Bigger. Smaller. Faster.

By Julie Bos

The AR segment of the lens purchase has been part of most labs’ business for years—benefiting  patients, ECPs and labs alike.

And it’s easy to see why. Modern AR coatings can virtually eliminate the reflection of light from eyeglass lenses, allowing 99 percent of available light to pass through lenses and enter the eye for improved vision. The benefits include sharper vision with less glare during night driving, enhanced contrast, and greater comfort during prolonged computer use. AR coatings also deliver cosmetic benefits by reducing the glare others can see on the lenses and making them look nearly invisible.

Because of these benefits—and the resulting growth in consumer demand—AR coating also represents a huge business category for lens laboratories everywhere. With issues of the past resolved, today, the value of AR coating is stronger than ever before, prompting a wide array of improvements in both the AR coating process and AR coating equipment.

As with any growing market niche, AR equipment is driven by evolving trends and dynamic consumer demands. Here are a few trends, explained by some leading manufacturer partners, along with examples of how new hardware advancements are helping labs adapt to
those trends:

TREND #1 DRIVE FOR MORE SIMPLICITY AND COST-EFFECTIVENESS

“One important change is that AR equipment is now a lot simpler to use and is more cost-effective for any size lab,” said Jeff Grumbling, COO, OptoTech Machinery. “You no longer have to be an expert in AR coating. This is possible due to improved levels of automation and process control over the past few years. The latest generation of equipment allows just about any size lab to produce great AR coatings!”

In direct response to this trend, OptoTech introduced two new sizes of AR equipment in 2015. Now with five different models to choose from, the company offers a broad range of high-quality AR coating systems for the ophthalmic market with loading capacities from four pairs per batch up to 130 pairs per batch.

This diversity is key since the U.S. has a wide variety of labs, ranging from small optical stores with low volume production all the way up to big players doing mass production. All models are capable of producing all types of AR and fashioned mirror coatings.

Certainly, the most cost-effective way of producing AR lenses is by running full batches. Therefore, each individual lab must carefully choose the right size of AR equipment, matched to their unique production capacity needs. For labs that need to run special coatings in low volumes, OptoTech also offers small dedicated coaters, such as the OAC-25Plus.

Going forward, OptoTech is committed to providing the solutions today’s labs need most. Beyond basic AR coatings, the company plans to introduce variations of coating equipment to enable special coatings for sunglass lenses, including high-quality tinted AR and specialty mirrors and gradients.

WHAT LABS ARE SAYING:

“When we decided to open our small independent lab in Oregon, we knew if we hoped to compete in the premium lens market, we had to produce both  lenses, and a lens coating system that was equal to or better than the three giant corporate labs in area. We selected the OptoTech CHC 60 cleaning and dip hard coating system and the OptoTech OAC 75 A/R coating chamber. 

The OptoTech CHC 60 allows us to completely strip the factory hard coat off of any manufacturer’s lens blanks, and the ability to build an in-house fully-index matched foundation hard coating system from scratch. The result was an applied hard coating system in which we have complete control of the quality, and lenses that were truly bi-fringence free. In short, it allowed us to produce exceptional lenses of predictable quality for our AR chamber. A superior hard coat is the foundation of any good AR coating system.

We initially selected the OAC 75 AR Chamber because of its small footprint and easy-to-use interface. The OAC 75 is capable of accurately reproducing virtually any AR coating on the market. With the help of OptoTech's coating experts we were able to produce a proprietary AR lens protection system that I would put up against any lens on the market. The synergy of these two coating systems, has allowed us to position our lens products alongside, and successfully compete with the best lens products in
the industry.”

Robert D. Forbes, O.D., VERUS Optical Laboratory
(Newberg, Oregon)

TREND #2 CHANGING SIZE PREFERENCES (SMALLER FOR RETAIL, LARGER FOR LABS).

Ronald Cooke, Jr., director of sales for Leybold Optics, part of Buhler Group, points out another trend in modern AR equipment—changes in size, depending on where the equipment will be used.

“We are seeing a push to sell smaller units for the retail setting and expect this trend to continue as offices work to produce AR more quickly and give patients better service,” he said. “Additionally, many larger labs are upgrading older machines with new larger units.”

The company has responded to this trend with advancements in two of its equipment solutions:

• Boxer900: With this equipment, Leybold was able to engineer a unit that produces more lenses in a bigger chamber (delivering 60 percent higher productivity than its previous models), and with a smaller footprint with shorter cycle times. Best yet, these winning features come in a piece of equipment that is just slightly more money than the Boxer 700. Therefore, Leybold considers the Boxer 900 the most productive, midsize Rx coating system with high-productivity and a low cost-per-piece, delivering a quick return on investment.

