Dynamics of Digitally Surfaced Lenses

By Christie Walker
Welcome to our digital discussion. This year in each issue of LabTalk, we will have a panel discussion revolving around the topic of digitally surfaced lenses. We’ve invited panelists from some of the industries top companies working in the fields of digital equipment, lens design and software, to share their insights and expertise. I’ve solicited questions from lab owners and managers, and in each issue, will ask our experts to answer your questions. If you have a question for the panel, please send it to me at: [email protected] For clarity sake, we will note here that, Freeform® is a registered trademark of Shamir Insight, but will not be using the register mark throughout the rest of the article.

Now let me introduce our panel. Ian Gregg, product manager, surfacing/finishing Satisloh North America; Kurt Atchison, president, Schneider Optical Machines; Alex Incera, president, Gerber Coburn: Cj Eggbeer, sales engineer, RxD systems DAC International: Raanan Naftalovich, CEO, Shamir Insight, Inc.; and Gordon Keane, president, Digital Vision Inc.

In the area of equipment for creating digitally surfaced lenses, how will labs know it’s time to enter this field?

Ian Gregg: “As with any capital investment of this type, lab owners should consider two important questions; will this investment have an immediate positive impact on my business, and does the investment fit in to my long term growth strategy? Increased yields, lower labor costs, and access to new revenue streams are obvious short term benefits. If it’s time to replace existing equipment, due to age or obsolescence, or if there is a need for additional capacity as the result of recent or anticipated growth, new technology should definitely be considered. Of course, for any lab that is already farming out 30 to 40 pair per day of the newer, complex lens designs, the decision should be quite easy.”

Kurt Atchison: “It is safe to say today that probably no lab should invest any more in conventional surface technology when digital is available, works well and covers maybe 95% or more of the range of conventional. If the lab is over capacity or it’s time to replace old machinery, digital is now the only way to go. It can do all your lenses and do them with less cost and greater simplicity than ever imagined with conventional.

Another less obvious reason is the need to improve toric lens quality and ease of production. Digital gets easier every day with enhancements and passing of the learning curve. While even 1 year ago, there were a great many questions and issues, today it is a stable and, more importantly, revolutionary process. I say the same thing to any customer considering digital. Ten years ago, no one was talking about these funny, free form lenses and progressive backside surfaces. All they were talking about and praying for was the ability to produce a direct optic without hard lap tools. “Get rid of the lap tools, the labor and the mismatching or compromised curves.” Now we’ve done that and done it well. The problem is that digital had gotten a little bit pigeonholed into free form only. The truth is that it transforms everything about the labs production—from progressives to standard toric work.

And lastly why now? Because costs are down and yields are up. As with any new process (see AR coating from years ago), it took time to refine processes and stabilize consumable costs. Now you can safely venture into digital at no more cost for processing tools than regular conventional. Add the labor component and you save lots of money versus conventional.”

Alex Incera: “Lab owners have been asking this question for several years. In my experience, lab owners should enter into free form production when the implementation is easy, open, and affordable.

Until recently, installing a free form system in the lab was no easy task as the host system (LMS), the lens design system (LDS), and the equipment were typically unable to communicate with each other. Lab operators were forced to enter data multiple times in order to successfully produce a free form lens. Thanks to the efforts of the VCA Direct Surfacing Task Force, and the many companies that participated in that group, a standard communication protocol has been established which makes it easy to install and operate a free form lab. Each of the critical pieces of the lab is now fully capable of communicating and exchanging the data that it needs in order for the lab to successfully produce a free-form lens.

The lack of a standard communication protocol also made virtually every installation a “special installation,” making it very difficult for a lab to open itself to other choices of lens designs or equipment suppliers. In effect, free form was closed to expansion, freedom of choice, and flexibility. The new communication standard has changed all of that, making free-form an open, flexible environment.

Lastly, labs should take advantage of the freeform opportunity when the investment is affordable. When free form equipment was introduced, only very large lab owners could justify the purchase of the equipment; typically, this could be over a million in capital. Today, because of the evolution of technology, a lab owner can enter into digital processing for as little as a couple hundred thousand for the main products. This fact now allows the smaller labs to participate in the processing technology. The key would be to look for systems that are expandable so the laboratory investment can grow as the market and the business opportunity grows.”

Cj Eggbeer: “Some labs are comfortable being on the forefront of new technology, while some prefer to wait until systems, products and, most importantly, markets are firmly established. The concern for many seems to be threefold: 1) digital surfacing is too new, 2) it’s too expensive and 3) it’s primary purpose is to generate PAL designs.

In point of fact, proven direct surfacing technology has been in existence for years, and digital designs are readily available. There are systems on the market, right now, that make it not only very affordable, but also very profitable, especially for labs that produce back surface PALs and back surface specialty lens designs.

Whether the main focus of the lab is the production of standard lenses, PALs or specialty lenses, digital surfacing equipment offers distinct advantages: improved accuracy, the elimination of hard laps, a reduction in handling and decrease in rejects, to name a few. Digital surfacing software makes it possible to produce specialty lenses as easily and economically as standard prescriptions and to generate PAL designs without requiring high-priced blanks.

Caution is understandable in hard economic times such as these, but digital surfacing is here to stay, and labs who are already utilizing it will gain an important competitive edge over those who wait.”

How is the industry accepting digitally surfaced lens technology?

Raanan Naftalovich: “I believe the optical industry is accepting digitally surfaced lens technology at an increasingly rapid rate. In 2008, our Freeform technology grew very quickly because it made sense from a design standpoint as well as an economic standpoint for the entire supply chain. Freeform allows a lens of any design to be made in any material, and in any amount, extremely economically, so it’s no wonder the industry is accepting it with open arms. In the past, we would produce a design limited to only the most popular materials because of cost limitations. No longer is this the case.

A lens design can now move from R&D to the patient at amazing speeds, in any desired material. I believe we’ll see an even larger shift to Freeform in the near future, with equipment manufacturers phasing out equipment that is not Freeform-capable. How quickly this will happen is anyone’s guess, but I would venture that within the next few years there will be few sizeable labs that lack the capacity to produce Freeform lenses.”

Gordon Keane: “Digital Vision, as our name implies, has been producing digital surfaces within our system for many years, but software has been limited by the machines involved in grinding lenses. Now the machinery manufacturers have created machines that can work with very complex instructions to achieve these digital surfaces. As far as DVI is concerned, we are very excited about digital surfacing, and are working hard on using and improving this new technology.

Software levels the playing field for any lab to create complex lenses (progressives, aspherics, etc) in any resin or poly material with much more economical single vision or molded lens blanks. DVI labs have the ability to surface many different lenses digitally, which enables them to process complex lenses and compete on price with larger labs.

ECPs are still learning about digital surfacing, and they have to be convinced that the technology will produce consistently excellent products before they will recommend it to their patients. At the moment only a small percentage of the prescription mix uses digitally surfaced lenses. I think as the labs get more comfortable with procedures and processes, digital surfacing will become the dominant method of grinding most lenses.”


Labtalk June 2020