BUILDING YOUR FREE-FORM BUSINESS

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Premier Vision Group can now surface high-performance lenses that are more in demand, giving them a whole new lease on life. From left to right: Afshin Baghai, Lab Manager, Steve Pinette, surfacing specialist, Andrew Nelson, finishing specialist.

Many labs are embracing the advances in free-form technology as they see its potential for financial rewards.

Of all the innovations in ophthalmic lens processing in the past five years, free-form single point lens surfacing (also known as digital surfacing) has clearly built the ophthalmic lens processing business more than any other recent advancement. Free-form surfacing has added a host of new products for labs to offer that make personalized lens designing on every job a reality. This has spawned revolutionary growth for some labs rivaling advances in ophthalmic materials, photochromics, and anti-reflective (AR) treatments.

BUSINESS BUILDER
The lab managers and owners I spoke with told me that the primary increase in their business in the last few years has come from the free-form revolution combining lens design choices with material choices that were once limited to what semi-finished lensmakers offered. For example, if a patient wanted a polarized, high-index, high-end progressive, they would have to get it from only one or two suppliers who did not have a very large inventory of this unique combination. The eyecare professional (ECP) who ordered it and their patients would have to wait weeks for what their labs can now do in minutes.

This is made possible primarily because lens designing is done on the back surface of single vision semi-finished lens blanks in the lab’s computer. If a desired lens combination is available in a semi-finished lens blank, that blank can theoretically be made into a host of different high-end progressives. Even right and left lenses are created this way.

“For US Optical, LLC in East Syracuse, NY, the best branded third-generation free-form designs are produced with 99.99% accuracy,” said Ralph Cotran, vice president. “Coupled with superior optics, this consistency benefits labs, ECPs, and patients, suggesting that the demise of molded semi-finished progressives is near,” he added. He also notes that this greater accuracy and optical superiority puts them in a highly competitive position.

David Edwards, general manager of South Florida Vision in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, mentioned that free-form’s near limitless asphericity capability is what puts the “free” into free-form surfacing, giving digitally equipped laboratories great growth potential. For years, ECPs have lamented the acuity issues associated with steeply curved lenses. Edwards noted that now ECPs can simply give their laboratory all the applicable parameters like frame wrap, vertex distance, pantoscopic tilt, monocular PDs, and the Rx, and they will custom surface just about any design on the backside and obtain lenses with superior optical performance. These capabilities really help drive the sale of premium products for labs. It also opened up “wrapped” frame styles for Rxing, thereby building the lab’s business with a new revenue stream.

TEACHING OLD LABS NEW TRICKS

“Since our conversion from conventional to digital free-form surfacing, our lab has benefited from the improved image this technology gives us,” says Afshin Bahai, lab manager at Premier Vision Group, Inc. in West Valley City, UT. “We can now surface high-performance lenses that are more in demand, giving us a whole new lease on life. I hesitate to guess what our chances for survival would be without converting to digital surfacing.”

Ophthalmic labs throughout the country are experiencing similar benefits as they re-think their business plan and commit to taking on the latest in lens fabrication. The one consistent hesitation coming from labs sitting on the fence on this issue is the initial acquisition cost. In reality, not transitioning into free-form surfacing could eventually cost far more than the cost of equipment as the tech-savvy retail market begins to demand this technology.

Labs like US Optical can process premium designs in-house with generators like Orbit from Satisloh, which helps build profits.

DOWNSIZE TO BUILD UP
It may seem like an odd concept that with free-forming “downsizing” will “build up” a laboratory’s business but there is plenty of evidence that this is true. Three specifics of this concept are:

1. The actual square footage that it takes to set up a digital surfacing system is far less than older systems because cylinder machines and tool racks are eliminated.

2. Personnel requirements are reduced. Many high-volume digital labs have elected to employ robotics and conveyor systems that manage a free-form surface job from start to finish where human hands only touch the lenses to put them in specially designed trays and take the finished lenses out of the tray.

3. Turnover time is greatly reduced. A high-tech free-form progressive uncut lens can be completed from start to finish in less than 10 minutes with most of that time used for cooling the Onyx Bond or wax blocking before the surfacing occurs. Some systems are set up to receive orders via the Internet so that manual/human input of Rx information is no longer necessary. Less human error equals lower spoilage, which translates into lowered overall production times and greater profits.

 

Lenses like HOYA’s MyStyle can now be processed in labs from single vision blanks, making the entire lens surfacing process less costly and more profitable.

A PARADIGM SHIFT
Digital Eye Lab in Hawthorne, NY, built its business based on the digital free-form lens processing concept. “It is our life,” said Scott Pearle, chief operating officer. This high-tech lab chose to rocket themselves into the 21st century from inception and they have a thriving business to show for it. However, Pearle reminds us that “lens design integrity has now shifted from the companies that once did the casting of progressive semi-finished blanks to the labs doing digital surfacing. The time and money previously used to ensure that lens molds were precise will now become the responsibility of digital lens fabricators. The temptation, because of improved processes, will be to get lax on this issue. Those labs taking this responsibility seriously will be the ones that will not only survive, but win new business and become the standards of the industry setting themselves up as the leaders.”

ECPs who are aware of the differences between legitimately committed labs and those that are “free-forming for show” will gravitate towards those who can deliver on the hopes and promises of this great new technology. Not surprisingly, we will likely see new ANSI standards written for digital processing to hopefully keep labs honest and delivering on the potential for growth from the wholesaler to the retailer while meeting the demands of a highly informed client.

Free-form lens technology has given the ophthalmic lab business a powerful tool that has the potential to turn out lenses with optical performance we could only dream of years ago. It also has the potential to build their businesses. Savvy labs are using this new technology for all its worth.

Michael Frandsen is the owner of Quality Performance Ophthalmic, Inc., a custom service optical laboratory in South Jordan, UT.

WHERE TO FIND IT:

Carl Zeiss Vision, Inc.
800-358-8258 • zeiss.com/lenses

Digital Eye Lab
888 305-3300 • digitaleyelab.com

HOYA Vision Care, North America
877-528-1939 • hoyavision.com

Premier Vision Group
801-956-2021 • premiervisionlab.com

Satisloh North America, Inc.
800-866-5640 • Satisloh.com

South Florida Vision
954-979-2191 • southfloridavision.com

US Optical
800-445-2773 • usoptical.com

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