Overheard at the OLA - The Buzz About Direct Surfacing

By Christie Walker
The buzz at the OLA this year was around the new technology direct surfacing, also referred to as digital surfacing, backside surfacing, or Freeform™ by Shamir Insight.

No matter what you call it, this new technology was addressed in seminars, panel discussions, and during Saturday’s general session. Lab owners and managers were discussing the feasibility of buying the new equipment and whether or not there is enough demand for the lenses to justify the hefty price tag that comes with installing a direct surfacing generator and new polishing equipment, not to mention new blocks, other peripherals and possibly different staff.

Common themes among independent lab owners were: the cost is prohibitive for smaller labs; the demand from their customers for this new product isn’t there yet; in order to stay competitive they will eventually have to invest in direct surfacing; and they expect they will have some sort of direct surfacing equipment in the next 3 to 5 years.

Many of the lab owners and managers were actively investigating the technology at the show by attending the seminars, checking out the equipment and talking with other labs that had already taken the plunge.

Most labs agreed that in order for their customers to embrace the new lenses and to be able to sell them to their patients, there had to be an appreciable difference or “wow” factor when it comes to the quality of vision provided by the lenses. If patients can’t tell the difference between a standard progressive and one made with direct surfacing technology, then they will not be willing to pay the premium price that will go along with this product.

One area of concern was the doctor’s technology leading up to the creation of the lenses. The direct surfacing technology can make an exact prescription, customized to the patient, and duplicate this every time, perfectly. But the lenses are only as good as the information that leads up to the creation of the lens. Several labs questioned the quality of that information. When the refraction itself is based on the patient deciding which is better–one or two, two or three, three or one–there are huge gaps that are created. This flawed information is then coupled with PD and seg heights that are obtained by an optician using a marker pen and a ruler.

All the patient’s information is gathered in subjective, flawed manners and then passed onto the lab to create a lens that is exceptionally accurate. The point? While the direct surfacing lens is created to perfectly match the patient data, if the data isn’t perfect in the first place then the new technology will not produce an exceptional lens, one that will elicit the “wow” necessary to justify the price.

These were just a few of the concerns that were “Overheard at the OLA.” Keep reading to find out what some of your peers said about direct surfacing for their labs.

Mike Dougher, Hoya, Cleveland, Ohio

“Hoya will be entering into the direct surfacing market. We believe there is a need. Our customers want clear, crisp vision and I believe they will be willing to pay the extra cost for that vision. Consumers were willing to pay $7,000 for the very first plasma televisions, which only added six to seven more pixels. In time, just like the plasma T.V., cost will come down. New efficiencies and technologies will come, and help bring down the cost.”

Parke Wilkinson, MJ Optical, Omaha, Neb.

“We do 1500 jobs a day at MJ Optical and while I’ve heard about direct surfacing we are not doing it today. This is something that we will have to get into eventually. We have had quite a few calls from our customers asking about the technology. They want to know how soon it will be available. I think as the AOA has more forums on this process and the technology behind these lenses, it will help bring the technology to the attention of the doctors.”

Cindy and Luis Martinez, Mia-Lab, Inc. Fla.

“While we don’t currently use digital surfacing, it’s one of the reasons we are at the OLA; to find out more. We haven’t had one request from our customers for digitally surfaced lenses. This technology requires an abundance of money to get into the technology and we question how much we are really going to use it. We think this is going to make the rich richer. It’s going to cost a million dollars for the equipment and then the blocks are going to cost $9.50 per block instead of a dollar. I’ve heard the cheapest software you can get is $30,000. Really, do I see us using it? No, I honestly don’t think so. Even if we had a few million dollars we didn’t know what to do with, I still wouldn’t invest in this technology in today’s market. There is no demand for this type of high-high end product in my market. We want our customers to sell two or three pairs instead of just one super expensive pair.”

