What You Need to Know About...Surviving the Digital Age

By Gary Peterson
Life keeps changing in the optical industry and it seems more dramatic and faster than ever before. The digital free-form wave is upon us and you don’t want to get swept out to sea. Working for a company that has been around a long time and has become proficient at supplying conventional equipment and supplies to the wholesale and retail labs the question definitely comes up, how will we deal with this new revolution? We at Practical Systems have chosen to embrace the new challenges. At the same time, we are continuing to provide the service and quality our conventional labs need and appreciate. Surprisingly, or maybe not, our company’s strategy of exceeding our customer’s expectations and staying positive has paid off.

Free-form lens designs have been talked about for years. Definity by Johnson and Johnson, now an Essilor lens design, was one of the first introduced in the late 1990s. For the last six years at least, the industry has been talking about digital surfacing equipment and that is the only style you can get now in a high-production generator. Lens manufacturers are maximizing this wave by heavily marketing to consumers and the optical industry the benefits of free-form to take your vision to the next level. Who doesn’t feel a little overwhelmed with this energized promotion. Computerized CNC equipment combined with better and more complex lens designs is the genie that can’t be put back into the bottle. This is affecting the surfacing and finishing departments and opening up new avenues for advanced products that will take over the marketplace.

“But I don’t want a hamburger” A sales rep once made up postcards with this message on it. It caught my attention because what do hamburgers have to do with a lens rep? Well consumers want a choice and one of those choices will be to stay with the familiar, so digital will not be the answer for everyone.

Yes, there is a marked increase in free-form designs and labs installing equipment to take advantage of this market. Many labs see the need to invest in this format or get left behind. We wondered if we would become the buggy whip company or be able to change and stay relevant. Recently I read that about 50 percent of the PALs in Europe are free-form, digitally produced lenses. That still leaves 50 percent of the lenses with conventional designs and all the single vision work that needs surfacing, too. In the USA, the number of free-form lenses is much smaller. Labs putting in a digital line cannot replace all their production capacity due to the cost of the lines.

For now, it still is more cost effective to use the equipment they already have to make the bulk of their lenses. This will create a buffer for a while where the traditional pads and polish are still needed. One of the benefits of this new push for digital is the investment in equipment that includes peripheral items like chillers, slurry tanks and auto tapers that we sell. We have seen labs that have resisted spending money loosen the purse strings to raise the quality of their lenses on their traditional lines.

No doubt you need to find a way to join the revolution and not be stagnant (remember the dinosaurs). You might be pulled along with the new wave. Equipment and supplies you currently sell may fit in with the new process and orders will appear. Every person and business has to reinvent itself every five years to survive and stay vital. It is a good thing to be challenged like this. If you cannot go directly head-to-head with the big boys then find a niche where you can outperform the competition. Stay positive, work hard and you will find your way.

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May/June LabTalk 2017