• STAR Vacuum Coater: On the other end of the spectrum, Leybold just released the STAR vacuum coater, which provides individual pairs of Rx AR glasses within the hour. This system produces high-quality, reproducible AR coatings with easy operation via recipe handling. It also has easy maintenance with long intervals between chamber cleanings (about 1,000 runs) and low power consumption, thanks to a two-chamber design that allows the process chamber to be permanently under vacuum. This self-contained unit is easy to operate and very easy to install with plug-and-play convenience. These features make the STAR a great choice as an in-office AR machine since it incorporates target-to-substrate distance control, allowing for more accurate and easily reproducible processes. This equipment is also priced at or below competitive systems, giving it more reason for consideration. The STAR is also a great fit for larger laboratories looking for a machine to process mirror coatings and rush jobs.

TREND #3 INCREASING AR USE BY RETAIL LOCATIONS.

According to Henry Zheng, owner of Chemat Technology, there’s another trend that’s affecting the AR coating industry: More and more retail centers (e.g., LensCrafters) are doing their own AR coating. Not surprisingly, today’s AR coating equipment needs to adapt to fit the new in-store user demands.

The company’s Chemalux AR equipment has evolved to meet these changes by offering one of the smallest, most affordable AR coaters in the industry. First, Chemalux AR coating systems have added a radiation (light) curing process, which helps labs speed the AR process and shorten the curing time so that Rx glasses with AR can be delivered within an hour. This equipment also deposits AR coating only on the backside of the front-side AR coated lenses, so AR coating can be integrated into the digital freeform surfacing process. This means labs can use front-side AR coated semi-finished lenses, which eliminates the need to perform any processes on the front side of the lens. This also helps labs achieve full automation of Rx lens production with the involvement of the manual batch AR coating step.

WHAT LABS ARE SAYING:

“I run a high-volume optometric practice with seven locations in south Florida. We do about 80 jobs a day and about 20 of those are surface AR lenses. For the last five years, I have used the Chemat system successfully. The quality is excellent and consistent. In addition, we quickly learned how to get different AR hues and I can practically match any other brand ARs. Spin AR also performs better than the conventional vapor AR under the extreme hot weather in Florida, so we don't see the cracks or redos of the past. We like using Chemalux AR Coating machines because the compactness of the machine fits our OD's lab well. I do not need a large room for AR only. In addition, it offers a low price (at the same price range of an edger), making in-house AR
affordable for our operation. Plus, the simple operation makes our technicians’ jobs easier.”

Mario I. Carcamo, O.D., Vision Unlimited
(Miami, Florida)

TREND #4 REDUCTION OF UV LIGHT REFLECTION AND BLUE LIGHT BLOCKING.

Another trend for AR coating is related to eye health: the reduction of the amount of UV light reflecting into the eyes from the lens back surface, and the need to block blue light emitted from today’s portable electronics and desktop computers. More and more consumers are demanding coatings that can deliver these important eye health benefits, along with high scratch-resistance and anti-static properties.

Satisloh’s AR coating systems can address this demand. The company’s UV passing coating on the lens back surface reduces up to 80 percent of backside reflection in the dangerous UVA and UVB range. And its blue blocking AR on the front surface reduces the transmission of high energy blue light that can have harmful effects on the eye. One equipment solution is the MC-280-X, a coating system designed for labs that need big technology but have limited space. Based on the company’s larger MC-380-X, the MC-280-X combines multiple process applications with small batch capabilities for the highest flexibility. The MC-280-X AR coating system delivers top quality AR coatings in small batches. Using the same sophisticated AR and mirror coating processes as the big Satisloh box coaters, the MC-280-X guarantees excellent results. Satisloh offers a full portfolio of AR coating systems starting from the SP200 coater that runs four  lenses per batch and is ideal for the retail environment to the MC-280-X and MC-380-X systems for small to midsize RX labs all the way up to the 1200DLX for large RX labs and mass manufacturing operations.

Says Brian Peterson, product director coatings at Satisloh: “Today’s AR coating equipment is very stable and easy to maintain. That said, if an AR coating system goes down, it can cripple the ability of a lab to deliver work to its customers on time. The key in these situations is to have a partner with the necessary resources to have the machine back up and running in the shortest amount of time possible. That’s why Satisloh backs its equipment up with the largest service team in the industry and an expansive inventory of spare parts. We are able to ship parts and – if necessary – have a technician on site within 24 hours in over 90 percent of the time.”

