up into tiny parts — what we call granules — which then end up in a mould, and when put under pressure turn into acetate blocks. The blocks are separated into sheets again, thicker ones this time, and we use high-tech machines for the milling** of one frame out of every sheet.
From then on, it’s all about the details. We hand-polish and wax the frames so they feel soft on your nose, and use Teflon-coated screws and barrel hinges to ensure our product is tough and durable. After the lenses are custom-made by our expert lenses laboratory and then properly mounted, we run a bunch of quality checks before sending them either directly to you, or to our stores.
See below, what the making of an Ace & Tate frame looks like.
Note: These visuals only show the most crucial bits and not all 100+ steps for the sake of your sanity — and ours.
*The cellulose we use is based on wood pulp mixed with plasticisers.
**Milling is the machinal, precision removal of material until it has the desired shape — in this case: until the shape of your frame is reached.
I got to know the nuts and bolts of our production process by visiting our suppliers and manufacturers, and saw how during the milling process alone, 80% of our acetate was going to waste. Alarming, to say the least. Further research into our supply chain showed that 20% — 40% of each prescription lens ends up as waste after having been cut to fit the frames and that 100% of our demo lenses were being squandered (these are simple plastic placeholders, used to ensure the frame’s shape before the adequate lenses are put into place).
The demo lenses are important: they protect the frames during transport, preventing acetate to bend when under pressure. Reusing them doesn’t work since it would mean shipping them back to our factories in China and Italy, which would cause more harm due to C02 emissions. Prescription lenses are custom-made for each frame with little likelihood of someone else fitting that exact frame-and-prescription-lenses-combo too.
Meanwhile, the screws and the hinges represent 25% — 30% of the waste, due to the milling involved in the creation of these components (scroll up for the meaning of milling).
To give you an overview, below is our current production process and its estimated levels of material waste.
The most feasible short-term solution for reducing material waste is to reuse and recycle our surplus acetate and lenses. What we’re after in the long-term is to find out how we can redesign our production process by using biodegradable materials for example, or by closing the material loop after use.
For now, we could chop up the surplus acetate and recycle this into granules again. Another road to recycling would be to deform or chemically recycle the acetate. In both cases, the recycling is still energy intensive and leads to a downgrade in terms of quality and applicability. Luckily, some applications are made for recycled material, such as our 3D printer, where colour and material quality standards aren’t as high because the printer is used to make prototypes. We’re in the test phase with this.
We’re also collaborating with DGTL festival — known as the greenest festival in the world — to create an art installation out of 15.000 surplus lenses. The piece will be premiered during the event in April 2019, and then exhibited at other locations to promote circularity.
On top of that, we started working with partners such as Reflow and A-tex, who help us to identify high-value future applications that keep our materials literally in the loop. A-tex, for example, helped us transform the small leftover pieces of acetate into new sheets, reaching a thickness of 3mm, the absolute minimum — still counts though! With a new batch of surplus coming in, we’ll see what maximum thickness we can get to. Once that’s clear, we’ll know how to use it as a renewed raw material again. Reflow, on the other hand, is helping us out with our surplus lenses and finding a solution to close the loop — still a work in progress.
On top of reusing and recycling, we’re exploring how to replace current raw materials with more sustainable alternatives, such as bio acetate. Bio acetate is not new to Ace & Tate: funnily enough, I worked with this material during the first ever research project I worked on with the Product and Design team back in 2015 and we’ve been using it since.
The benefit of bio acetate is that it does not contain any oil-based plasticisers, as opposed to normal acetate. That means the acetate supplier does not blend biodegradable and chemical materials, making the entire material biodegradable — and thus 100% recyclable.
Currently, roughly 5% of our collection is designed for and made of bio acetate (including our Bio Black frames). That’s because bio acetate is still just an incremental improvement from standard acetate — it’s not fully compostable. Also, colour options are fairly limited. Still, we aim to increase this 5% to 20% within a year from now, because bio acetate’s recyclability is worth it. In the meantime we’re putting more effort into experimenting with new, potentially 100% compostable materials: an industry-wide challenge, to say the least.
The lesson is clear: we need to understand how something is actually produced, before trying to suggest any (sustainable) changes to our partners.
In our next post, we’ll dive into the criteria applied when selecting manufacturers and component suppliers. I’ll also explain how we help our partners meet both environmental and social standards by running specific audits — let’s call them very long checklists — that protect the quality of our product and the safety of our workers’ lives.
Until then, I am happy to receive any suggestions, questions or feedback. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow We’re working on it on Medium to stay updated.
I’ll keep telling my tales here — both the good and the bad.
For the new readers, welcome. You’ve landed on We’re working on it, a platform dedicated to openness and self-reflection, where we’ll be sharing our bumpy, yet enlightening journey towards becoming a more sustainable company. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
¹ In this post we only focused on the production process of our acetate frames as they make up most of our collection. We also produce frames out of metal and titanium.