Getting in Gear - Working Effectively with AR Coaters

By Liz Martinez
The prevailing wisdom in the optical industry is that there has never been a better time to jump into in-house anti-reflective coating.

As with technology in general, AR coaters have become better, faster and increasingly mechanized, as well as more economical for wholesale laboratories. The quality of these AR coatings is living up to expectations, as well, as long as lab personnel conform to proper procedures.

The question today is not, “Should our lab get into AR coating?” but “When should we start doing our own AR coating?”

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

According to Brian Peterson, product manager of coating at Satisloh North America, “A lab that is currently outsourcing as few as 30 to 50 AR jobs a day should look closely at bringing AR in-house.”

George Kim, vice president of operations at Leybold Optics USA, agreed that 30 to 50 AR jobs a day is a break-even point. He added that labs should also expect a surge of new business. “Shortly after your AR equipment is in, you’ll see a dramatic increase once your customers know you do coating in-house,” he said. “You’ll increase your surfacing business because clients don’t want to split where they do surfacing and coating.”

Diane Strickler of Precision Optical Laboratory in Roanoke, Va., knows what it takes to start doing AR in-house since her lab is in the process of installing the necessary equipment. She advised taking a close look at your AR numbers before jumping in. “We have been tracking our AR for over a year,” she reported. “When the AR jobs got to be between 26 and 30 percent, it was time for us to get in.”

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

Getting into the AR game requires a significant monetary investment, so the concern is when labs will start seeing a profit from in-house coating. Kim placed the pay-back schedule at between one and three years, depending on how the equipment is financed—whether by cash payments or through loans or leasing programs.

Henry Zheng, owner of Chemat Technology, said that his Chemalux Systems of coaters, which are smaller AR systems designed to for small- to medium-sized labs, have a one-to-two-year break-even point.

Peterson pointed out that while 30 to 50 AR jobs a day might warrant an in-house coating system, the break-even point typically requires coating more pairs per day than that. He added, “On the other hand, labs that bring AR in-house almost always see their AR volumes double. Even their high-end surfacing work will show dramatic increases,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REVENUE, ADDITIONAL COSTS

Labs have to consider the cost of the AR coaters, factor in the increased revenue from anticipated new work, then take into account the ancillary costs of running additional equipment and the possibility that more employees may need to be hired or trained.

Paul C. Zito, president of Encore Optics of South Windsor, Conn., cautioned that there will be increased expenses in addition to the AR equipment. “Take a deep breath before you look at your utility bills!” he warned. “Our electric bill went up $2,000 after we started coating—about double. And our water usage is through the roof—four times as much.”

According to Kim, labs need to take into account the fact that both the facility and the staff have be in place before a coating system can go in. “You need enough physical space,” he said. “You may also need to make improvements to your facility, such as electrical and HVAC upgrades for a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment.”

Kim pointed out that a lab may have to contact its municipality to determine whether it has sufficient electrical load to handle the new equipment. “Plus, you may have to build out your space to accommodate the coaters,” he said. “A lab can squeak by with a minimum of 200 square feet, but 300 to 500 square feet is generally needed for one AR room with the smallest AR coating machine. You’ll also need skilled staff.”

IDIOT-PROOFED AR COATERS?

Peterson counters that the days of having to hire highly skilled personnel who earn top pay just to run your coaters went out with the two-piece Franklin lens. “The biggest advancement in AR coating equipment for labs this year is in ease-of-use,” he said. “The newest chambers from Satisloh come equipped with on-board maintenance prompts that tell operators when to perform each maintenance operation and track adherence to prescribed maintenance schedules.”

He added that beginning in July 2009, all Satisloh chambers will come with a diagnostic feature that allows remote technicians to offer immediate, 24-hour support using high speed-video and audio, via the Internet.

Zheng also disagrees that highly trained employees are a necessity. “A part-time high-school student can run our Chemalux equipment,” he explained. Because some of his machines have very small footprints, retail opticals and doctors’ offices use them.

The Chemalux systems range from the CO Lab that can coat 40 pairs of lenses per day to the Chemalux 600, which can accommodate 120 pairs per day. “Our systems also offer more flexibility than traditional box coaters,” Zheng said. “A box coater uses a batch process, whereas our machines coat ‘lens by lens.’ The lab doesn’t have to interrupt the work process to accommodate rush jobs, for example,” he added.

Similarly, Groupe Couget Optical offers “mini-laboratories” for AR coating that are suitable for optical retailers. But its Slim AR 240 is a compact coater that is especially designed for labs. It can coat 16 pairs in under 50 minutes, with an auto-flip system that can double its capacity to 32 pairs per cycle. It is completely computerized, eliminating the need for trained personnel.

Optovision Technologies makes AR coating even more idiot-proof: The company does the coating for you right in your own lab. Optovision president Peter Zuccarelli said, “We offer a turn-key operation through our Optomart program. You are charged on a per-pair basis; you don’t get charged for the equipment,” he added. According to Zuccarelli, the Optomart program offers a benefit for a lab coating 100 pairs a day.

While there is no charge for the equipment, the utility bills are still the lab’s responsibility. However, Optovision provides the personnel, so employment costs do not have to be factored in. “While we still sell coating equipment to labs, we prefer the turn-key program because we can control the quality of the coatings,” Zuccarelli said.

SHORTCUT TO TROUBLE

AR quality is the Holy Grail of labs that do in-house coating. If a coating is off-color or the coating crazes or peels, business is going fall off and fast. The surest way to make sure your coatings don’t perform well is to take shortcuts and ignore the directions. According to Peterson, “The difference between producing a top-quality AR, as compared to a mediocre one, is often training, hard-coating experience and never taking shortcuts.”

Kim echoes that sentiment wholeheartedly. “Vendors or sellers of coaters always issue a strict set of guidelines and processes,” he pointed out. “Labs need to follow them. Don’t deviate from them. Problems occur when people shorten the process. If they do, quality suffers,” he added.

Kim contends that people take shortcuts and want to skip steps because they think they can make the process shorter or easier. “Check with the seller first,” he cautioned. “The vendor may have tried these shortcuts already and recognized that they will sacrifice quality.”

He added that the various elements of the coating process have been optimized to achieve a certain level of quality in the coating. “People try to change the start pressure to shorten the process time, for example, but that changes the color of coating or absorption occurs,” he cited as examples.

Zito’s advice is also to follow the directions. “Proper preventive maintenance, cleanliness of the machine and the entire work area, and proper preparation of the lenses before coating—these are all important,” he said.

Peterson said that the most important element of quality-control is to start with a clean lab and keep it clean. “We recommend that lab personnel adhere to the clean-room protocols they are trained on when the machines are installed,” he advised. “Something as simple as requiring all operators to wear ‘spit masks’ can reduce breakage by up to one percent,” he said.

Don Hampton of Diversified Ophthalmics in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered his best suggestion. “Never, ever skimp on maintenance,” he warned. “Following standard operating procedures minimizes any chance of down-time or compromising your level of quality,” he added.

Michael Woythaler of 21st Century Optics in Long Island City, N.Y., agreed. “One must follow a strict maintenance schedule,” he stated. “Also, the cleaning of the lens is a key factor to a quality AR coating. Another key factor is consistency in your process so you always achieve similar results.”

Bringing AR coating in-house can increase business and bump up profits considerably. However, it’s still a large investment, so labs should make sure they look before they leap into AR. And once the equipment is in, the best way to maximize usage and maintain a customer base is by going back to the old standby…follow the directions.


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May/June LabTalk 2017