WHAT LABS ARE SAYING:

“The decision to bring AR coating in-house was a no brainer. The installation of the Satisloh MC-380-X and our relationship with Satisloh could not have been any better. As with new technology in general, the MC-380-X AR coater is faster, more user-friendly, mechanized and more economical for our wholesale lab. It also allows for higher run capacity and increased productivity. The quality of the AR coating mix supplied by Satisloh is living up to all expectations. Overall, we were able to cut the cost for AR coating by 65 percent.”

Ron Jackson, First Look Optical Lab

TREND # 5 SHRINKING HARDWARE SIZES (BUT OFTEN WITH  COMPROMISES).

Kevin Cross, director of North America sales for Schneider Optical Machines, explains another key trend in the AR coating market—the push for smaller hardware sizes. Unfortunately, this strategy isn’t always achieved without some costly tradeoffs.

“We have seen that AR coating machines are getting smaller, but often making sacrifices in coating quality to achieve the size reduction,” he said. “At Schneider, we refuse to compromise quality due to the size of the chamber.”

Schneider offers three separate AR coating platforms designed to ensure that all types of demands can be served without over investment. They platforms are:

• EBC 400 with up to 10 pair per cycle

• EBC 600 with up to 25 pair per cycle

• EBC 900 with up to 60 pair per cycle

All of Schneider’s AR machines utilize state-of-the-art technologies that make them capable of producing any sophisticated branded or private-label coating. Even the company’s smallest coater (the EBC 400) has an ION Source and EB gun to ensure that customers can produce the highest quality coatings with an IAD (Ion Assisted Deposition) process, regardless of the demand or coating application location (e.g., retailer, optical dispensary).

“We also see the need for machines to have scalability as demand increases,” he added. “For that reason, we also made our EBC 900 upgradeable. It comes standard with one turbo pump, but it can have a second pump installed at a later date when demand dictates, thereby increasing productivity without a big new investment. By making the machine upgradeable, labs can delay the purchase of a second machine until absolutely necessary, while adding capacity for a predictable cost that’s known up-front.”

Now with coaters designed for small labs all the way to larger wholesale production labs, Schneider enables everyone to access the right sized machine, all with state-of-the-art technology.

“When we launched the EBC series of AR Coaters almost two years ago, we listened to our customers’ needs and what we heard loud and clear was lowering the cost of ownership and making maintenance easier without compromising the premium quality of the coatings,” said Cross. “We were able to achieve all of this with our pumping systems, our ease-of-operation and maintenance, as well as our superior, top-of-the-line quality coatings. Our pumping systems have an 8+ year lifespan with absolutely no maintenance required.”

TREND #6 FLEXIBILITY IS KEY TO THE FUTURE.

Norm Kester, president of Quantum Innovations, shared another ongoing trend in the AR coating world.

“Competition is getting tougher and consolidation has caused a compression of the industry,” he said. “Therefore, equipment platforms that offer multiple brands, AR, sunwear and customized options—all with no batches—will be the most viable option to satisfying an educated consumer.”

Quantum Innovations offers a solution: The Fusion M platform. This platform enables a lab to start testing a new product without worrying about the return based on volume. The lab can test the market and gradually grow volume until there is a justification to batch, or simply continue running the product through the Fusion, if desired.

According to Kester, Quantum continues to improve the Fusion M platform. Recently, the company has been working to complete several upgrades including: increasing the per-lens processing speed, adding in-chamber, thermal evaporative super hydrophobic, ease-of-use upgrades, and a new version of the software to make the machine more self-calibrating. Additionally, the company is adding branded products from industry-leaders to enable customers to take advantage of the full flexibility of the Fusion M platform.

WHAT LABS ARE SAYING:

“We own a Fusion M. Our lab couldn't be happier with the flexibility and quality of the equipment and coatings. Having worked in several different labs with AR coating facilities, then seeing the Fusion M and the linear process while coating both sides at the same time, the Fusion M and its continuous flow just make sense. I do not see us ever going to a traditional box coating AR system. The Fusion M coats one lens at a time; each lens only makes one pass through the coating chambers; each lens can be different than the one before and as soon as the lens exits the machine it is ready for finishing. I would recommend this equipment to labs of all sizes, whether as a lab’s only machine or as a compliment to existing AR equipment. In many cases the Fusion M can be placed in the lab, right between surface and finish. Norm Kester and the Quantum team have been tremendous in supporting our staff with training and technical help. When we expand we will be adding more Fusion M's to our lab, because it makes sense.”

Jim Hilker, ABOC, optical lab manager, Vision Essentials by Kaiser Permanente (Clackamas, Oregon)


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May/June LabTalk 2017