Joestradamus - A Look Back, A Look Forward

By Martine Bruneni
In 2001 and then again in 2003, LabTalk asked my father Joe Bruneni, to make predictions of the future of the optical industry on topics of particular interest to optical laboratories. Published in his “Insights” column titled “Joestradamus,” these were his predictions.

In this article, we’ll see how close Joestradamus came to predicting the current market and look at additional predictions from today’s industry executives.


Product Mix

The 2001 Joestradamus Prediction: The use of premium lenses was predicted to increase. Even in a down economy, manufacturers and eye care professionals would promote premium lenses.

What Joestradamus Wrote in 2003: Low and mid-range frames took market share from high-end frames and premium lens sales by labs continued to increase.

What Happened: In lenses, premium lens sales (progressives, photochromics, AR coatings) have continued to increase. In fact, progressive lenses now have a greater market share for presbyopic prescriptions (about 60%) than standard bifocals and trifocals (about 40%). Photochromic sales continue to increase, now representing nearly 19 percent of total lens sales. AR sales continue to increase and, by some industry statistics, represent over 31-35 percent of prescriptions.

By index, CR-39 is still the most often prescribed material but has slipped from 44 percent to 35 percent (this is exclusive of photochromic and polarized CR-39). Poly is the next most prescribed material at about 31 percent. The third most prescribed material is CR-39 Transitions at about 11 percent with poly photochromic lenses coming in at about 6 percent and 1.67 at 3 percent.

Prediction: Premium lenses will continue to increase steadily as CR-39 and glass lenses will decline in usage with polycarbonate, Trivex, and high index materials continuing to increase. Aging baby boomers have significantly increased the demand for progressive lenses, and now progressives will sell more units than all lined multi-focals combined. Progressive lens designs will continue to be released. Digital processing will continue to increase and marketing will push the industry toward more digital processing players and growth. Labs will need to continue educating the eye care professional on new technology and making second pair sales will become necessary to compete.

Premium lenses are expected to continue to increase but with the current economy, at a slower rate. CR-39 will continue to increase, poly will stay about the same, 1.67 should increase and 1.60 and mid index will decrease. Several companies have eliminated mid-index (1.55-1.56). However, Trivex has shown some growth though it still represents less than 2 percent of the total market. Glass continues to decrease and will become a specialty item.

Aspheric/Atoric Lenses

The 2001 Joestradamus Prediction: Improved aspheric technology would continue to take market share away from conventional lenses. New aspheric/atoric lenses would be introduced and within ten years, all quality eyewear would feature aspheric or atoric lenses.

What Joestradamus Wrote in 2003: The market continues to grow and the most advanced progressive lenses now feature atoric curves. Influencing this was the recent development of surfacing equipment enabling labs, for the first time, to produce aspheric/atoric lenses in-house.

Predictions: Although the market for aspheric/atoric has grown, U.S. demand for aspherics are based more on thinness than on improved optics. Lens manufacturers tend to use aspheric designs in higher index materials; however, in many cases the choice of material is what is driving the demand. With the current push from those labs that have begun to process “digitally,” spherical lenses in single vision form may have an effect on the sales of aspheric lenses overall.

AR has more than doubled since Joestradamus made his predictions. The U.S. has not quite reached the AR level of Europe, but we are well underway. Small independent labs are installing expensive AR facilities in order to stay in business. Couple that with the advanced technology of today’s AR stack and premium lenses, and you have a formula which will further perpetuate the growth in AR and premium lenses (see chart).

Essentially all progressive lenses are spheric/atoric. In SV, bifocal and trifocal, there has been no great market growth. Aspheric/atoric in SV, bifocal and trifocal is estimated to represent only about 10 percent of sales. This is not expected to change significantly in the next few years. It seems that practitioners are unaware of the benefit of aspheric/atoric or are price sensitive.

Computer Eyewear

The 2001 Joestradamus Prediction: Computer use is visually intensive and consumers will come to recognize the importance of computer eyewear. Astute practitioners will prescribe special use glasses for computer users. Progressive patients will be offered variable focus lenses for computer use. These second pairs will expand the field for premium lenses.

What Joestradamus Wrote in 2003: Computer vision is now a popular specialty for eye care professionals. Computer glasses have expanded the amount of multiple eyewear pairs dispensed in this country.

