Consider House-Branded AR...“Hit One Out of the Park”

By Judith Lee

If AR coating was a sport, you could say that “house” brands offer optical labs the home team advantage. Coating manufacturers and labs that offer a private-brand AR coating say it lets you control the price, availability, quality and simplicity of ordering for your customers. There is a comfort level that comes with ownership, and this breeds confidence.

“By offering their in-house AR coating, labs can be confident in delivering consistent, premium quality products that can help bring along higher success rates and increased growth potential,” noted Arman Bernardi, Ph.D.,president and CEO of iCoat, a leading AR coating manufacturer. “If done correctly, an in-house AR manufacturing process will become a profitable extension to the lab’s current operations.”

Because the lab can exercise more control over the private branded coatings they can offer faster turnaround times in the lab, said Norm Kester of Quantum Innovations, Inc., which has set up private-branded AR in 64 locations.

“A private-branded AR is often the more meaningful brand to the lab, which translates into more stringent\quality controls as this is the coating that bears the lab's name. There is more ‘skin in the game’ for the private branded product,” Kester added.

Lab owners who have taken the plunge into offering private-branded AR coatings say customers appreciate having a house-brand option.

“The main reason Cherry Optical developed our own brand of AR-coating (Cherry Approved AR) was to create simplicity in ordering and availability of on-site AR production,” said Adam Cherry. “All of the major ‘brand name’ ARs have limitations to their availability. For example, no-Crizal on Hoya lenses or HiVision on Varilux. There is even limitation within materials. It is pretty crazy. The politics of AR coating availability is annoying to independent eye care professionals. By having one brand that is available on all products, we make the ordering and availability easier for our customers.”

Of course, as we know in sports, home team advantage doesn’t guarantee a win. The following are several things you should consider before taking a swing at private-branded AR.

AR Volume

“Justification of an in-house AR system is determined by how many AR jobs you are seeing a day,” explained Hal Walker of Superior Optical. “You should be doing no less than 60 to 75 AR jobs per day to justify the up-front cost, which could be around $300k for a smaller system and does not include building out the clean room for your system, which in and of itself could be quit an expensive.”

AR volume will also influence other decisions you will make.

“You want to make sure you know your AR volume, and your planned growth. You don’t want a machine that’s too small, or one that’s too big (they cost too much). It’s also worth it to keep in mind the costs of running the machine, including chemicals and electricity,” noted William Heffner, IV, director of IT and marketing for FEA Industries, a lab which has offered private-branded AR for 15 years.

AR Partner

“There are several companies the offer private branded solutions,” said Kester. “Contact AR suppliers and see what choices they offer. Also, ask your potential suppliers for important details such as historical return rates, insurance reimbursement levels, equipment requirements and independently verified performance tests for the coatings you are interested in.”

Offering private-branded AR presents an opportunity for a lab to differentiate its product line from other labs, Bernardi noted: “To emerge distinct in the marketplace, a lab should choose to offer a house brand coating that is applicable to a variety of lens substrates and styles from different
lens manufacturers.”

Another type of AR partner is the type of branded AR that your lab offers. Cherry said that Cherry Optical’s Crizal AR coating laboratory provides access to a wealth of professionals that understand hard coating, AR coating chemistry, AR coating machinery and the importance of following proper procedures. 

“Any deviation from the process will result in inferior product. As part of the Crizal process, Essilor provided us tools to test lenses from every batch on-site to ensure they meet strict quality standards. The extra validation, process and testing that are part of the Crizal process have great value to Cherry Optical as it ensures that all of the AR coated lenses we produce are meeting our industry’s highest standards,” Cherry explained.

Walman Optical looked at the “big picture” when selecting AR partners.

“Our goal was to launch with zero, or minimal, equipment investments and to be able to apply our non-glare coating to as many lenses as possible knowing there are manufacturing restrictions on some designs. We then reviewed our proprietary coating options from a variety of manufacturers, and selected which ones made the most sense for us and our customers,” said Kristin Miller, director of marketing.

Space/Resources

Walker estimated you will need a minimum of 300 square feet for the necessary equipment.

Heffner said this may be on the low side when you consider the need for a clean room and an AR coating machine. If you plan to offer a premium house brand, such as FEA’s Independence AR coating, you will need a dip-coating system. You also need room for consumables, such as chemicals and other incidentals.

Capital Equipment

Several lab owners said their capital equipment investment was minimal because they were able to run their private-branded AR process on equipment they already were using for branded AR. Kester noted that this is not always possible.

“Dependent on the performance characteristics and cosmetic effects of the coatings, the lab may or may not be required to have additional equipment. For instance, coatings that require a different set of AR coating materials or more of them may require an upgrade to the EB Gun crucible.  Or, the coating may require a dip hardcoat to achieve the desired outcome of the coating.  These are always specifics to the coating,” Kester said.

People/Processes   

Heffner said that in the number of years FEA has been offering private-branded AR coating, they’ve learned how important people and processes are.

“Good, dependable people are a must with AR coating. There is a very high attention to detail needed, as small errors can cause entire AR runs of lenses to quickly become junk,” Heffner said.

In terms of process, he noted that it needs to be defined at the outset because there are many sources for error in the AR process. For example: it’s important to understand which lenses you are coating, as lenses from different manufacturers can have different hard coats and behave differently.

Marketing

One thing about having your “own” AR brand is that you must assume you will market it on your own.

“For private branded products, the lab must be prepared to market and support their own brand. This is why it is very important to choose a supplier that can offer sales support,” Kester said. This could include point of purchase materials, leave behinds, graphics for your website and other marketing materials. 

Overall, lab owners who have invested in private-branded AR emphasize that it does require a significant investment of space, money and human resources.

“This process requires a lot of patience,” Walker said. “Although there is a cost savings it is usually not significant in the beginning due to the learning curve. The true ‘cost savings’ is extremely significant on the back end when your ROI is fully realized. The most important factor is that having your own system allows you to have total control over the quality of your product.”


CURRENT ISSUE


May/June LabTalk 2017