Several manufacturers, like Leybold Optics, now offer compact AR units for larger retail offices.
Equipment size and capacity are major considerations for products like Optek’s Oasis MAX Surfacing system, which is now being made for retail environments.

Installing an on-site surfacing lab may be a major undertaking, but it’s also a way to raise the level of your practice.

The common optometry/ophthalmology practice typically has three sources for revenue:

1. Routine exams and medical eyecare yield clinical/medical revenue.
2. The optical dispensary creates revenue from the sale of eyeglasses, contact lenses, and accessories.
3. A full-service surfacing and finishing lab will help greatly reduce the cost of goods sold at the optical shop, creating additional profits.

This article focuses on the third profit center and highlights features and benefits of a full-service optical lab, along with some of the potential hurdles ECPs may face in building one.

Why build a surfacing lab? A practice that has its own surfacing lab has total control over the quality and outcomes of the majority of the eyewear it sells. This allows the practice to have complete confidence in the product it’s passing on to the patient and over turnaround time.

Another reason to implement your own surfacing lab is to reduce the costs of goods for spectacles. This is the same reason many practices have installed finishing labs. These practices reduce costs and increase profits by edging stock-finished lenses and uncut lenses. With the ease of purchasing digital lens generator systems, practices can make their own uncut lenses while reducing the costs and increasing profits further.

With a surfacing lab, you can also offer private label lenses and premium service for even faster turnaround, such as same-day or next-day service.

What is the current volume you will put through the lab? What is the expected lens volume in the next five years? How much inventory do you want to have on hand in both semi-finished lens blanks and finished stock lenses? Do you plan to own an AR unit or do you plan to outsource it? The answers to these questions will help determine your necessary lab size.

You’ll find all-in-one surfacing lab systems and micro lab systems that have capabilities up to 50 jobs per day for roughly $370,000 and up. You can also build a lab that can do a few hundred jobs per day for roughly $900,000 and up. When you make this decision, do not base it on current volume; rather, base it on your volume goals for five years from now. Also keep in mind how much volume you do with vision plans that require you to utilize their lab.

A practice that’s open 240 days per year and sells an average of 10 surfaced Rx’s per day could have a cost savings of $165,000 (based on a combination of materials and lens types with half being digital progressives, along with the consumables to make the lenses). The average savings of a progressive lens is 65% off the wholesale lab list price. With this savings, it is easy to pay for a surfacing lab in less than 36 months.

Lens blanks can be sourced easily and quickly from different places. If the practice has a same- or next-day turnaround promise, it will need to carry more inventory. Another factor is what you want to focus on for materials and lens types. If the practice has a goal of selling more backside free-form progressives, then the inventory will be simpler to manage. If the practice does a large number of lined multifocals, you’ll need to decide how much of that product to stock. Keep in mind that the more inventory you move, the better negotiating power you’ll have with lens suppliers.

You’ll also need consumables like polishing pads, compound, and alloy. Another consideration will be spare parts and diamond cutting tools for the generator. Certain parts need replacement sooner than others. Having the part on hand reduces the risk of the lab being shut down while waiting for a part from the manufacturer. A good rule of thumb is to plan for $1.60 to $2.00 for consumables per Rx job.

The practice may consider having space for a frame inventory. Having a small frame inventory may help with offering quick turnaround and also opens up an opportunity to promote a private label frame line.

If you plan to do your own AR, work with the equipment manufacturer to determine what size coater you need and the amount of space it will require. Keep in mind the amount of space to prep the lens and where the space will be so it has the least amount of dust and/or debris around. The best AR is done in a clean room environment. Many practices have had great success outsourcing their AR work and there are many AR providers that will negotiate great prices and turnaround times with quality results.


Building out of your lab can be easy as long as everything is planned. Work with the equipment provider to determine the workflow. The equipment supplier is one of your best resources, as it has robust experience and examples to share. While most newer equipment is plug and play, it only works if you have the appropriate plugs.

Make sure you have all the appropriate utilities required, including electrical, plumbing, water, compressed air, and IT.

Data lines run throughout the facility for all the machines to communicate. Wi-Fi can be sensitive in the lab environment so get some professional advice. An IT closet or cabinet to keep the servers in may be needed to run certain equipment. It is important to have proper airflow and air conditioning in this area as well as in the lab.

Lab management software will help run the lab smoothly. This system will keep track of your orders, manage your inventory, and allow all the equipment to communicate with each other and the lens design software.

There are a few lab management software applications to consider. ECPs want to find one that consistently meets their needs. Talk with different manufacturers including the equipment manufacturer to see what they have to offer. Find out if they are familiar with your practice’s other software applications in case the different applications need to communicate. Ask what services they offer and check their references.

One of the most exciting aspects of starting a digital surfacing lab is determining what progressive lens designs you’ll offer. The practice can have brand name designs, private label designs, or both.

Training is one of the most important components of starting a surfacing lab. When ECPs don’t invest in training, they often ultimately pay for it in mistakes and inefficiencies after implementation. A strong, well-thought-out training program is essential and manufacturers can help plan the process.

Don’t forget to let everyone know what you can now offer. Marketing can be fun and doesn’t have to be expensive. Consider social media marketing to get the word out for minimal expense.

Once your in-office surfacing lab is set up and the word is out, it will be time to watch your practice grow.

Mark Johnson is the Director of Optical Services at Virginia Eye Institute in Richmond, VA.


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