Straight Talk About Digital Surfacing* or whatever we are going to call it

By Christie Walker
Back in November, I attended a panel discussion about digital surfacing and the impact it will have on the optical industry. The discussion began with what to call this technology. So far we have Free Form™, digital surfacing, direct surfacing, All-Format and high-definition. With so many terms both general and proprietary for basically the same thing the confusion level among ECPs is going through the roof. For simplicity’s sake, I will use the term digital surfacing.

Here’s a thought. Who cares what you call it? Do I, as a consumer care what process was used to make the engine of my car? No, as long as I can turn the key and the car starts and gets me from point A to point B. Do I care how you made my lenses? No, not really, and neither do the doctors. What doctors and patients want to know is, “Will these lenses make it easier to see?”

This brings us to another thought. Do digitally surfaced lenses make it easier to see? A simple question on the surface (pun intended) but really now, are the lenses better? Let’s step back and clarify a few things first before we answer that sticky question.

Digital surfacing is a process, not a product. The lens is the product. The product is composed of three elements: the material it’s made from, the design/prescription, and several different coatings. That is the product. How you make the product is the process. Lens processing involves a bunch of machines and steps, which as lab owners and managers you know far better than I. And that’s the way it should be.

As a wearer of eyeglasses, I don’t care how you make my lenses. I just want them to have the correct prescription, the polarized layer lined up horizontally (I have a pair that are crooked), and the AR coating applied so that I don’t even know it’s there. I want my lenses to be easy to keep clean and not to scratch the moment I put them on my face. What I don’t care about is what went into accomplishing these results and neither does anyone else outside our industry.

I heard all the reasons digitally surfaced lenses are better. How with this new process, complex designs can now be created. How with one machine you can eliminate lap tools, eliminate a step in the process, and create more perfect lenses down to excruciating standards. All that is great, but how does it impact the wearer? As a wearer of a digitally surfaced lens will I be able to tell the difference.

I’m sorry to say that for me the answer is no. I have eight different pair of progressive lenses each with a different lens design from a different manufacturer; some digitally surfaced some traditionally surfaced. They all work great and frankly, I can’t tell one from the other without looking at the engraving.

So what does that mean? My prescription isn’t radical enough to see a difference? Even if that is true, then shouldn’t the industry be promoting the lenses only for people who have the type of prescription that will see a benefit from the new technology? It’s not just me. I’ve talked to several ECPs and most of the time they can’t tell the difference either and neither can their patients.So if we are going to ask patients and ECPs to pay the big bucks for lenses that have been digitally surfaced there needs to be a WOW factor and so far I haven’t seen it. Another issue with digital surfacing is the accuracy factor. We now have the ability to create a lens with such exacting standards, where every point on the lens is calculated and cut to precise measurements. That’s great, except where are these measurements coming from. I go in for my eye examine and am asked, which is better, one or two? Sometimes I don’t know. So I come out with a prescription that is based on my wishy-washy opinion. Then I see the optician who uses a marker pen to dot my pupil and then measure the segment height. As I watch her hand shake as she approaches my lenses I can’t help but think, “Are these the precise measurements that are going to be translated into my glasses?”

Auto refractors provide objective Rx readings making it possible to measure sphere to plus or minus 25D , cylinder to plus or minus 10D and a minimum pupil diameter of 2.3mm. This is the type of exacting measurements we need to create lenses to such exacting standards. Until ECPs start using this type of equipment, in my opinion, the "garbage in, garbage out" law of data will hold digitally surfaced lenses back from reaching their full potential.

In the meantime, manufacturers are making terrific machines for creating wonderful lenses that only a small percentage of the eyeglass-wearing public is buying. Until we address some of the issues that I’ve mentioned here, it’s going to remain a small percentage of the market, which is a shame because we truly are in the business of providing the best vision possible, no matter what type of equipment or process we use to do it.

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August/September LabTalk 2017