The optical laboratory business has transformed from a craft to an industry in a relatively short time.
My grandfather founded Sutherlin Optical Lab in 1939, while the country was still mired in the Great Depression. He had been the most skilled lens maker in a local optical lab, but the hard-pressed owners first forced him to train his replacement and then let him go so that they could hire someone less expensive. It was a sign of the times—companies simply could not afford quality help.
In my grandfather’s day, lenses were ground to prescription by hand and then scored and chipped to shape before being hand-edged to fit the desired frame; and all of the lenses were made of glass. I say this at the outset because I have long wished that I could bring my grandfather back to see how his industry has changed.
However, I should add that I would love to be able to bring my father back as well, because even though he has been gone only 12 years, the industry has probably changed as much since he last saw it as it did in the years between him and granddad.
The vast network of small “mom and pop” shops that comprised the optical lab industry in my grandfather’s—and to a lesser degree in my father’s—day is rapidly vanishing in the face of skyrocketing technology costs. Granddad started his business with a $900 investment. Today a single machine can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But even though the typical optical lab has gone from a local workshop employing a handful of skilled craftsmen to a centralized, technology-driven operation, I believe that there has never been a time when we worked more closely with eyecare practitioners than we do today. In fact, the many opportunities that new technology makes possible have only increased the need for communication, education, and prescription consulting. Fortunately, communication technology has kept pace and enabled the rapid, efficient contact that is necessary to survive in a vastly more complex environment.
Change in the optical world has been driven by a steady stream of advances in two areas: chemistry and computers. These fields have given us new materials and the precision-automated devices to turn those materials into lenses with features and optics far beyond anything envisioned in my grandfather’s day.
Let’s start with lens materials. Throughout his long career, my grandfather never worked on anything other than glass lenses. Today glass is less than 2% of our product mix. Polycarbonate has become the most prescribed lens material, and we have resin lenses in indexes up to 1.74.
Change in lens materials has been constant for several decades now. The early CR-39 and polycarbonate lenses were almost an embarrassment to our industry. There was so much wrong with them that about the only reason they sold at all was their light weight. But as the years went on, lens chemistry steadily improved. And this affected not only lenses, but coatings too, which have been continuously improved upon since their development. Today, we enjoy lightweight lenses with outstanding optics and durability.
In Europe and much of the world outside the US, optical laboratories are—and have long been—owned by the lens manufacturers. Only in the US is this a new development. In the US laboratory consolidation began in 1990s as, led by Essilor, the major lensmakers began purchasing or partnering with their laboratory customers. Acquisitions and partnerships enabled these large lens makers, most of which are well capitalized global entities, to infuse the cash needed to turn artisanal shops into industrial operations.
The great majority of small optical labs would never have been able to raise the amount of capital needed to make the transition on their own, but working with lens manufacturers has helped labs acquire the technology needed to produce state-of-the-art eyewear.
Today’s consumer wants eyewear that is thin, lightweight, glare-free, durable, cleanable, and optically extraordinary. And, yes, it has to be affordable. The amazing thing is, though none of this could have been produced by my grandfather’s industry, it is all possible thanks to current technology. Consolidation and capital infusion have enabled labs to create the extraordinary glasses we have today.
Even though technology has changed—and, in two generations, eyewear fabrication has gone from artisans working with hand tools to a high-technology industrial operation—eyewear remains a custom product, made one pair at a time, to exacting standards.
Digital technology is changing the way lenses are surfaced. Joining computers to precision cutting devices has made it possible to cut almost any curve imaginable on a lens surface. This has freed lens designers to create previously impossible designs—and even designs unique to a given lens. Lens options are also blossoming: progressive lenses with the same basic design can have short, medium, or long corridors; fields of vision can be widened and distortion reduced or eliminated; and glasses can be customized for specific uses like golf or computer work.
Granddad never saw a glare-free antireflective (AR) lens in his life. Today AR lenses account for 50% of the lenses my company sells, and it ought to be 100%. We have progressed from coatings that we could only hope would adhere, to coatings that never lose adhesion. And the coatings are also hydrophobic, oleophobic, scratch-resistant, and antistatic.
Our lab has 13 edgers on the production line. Each has a specific purpose, from high-volume workhorse machines all the way up to two that are designed specifically for wrap lenses with shelf cut edges. Computers drive everything, and shapes are digitally stored so we can produce the same lens over and over. We have come a long way from scoring and chipping (Figures 1 and 2).
When I first started in the business, long distance phone calls were used only for the most urgent situations. They were very expensive and granddad was not happy if we wasted money on them. Today we are literally wired to our customers and can provide electronic ordering, real-time status reports, usage reports, and email support. And of course, we now use the phone freely any time there is a question about a job or the best way to do it.
Changes in the optical laboratory have given patients precision eyewear with finely tuned functional optics. For example, I wear three different pairs of glasses every day: a pair of computer glasses that I wear when I’m in the office; a pair of digital progressives for daily activities other than work; and a pair of polarized progressives for driving, boating, and other outdoor activities.
For practitioners, the rapid advance of optical technology represents a major opportunity. Those who take the time to educate their patients about the best vision-enhancing possibilities have happy patients and differentiate themselves from the competition.
No Longer Local
Consolidation of labs has meant that what was once a local function is now regional or even national. Sutherlin Optical Lab, for example, does business all over the US, including Alaska. Thanks to electronic ordering and overnight delivery, we can provide almost the same level of service to practices in New York or California as we can to customers here in Kansas City.
With email, texts, or data sent directly from a practice EHR to our in-house order control system, it makes no difference whether the customer is on the next block or on the far side of the next state. Technology has bridged the distance gap.
Taking Advantage of New Opportunities
The optical world is changing rapidly to create greatly improved products. Labs are at the forefront of educating practices about these new possibilities for their patients. New technology can do an enormous amount for patients, but only if practices understand what the new technology offers and know how to sell it. It is the labs’ responsibility to keep practitioners up-to-date. To this end, our sales consultants are in the field every day.
Practices looking for a lab partner should seek out one that not only does great work but also provides quality education and communicates well. I would look for a lab in which, even during this period of consolidation, the principals are at the lab daily watching over every detail. Of course, the lab must have state-of-the-art technology and the skills to get the most out of it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The optical lab business has consolidated from hundreds of small local shops to highly centralized industrial operations that are regional or national in scope. Driven by a need to acquire new technology, labs partnered with or allowed themselves to be acquired by lens manufacturers. The result is a transformed industry with far greater capabilities than ever before—but, in the case of our lab, the focus on customers has been preserved.
Steve Sutherlin is the president of Sutherlin Optical Lab in Kansas City, MO. He was assisted in the preparation of this article by Ethis Communications editorial director, David Kellner.