Article

Success on the Surface

A look at how lens surfacing equipment is making it possible for ECPs to bring the entire lens process in-house and under control

SUCCESS On the Surface

A look at how lens surfacing equipment is making it possible for ECPs to bring the entire lens process in house and under control

By Susan Tarrant

Establishing an in-house lab that can create spectacle lenses as well as finish them is increasingly becoming a viable option for ECPs. Advancements in equipment have made it easier, and more affordable, to bring it all in house. And doing so can turn any large practice or small optical chain into its own lab, passing increased customer service and quality control onto patients.

COST COMPUTATION

When determining if an in-house lab is viable for them, many ECPs start with the question of how much volume they do. But, our equipment experts say ECPs should be looking at their lab bills and justifying them against the cost of lab equipment.

“A decent-size practice could be paying $5,000 to $6,000 a month to its lab,” notes Kevin Cross, director of sales, North America, for Schneider Optical Machines, Inc. If an in-house surfacing lab costs about $300,000, a five-year financing plan would mean payments of about $5,000 per month; a fairly break-even deal with bigger profits down the line.

But there are other benefits that come with the lab bill savings, including the ability to stay more independent in the face of increasing lab consolidation. “Some ECPs don’t want to go to a conglomerate and be an account number,” Cross says.

Tim Wasko, ABOC, lab manager with Grand Rapids Ophthalmology Optical in Michigan, says: “It was a matter of dollars and cents for us. With the increasing price tag of digital lenses, our lab cost was quickly outgrowing our revenue.” His practice has seven locations, with one central location housing the lab. It has been doing surfacing in house for 10 years, and has eliminated most of its lab bills. “We have captured 80 to 90 percent of our outsourcing,” he adds.

Wasko agrees that it’s the math, not the number of lens jobs, that makes starting a surfacing lab a viable option. The practice set up its lab when it was doing a little more than 80 jobs per day. Since then, it has grown to about 130 jobs per day.

“Even at 80 jobs, it was a viable choice for us,” he says. “If the math works out in your favor, you’re big enough to do it.”

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SIZE AND SCOPE

Advancements in surfacing equipment have not only kept up with the latest in lens designs, they have made it accessible to more ECPs than ever.

“In-house surfacing has been around for a long time,” notes Andy Huthoefer, vice president, business development, Satisloh. “What is new is that now even sophisticated digital lens designs can be manufactured in house with smaller and very user-friendly digital surfacing equipment.”

Have a large hallway or a spare back room? It’s a potential lab.

“The machines don’t have to go as fast, so they don’t have to be as big” as those in large wholesale laboratories, states Cross. Whether the system is an all-in-one unit or separate entities for generating and polishing, it can be set up in a relatively small space.

“If there’s an extra office, it can become a full lab,” Cross says.

Coburn Technologies’ Free-Form Mini Lab

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Peer-to-Peer Advice

We asked ECPs Tim Wasko, ABOC, of Grand Rapids Ophthalmology Optical in Michigan, and Kevin Schmidt, OD, of Eyecare Plus PC in Tennessee, what they would tell fellow ECPs considering creating an in-office surface lab:

■ PLAN FOR MORE. Never buy a system based on what you need now. Plan (including the space you’re providing) for what you’ll be doing a few years from now. That means have room for a coater to be installed later. If your offices are doing 50 jobs a day, buy a system capable of more. Your volume is going to increase because your prices are better, your quality control is tighter, and your turnaround time is faster.

■ CHOOSE WISELY. Get to know the equipment company, its reputation, its policies, and its representatives. You’re going to have a long-term relationship with them, so make sure they are known for responding to customers’ needs.

■ KEEP A RELATIONSHIP WITH A LAB. Depending on your equipment and capabilities, you’ll most likely still have reason to send out some jobs to the lab, including perhaps glass jobs, slab-off lenses, or complex edging jobs.

Size is just one advancement that has made in-house equipment more attractive to ECPs.

■ ENGRAVINGS. A laser lens engraving feature allows ECPs to provide a PAL identifier. The result is the ability to, as long as they buy the design software and pay the click fee, produce almost any brand-name progressive lens design.

