Specialists from the leading lens companies share their insights into what’s hot, what’s not and where the market is headed.
Innovations in lenses have accelerated and turned a formerly ho hum market segment into a feature-rich and profit-laden one.
A MATERIALS WORLD
At the foundation of any lens is its material. It’s no surprise that polycarbonate continues to dominate the U.S. lens market. In fact, about 50% of all lenses shipped are polycarbonate. And after more than 60 years, CR-39 and generic forms of it still have a respectable 30% market share. “There are some retail chains and many independent ECPs looking for unique lens materials to differentiate against these commodity lens materials,” said Keith Cross, director of sales and Rx technology director for PPG Industries, Inc. “Because of this, the popularity and availability of Trivex lenses continue to grow, especially in the U.S.”
While all the industry professionals interviewed cited that 1.67 is a growing category, David Rips, president of Younger Optics, indicated, “1.60, 1.67 and 1.74 are growing faster than any other lens material. This trend is being fueled by the increase in free-form lenses. Since premier digital progressives can now be made with single vision lens blanks, laboratories and ECPs feel very comfortable ‘selling-up’ the lens material on their top progressives.”
Mike Rybacki from Seiko Optical Products of America, Inc., reports that 1.74 clear and PhotoGray and 1.67 polarized are growing well. He feels that the growth of these materials is due to a market “that is always looking to raise the average sale price, so this means more focus on premium products.”
Matthew Woelbern, product manager for Carl Zeiss Vision, Inc., sees premium as the major trend in all aspects of the lens category. He said, “While small, 1.74 is definitely increasing; so is 1.67. In the migration to premium materials, some polycarbonate customers are making the switch too.”
MATERIALS IN DECLINE
Cross echoed the sentiment of all those interviewed when he shared, “Glass continues its decline in the U.S. prescription market, but a number of sunglass brands continue to incorporate and promote glass lenses in their new collections, primarily due to their inherent scratch resistance.”
Pete Hanlin, director of technical marketing at Essilor of America, Inc., said, “Given the many advantages of polycarbonate over 1.50, and the fact that many managed vision care plans are offering full coverage for polycarbonate to more patients, the next decade will hopefully see further erosion of the 1.50 market.”
Citing data from the industry and his company, Woelbern suggests that a decline in CR-39 is due in part to Trivex’s success and has probably taken a bit from polycarbonate too.
A number of those interviewed suggested that PPG’s Trivex and Tribrid were emerging materials. X-Cel Optical Co.’s recent announcement about introducing Tribrid lenses surely reinforces this trend. Its 1.60 index and capable impact resistance, along with other Trivex-like features, should help it compete with 1.60, 1.67 and polycarbonate lenses. Trivex lenses have steadily increased in market share since the material was introduced about 10 years ago.
About an expansion in the field of photochromics, Rybacki said, “There’s a growing category of non-Transitions photochromic lenses that are gaining market share, especially with the vast market expansion of non-branded/private label free-form lenses.”
Rips takes a different approach toward what materials are on the upswing: “Rather than a particular material emerging, combinations of materials such as composites are growing. A perfect example is Younger’s Composite Polycarbonate Transitions in bifocals and trifocals. Using a composite, there can be a thin, customized special layer of one material with certain characteristics on the front, and the back substrate can be another material with different properties. This gives the lens designer/manufacturer a lot more flexibility on final lens characteristics. You can use the best attributes of several materials in unique and special ways.”
COATINGS & FILMS
On the subject of coatings, Woelbern said, “Most managed care companies group coatings into four tiers based on properties, which correlates to price. I see the second tier definitely growing at the expense of the lowest tier, and the fourth tier (the highest) is growing at the expense of the third tier, which indicates that customers are migrating toward more premium products. Mirrors are also growing well right now, and you’re seeing them on plano and Rx lenses, and they’re better than ever, like our Zeiss DuraVision Mirrors.”
Rips advised that selective filtration such as blue light blocking films continue expanding. Rybacki agreed, adding, “Blue protect products are continuing to grow, especially now that chains and insurance options are getting involved to promote such products.”
Cross had a more visionary view: “I think people will start to see more ‘functional’ coatings or those based on ‘lifestyle.’ There will be more targeted offerings with specific performance features and benefits, such as blue cut/blue blocking coatings as well as other specific wavelength filters. I believe we will also see improvements in lens scratch resistance through harder, more durable coatings. Scratch resistance is often the number one consumer complaint about eyeglasses, and companies such as PPG will continue investing in developing the next-generation of optical coatings.”
Rips observes that there is a lot of effort to make Rx sunwear match the style and fashion characteristics of plano sunglasses, including mirrors, gradients and fashion colors. He also sees adding technologies together such as polarization, photochromics and special absorbing filters like blue light absorbers.
“Many sunglass companies have realized the opportunity in providing Rx lenses that match the performance and features in their plano collections,” Cross added. “To that end, many have opened their own prescription laboratories. In addition, sun lenses are more advanced, both from a light management perspective and a lens material performance perspective.”
Hanlin advises that one of the few categories in which the U.S. has a greater penetration than other markets is prescription polarized sun lenses, although we still have a long way to go. “Prescription polarized lenses are currently one of the fastest growing categories in lenses, because they deliver the single biggest ‘wow’ to new wearers,” he said. “Currently, patients with prescriptions between +/-1.00D or less tend to wear plano sun lenses, but when given an opportunity to try prescription polarized lenses, they repurchase at a 95%+ rate.”
DIGITAL DESIGN DOMINATES
Rybacki sees continual expansion of specialized products because of free-form technology, “such as Binocular Harmonization Technology (from HOYA). Who would have thought with Seiko Superior SV FF design you would have the option for a single vision lens to be based on the patient’s lifestyle use for near, far and balanced? Those are the kind of things the future holds for ophthalmic lens design.”
Hanlin sees lens design as a mixed bag. “The proliferation of digital surfacing has actually created both better and worse progressive designs, because it has lowered the cost of entry to the market. On the other side of the coin, digital processing has also opened the door to better and more specialized progressive designs.”
Years ago, the big story in progressive lens design was how wide and clear the zones were,” Woelbern recounted. “While companies still make general use progressives, they have portfolios that contain lenses for designated purposes such as computer use, office work, digital media, etc., which is much easier for a consumer to understand than the highly technical information we used to present years ago.”
As new innovations and processes emerge, in the ever-changing lens market, we’ll continue to see advances in this category. Stay tuned.
Ed De Gennaro is editor emeritus of First Vision Media Group.
WHERE TO FIND IT: Carl Zeiss Vision, Inc. 866-596-5467 • ZEISS.com/Lenses • Customer.Service@Zeiss.com // Essilor of America, Inc. 800.542.5668 • EssilorUSA.com // Hoya Vision Care 800.423.2361 • HoyaVision.com // PPG Industries, Inc. 800.323.2487 • PPGTrivex.com • PPGTribrid.com • OpticalTech@PPG.com // Seiko Optical Products of America, Inc. 800.235.5367 • SeikoEyewear.com • Info@SeikoEyewear.com // Younger Optics 800.366.5367 • YoungerOptics.com • Marketing@YoungerOptics.com