A Lab Owner Joins the Digital Discussion

By Hal Walker, owner, Superior Optical Labs, Ocean Springs, Miss.
Well....I’ve read the ongoing Digital Discussion. Here’s what I think about the subject. Let there be no doubt that a digitally produced lens is the direction that our industry will ultimately take at some point in the future. I suppose the operative question should be what is the definition of future...tomorrow, next year, five years from now? As I look at this whole “digital process” I ask myself, “Who or what is driving this engine?” There was a time not too long ago that I thought it was the equipment side of our industry, now it seems to be the lens vendors that are jumping on board and are really pushing this new breed of lenses. I find it ironic that it has not been that long ago when we were not using the term “digital” but rather it was referred to as “freeform.” The term digital is a new age term that more people can connect with than freeform. So what used to be called freeform is now dressed up to be digital. Can’t help but wonder if it will go through another metamorphosis before something sticks.

As a lab owner, I have always taken a pro-active and very aggressive approach to implementing whatever I felt was in the best interest of my lab. Whether it was adding more people, adding more brands to our inventory or more importantly, adding more equipment that we felt would help us to be more efficient and productive. We have chosen to go more robotic for all the obvious reasons and the “pay out” has been extremely rewarding.

Having stated this, we look at a digitally produced lens as somewhat of a “work in progress.” Maybe it’s the geographical area we are in, which is the deep south where the population is sparse. Another issue unfortunately, is that we still have a good many older doctors and even some of the young baby boomer ODs are still selling more ST’s than they should. The barrier that needs to be broken before many labs start considering these mega investments is educating the ECP’s more about the benefits of these lenses. There is a massive void of true understanding of what these lenses are and the medicinal benefits they offer to the patient. Simply put, the dispensing sector has to have a handle on what it is they are selling. Once this is accomplished they will be better suited to explain to the patient why this digital TV is better than the 20-year-old TV. It’s the old supply and demand dilemma. We just don’t see or even hear of people that are curious enough about these lenses to want to go down that path at the present. Apparently, this is not the case in other parts of the country where I think demographics and a more “in tune” ECP is steering this digital engine.

The long and short of this subject is akin to drill mounts back some ten years or so ago when most of the labs cursed drilling them with their Dremel hand drills smirking and saying, “This is just a fad. It’ll go away soon.” Needless to say, many ole lab techs have had to eat those words and guess what...yep, they ultimately had to make those big investments in the CNC drilling machines.

Another factor that cannot be avoided is the economic times we are currently facing. Most labs are trying to just maintain a “status quo” or as one lens company put it: the new increase in business these days is simply having a flat line. As part of any labs ongoing maintenance program, new equipment purchases are inevitable but will be for the purpose of replacing worn out machines or for the benefit of getting out more work efficiently. Making sizable investments in this economy for the purpose of re-inventing the wheel, in my opinion, is something that labs putting out less than 400 jobs-per-day will simply not consider. Suffice it to say that the majority of labs in this country fall into that category. Only the Goliath labs with deep pockets doing considerably more jobs than 400 jpd are likely to venture down that path, which in a way will be good. It will be those labs that will create the demand for these lenses, which in turn will drive the market for the smaller labs ultimately causing them to re-think their digital strategy.

Hal Walker, Superior Optical Labs, Inc./Ocean Springs, MS Eye Care Center Lab Inc./Ft. Pierce, FL

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May/June LabTalk 2017