■ NO SPECIAL INFRASTRUCTURE. Most systems run on regular electrical current with no special plumbing.

■ EASE OF USE. Touch screen control, automatic configuration of settings, and little to no need for calibration mean almost any staffer can be trained to run the lab.

■ REDUCED INVENTORY. With so much of the surfacing equipment able to handle free-form designs, the need for lens inventory is greatly reduced. The progressive designs can be made on the backside of a chosen single-vision lens.

■ BETTER BLOCKING. Block material is often a lead-based alloy, and that can cause handling headaches, including disposal issues.

Some equipment manufacturers have solved this problem in their larger equipment by switching to a non-alloy material, and at least one company has developed a non-alloy block for its in-house surfacing equipment, making it much more environmentally friendly.

QUALITY CONTROL

Quality means more than just reducing redos. It means taking control over the entire customer experience, including turnaround time and overall satisfaction. That was the motivation for Kevin Schmidt, OD, co-owner and president of Eyecare Plus PC, with six locations in middle Tennessee.

“We wanted to provide a combination of a private doctor’s office with the experience of a big optical,” says Dr. Schmidt. “That’s the niche that has worked for us.”

He and his partner started their practice by purchasing a one-hour optical, keeping the lab set-up, and adding more and better exam lanes. As they added locations, they added labs in each, taking advantage of the small scale and affordable prices in order to better serve patients.

“Instead of investing in a $1 million central lab, I can buy three [smaller-scale surfacing labs] for $300,000 each and keep it close to my patients at each location,” he explains.

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Above: Chemalux 300DL CTC (cut-to-coat) from Chemat Vision, Inc. Below: Augen Optics’ Augen EasyForm

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They can now offer a one-day turnaround (at the longest) for free-form digital lenses as well as AR. “For us, it’s a total quality experience,” Dr. Schmidt says. “We are in control of what we can do for our customers.” By doing everything in house, he says he can compete with any other optical, big or small, on turnaround, quality, and price. His opticians are more confident on the floor, he adds, because they know the job is done on site—there’s no guessing as to when the job will be ready, or if it will be correct.

Wasko notes that the control over the product also plays a role in pricing his lens products. He can now price even his brand-name, premium free-form lenses at less than what others are charging, thus increasing his competitive edge. He cautions against reducing lens prices too much, however.

“We don’t believe that just because we can make them here they are any less valuable,” he says.

AN ALTERNATIVE TO SURFACING.…

Lens casting was one of the first lens generation technologies available to ECPs in house, and like surfacing equipment, casting has also evolved. The technology has kept pace with contemporary demand and is capable of offering a variety of coatings and treatments.

OPTICAL DYNAMICS

The Q-2100 system uses digital, free-form molds to create a finished Rx directly from the liquid lens material, eliminating the need to cast a semi-finished blank that is later surfaced to the final prescription. Digital-quality single vision, progressive, and photochromic lenses are available in premium index materials. When used with the company’s nanoCLEAR AR unit, AR lenses are produced in fewer than 90 minutes. INFO: opticaldynamics.com

QSPEX TECHNOLOGIES

Qpex’s new NanoLab and MiniLab use a unique mold technology combined with an automated fill unit that streamlines the production process, ensures accuracy, and eliminates waste. Operators need only assemble the disposable molds to the desired Rx. The molds already have the proper curvatures to accurately produce a lens prescription and have premium coating options already layered on the mold surface that are transferred to the lens surface. The NanoLab can produce up to 24 pairs of lenses per hour, while the MiniLab can produce up to 120 pairs of lenses per hour.

INFO: qspex.com

COATING

Like its surfacing brethren, retail coating equipment (hard coats and AR) has evolved and is now just as accessible for in-house labs. It’s often the last step (after finishing and surfacing) in creating a full retail lab.

“ECPs already tend to have a bit of a familiarity with surfacing,” says Cross, noting that, after edging, surfacing is the next logical step. “Coating is a different animal; it’s a lot to bring in all at once, so many ECPs do it after they are up and running with surfacing.”