Predictions: Use of task specific eyewear, such as computer eyewear, has grown slower than expected. Private practitioners’ market share may decrease in favor of large retailers, possibly hampering the growth of specialty eyewear. Although most lens manufacturers offer computer eyewear (intermediate viewing distance progressives), the growth of this segment has been modest. It will remain a specialty item.

Lab Equipment

The 2001 Joestradamus Prediction: Usage of patternless edgers and robotic surfacing and edging equipment will grow. More labs will implement in-house AR coating and in-house casting. AR market share will approach that of Europe.

What Joestradamus Wrote in 2003: These predictions are occurring. One trend not anticipated in 2001 was the development of free-form lab equipment. Several labs currently produce aspheric/atoric lenses in-house and more are ordering the equipment. This will be a quantum leap for wholesale labs, actually converting labs into lens manufacturers.

Predictions: There are almost no pattern edgers remaining in production. Patternless edgers are the norm and the use of robotics has grown as labs try to control labor costs. Robotic full-featured edgers that groove, drill, polish and pin bevel are now found in many labs. Robotic surfacing now exists to some extent in the majority of labs producing more than 300 jobs-per-day. Many labs have brought AR coating in-house which has contributed to the estimated 31 percent (or greater) AR penetration (due to shorter delivery and pricing). This is expected to continue, albeit at a somewhat slower rate with the high cost of in-house AR capability and the current economy.

Robotic surfacing has continued to increase but still represents a minority of production capacity. Cost of entry is pretty high. Some labs have or will implement freeform lab equipment. This is a leading-edge move since freeform lenses, nearly all of which are progressives, represent less than 3 percent of prescriptions in the U.S. Freeform sales have increased, with some manufacturers reporting 15 percent or more of progressive sales are freeform. However, disputes over intellectual property rights, equipment cost, and slow acceptance by the three Os have kept freeform from revolutionizing the industry yet. It is predicted that this will slowly increase over the next two to three years.

The percentages of freeform lenses being produced may still be in the single digits, but our country capacity for digital processing is growing very fast. It would be a safe speculation to say that there are 5 digital processing lines being installed in the U.S. each month. Freeform is the new AR in that it is a great way to quickly add profits to the lab. In many cases, there is $40 to $50 profit in each free form job made in-house.

While a few more labs have invested heavily into freeform equipment, from the comments and statistic, it is going to take a long time before they see any type of return on investment. ECPs do not seem prepared or well-educated on freeform. It doesn’t appear to be making a quantum leap so far. Comments from some independent lab owners indicate they will continue to sit on the fence to see what will happen in upcoming years.

I wonder if my Dad could have imagined a Central Lab supplying 750 retail stores without one a single semi-finished progressive lens in the building. I think he’d be impressed. Freeform production has the potential to change the landscape of the industry.

Manufacturer-Owned Labs

The 2001 Joestradamus Prediction: The number of Essilor and Hoya owned labs will stabilize. Other lens producers will open a few company-owned labs. The total of independent labs will shrink slightly and stabilize. Survivors will grow stronger because of the ability to respond quickly to market change.

What Jostradamus wrote in 2003: The jury is still out but there are signs that these predictions will most likely take place as forecasted.

Prediction: Previous predictions did not quite anticipate the success of the acquisition formula. My personal belief is that my father believed there were legalities regarding monopolization of an industry, which he covered in his history book. I do not believe he, or any of us for that matter, could have anticipated the number of new players entering the business of acquiring independent labs.

Essilor continues to acquire labs at a rate in the U.S. of 12-24 labs per year. Hoya is pretty stable. Carl Zeiss Vision is acquiring labs at a very modest rate. Nikon, a new entry, is starting quite slow. VSP, another new entry has been acquiring labs, either wholly-owned or in partnership. The net result is that lens manufacturers (or 3rd-party plans, i.e., VSP) continue to acquire independent labs at a noticeable rate. Independent labs have noticeably decreased. This trend has not stabilized and manufacturer-owned labs will continue to increase at a pretty rapid rate.

Although shrinking, independent labs will embrace new technology to deliver the latest in technology advancements, quality and personal service. The fate of the independent lab will be in maintaining true personalized services and education for independent practitioners. I believe independent labs will still play a key role in the future of the industry.

Martine Bruneni can be reached at 310-753-5249 or mbruneni@hotmail.com.

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May/June LabTalk 2017