Barney Dougher, Hoya Vision Care, Lewisville, Texas

“You can’t put a price on going to direct surfacing. It’s going to take a shift in how labs do business, including hiring different people to do the task. The equipment is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Greg Blackwell, Pinnacle Optical, Birmingham, Ala.

“We don’t have direct surfacing equipment now and are not thinking of getting this technology. It’s not an immediate priority. In the future, it’s an area we will explore. Before we get into digital surfacing, I want to see more education to the ECP. We need to create a coalition for education on digital surfacing so more people will understand it. While the technology is about four years old, there is still a lot to learn. It’s a great, great concept and something the optometrists are excited about. The investment for a lab my size (220 jobs per day) is too great, especially for what I perceive as a limited payback. Right now we sell digitally surfaced lenses, since we are an Essilor lab. We sell Physio 360 so in a sense we are using digital products. I expect it will be a good three to five years before we would be ready to invest in direct surfacing equipment.”

Greg Kyle and Bill Harding, Lens Tech Optical Lab, Greenwood, Ind.

“I think digital surfacing is the way of the future. That it’s just a matter of time. From the seminar I just attended, it was predicted that all labs will be out of conventional surfacing in five to eight years. Labs who are currently processing with direct surfacing reported that they are getting $30 to $40 over traditional progressive lenses. Their accounts are ecstatic and they feel they could charge even more. While the start up costs are big, I think if you push a pencil hard enough you could come up with enough savings to justify the expense. I’ve heard the optics are dead on and it’s just the way we need to go. How much better will you really see out of these progressives? Will you see $200 or $300 better than the last progressives that you had? It’s like when I was deciding on whether or not to buy new golf clubs. I wondered if I would hit my new driver $200 better than my old driver. I didn’t think so until some old guy started beating me with the help of a new driver. Then the technology was worth it.”

Jonathan Schwartz, CVG Product Services, Inc., Pennsauken, N.J.

“I think this technology has been a long time coming. I’m so thrilled to see it actually working. I believe that the machines now available are capable of running enough volume to make them cost effective. We are just waiting for the capital to get started. Unlike other independent labs, we are not open to the public. We only process work for America’s Best retail locations. When we bring this technology out it will only be for a moderate up-charge. Because of this we typically aren’t the leaders in bringing new technology to the market; we usually follow. To maintain our position as a low cost provider we have to maintain our position as a low cost producer.”

Bruno Salvadori, Signet Armorlite, San Marcos, Calif.

“Digital surfacing is like golf. It always looks easier to do on T.V., but it’s not.”

Jacquie Hanstrom, Next Generation Ophthalmics, Grand Rapids, Minn.

“Digital surfacing is too expensive and the manufacturers haven’t proven it’s worth yet. The manufacturers are going to have to sell this. I can’t put in this expensive equipment and not have my doctors know or understand the technology. We are waiting for the pull through. Some doctors are asking for Shamir’s Autograph lens and right now, I’m subcontracting this work out to Pech Optical and Perfect Optics. The price tag is substantial because you are putting in a whole new generator and a whole new polish system, new laps and new polish. It’s very expensive. As a new lab, everything is already leveraged. We will probably be in a position to do this in three to five years. I will have to do this because I won’t be able to compete without it.”

Lawrence Lahr, Eye Kraft Optical, St. Cloud, Minn.

“We run approximately 600 jobs per day at Eye Kraft and I think that down the line, we will have to get into direct surfacing if we want to stay in business. Right now, we are offering Essilor’s Definity and Kodak’s Unique. Our customers love it, although we are mostly doing comps. There are so many coupons out there from Essilor and Kodak for the doctors and staff to let them try the product. But so far the doctors are not offering the lenses to their patients. I don’t think the staff understands the technology. A lot of people talk about how expensive it is to get into digital surfacing but I don’t think the investment is as steep as a good AR coating machine. I’m checking out the equipment here at the OLA. I’m leaning toward the Schneider machine because they have been at it longer. Within five years we should be ready to go.”

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August/September LabTalk 2017