Though the trend is still for ECPs to incorporate surfacing in house before they tackle coating, equipment companies are making in-office coating feasible.

“In-house AR allows eyecare professionals to achieve the fastest service levels possible,” Huthoefer says. “So if that’s the objective, in-house AR should be considered.”

Dr. Schmidt added coating equipment to his in-house labs in order to eliminate any wait time. “The turnaround time was controlled by the labs, and it would sometimes be two weeks,” he said. “So we just stepped up our game.”

Thinking of bringing surfacing in house? What follows is an examination of some of the newest equipment releases:

■ AUGEN OPTICS

This year, Augen Optics updated its Augen EasyForm digital freeform processing system with a new model, EasyForm FF-V3 Generator, designed with sturdy construction, calibration-free functionality, an easy-to-use touch screen, and curve accuracy to 0.01 diopters.

The “plug and play” processor has a footprint of less than four square feet. The software package provides the ability to produce Augen HDRx Trinity progressives and HD single-vision lenses, as well as other lens designs.

INFO: easyformequipment.com

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The Q-2100 digital free-form mold system from Optical Dynamics

■ CHEMAT VISION, INC.

Chemat Vision adopted DAC Vision’s dry-cut freeform technology and developed it into the Chemalux 300DL CTC (cut-to-coat) in-office free-form system, which combines precision cutting with index-matching coating technologies and does away with the need for polishing. With the 300DL CTC, a free-form lens production line can be established with a footprint of 10 by 20 feet.

INFO: chemat.com

■ COBURN TECHNOLOGIES

Though the anchor of the Free-Form Mini Lab is the CT85-DP compact generator, its heart is the LaunchPad free-form process, which allows for the polishing of freeform lenses on a traditional cylinder machine, eliminating the need for larger free-form polishers. The mini lab configuration can be scaled to meet the specific free-form volume of an ECP’s business, or can be adapted to work with lab equipment already there.

INFO: coburntechnologies.com

■ LEYBOLD OPTICS

New from Leybold Optics is the Mini Coating System (MCS), designed to complement the company’s portfolio of equipment with a low-priced entry point for small labs with low production needs. The compact MCS can apply AR to five pairs of lenses (edged or uncut) per run on both sides because of its lens flip-over mechanism. It can be combined with Leybold’s turnkey lab packages, Micro Lab with spin coating, or with its dip-coating solutions.

INFO: leyboldoptics.com

■ OPTEK

Optek’s fully computerized surfacing lab system is called Oasis MAX, short for Optek Advanced System for Integrated Surfacing. Designed for use in retail lab environments, it can fit in spaces as small as 100 square feet and can process brand-name lenses across a full range of prescriptions.

INFO: optek-online.com

■ SCHNEIDER OPTICAL MACHINES

DSC Prolab is an all-in-one digital surfacing center for start-ups and small and mid-size retail labs. It has a blocker, generator, inspection, laser marker, polisher, and washing station in one, small-footprint surfacing system.

A recent addition is the CB Connect, with an environmentally friendly blocking medium which eliminates the need for alloy-based blocking and the exposure/disposal hazards that accompany it. Schneider’s EBC 400 coater complements the system with coating solutions including AR, mirror, gradient, and hard coat.

INFO: schneider-om.com

■ SUPER SYSTEMS OPTICAL TECHNOLOGIES

For 20 years, Super Systems Optical Technologies has been offering ECPs a small and affordable surfacing system. Fastgrind 2000 takes up less than five square feet and can produce digital-quality lenses ready for edging in 12 minutes. It can produce proprietary AddVantage HD progressives, flat-tops, single vision, photochromic, polarized, and premium AR coatings. The new FastCoat hard coating system can process polycarbonate on the Fast-Grind system.

INFO: superoptical.com

■ SATISLOH

The Micro Line from Satisloh features a VFT-micro generator and a Micro-FLEX polisher. With a small footprint and low weight, it can be integrated into many production environments. The generator features an inherently stable chamber design, thereby consistently producing high-quality surfaces. The unit polishes all materials and lens formats, ensuring surface quality, form accuracy, and process stability.

INFO: satisloh.com EB