Consumables: Your Lab’s Secret Weapon

By Judith Lee

In the war for profits in optical manufacturing, consumables have become both an important strategy and a weapon to cut costs. Lab owners and managers, equipment manufacturers and consumable vendors say best practices are more important than ever to maximize savings strategies and hit the profit target.

In fact, lab owners and managers described consumable management and purchasing to be “sensitive” and “proprietary” to their organizations. In order to gather candid comments, LabTalk promised to withhold the names of individual labs and lab managers. Following are their tips on best practices, along with comments from manufacturers and vendors.

 1. Don’t get bogged down

Lab managers warn that equipment makers are becoming more aggressive in tying their customers to purchasing consumables from them or an allied vendor. Sometimes a contract to use the manufacturers’ consumables is a requirement of the sale.

“We are opposed to that kind of agreement and will even use it as a ‘dealbreaker.’ We would rather do business with an equipment maker that lets us make our own decisions about consumables that will ultimately have an impact on our bottom line,” said a multi-lab supervisor with a large Midwestern operation.

If your lab doesn’t have the marketplace clout to avoid a contract, negotiate for the shortest term possible, and then be ready to go out into the marketplace to select the best consumables for your needs, lab managers say. They urge you to watch for a clause that voids the equipment warranty if you do not use the manufacturer’s recommended consumables.

“It is not always necessary to purchase consumables from the equipment manufacturer,” said Khristina Selley, consumables sales manager, Lab Works Group at Coburn Technologies, Inc. “A lot of times labs can find equal, if not superior products from a non-optical equipment manufacturer source.”

Not surprisingly, optical equipment manufacturers (OEMs) disagree.

“It is always important to buy your consumables from your equipment manufacturer,” asserted Kevin Cross, vice president of sales for Schneider Optical Machines, Inc. “If you own a high performance vehicle that requires certain fuel and tire requirements, you probably follow those recommendations to ensure maximum results.  The same goes for digital surfacing, AR coating and complex edging.  Today’s sophisticated equipment and processes are far more susceptible to deviations caused by non-OEM supplied process consumables.”

Steve Schneider, vice president of aftermarket products/sales for Satisloh agreed: “Many ‘non-equipment’ companies try to make the same products, but they do not have the exact specifications needed, which means their goods will not perform as a true OEM would. In addition, the equipment company will support not only the machine, but also their consumables and process to achieve the best quality and lowest cost per surface.”

Consumable vendors admit there is a logic to using OEM-recommended consumables for a time.

“With new equipment, such as digital or AR coating systems, we recommend, during the initial training and qualification phase, and while under the initial warranty period, labs use the components supplied by the manufacturer to reduce variables and optimize troubleshooting as the OEM technicians might not understand the performance attributes of other products. This also helps to establish a performance and cost baseline for comparing alternate products when introduced into the process,” said Karen Gillen of PSI.

2. Choose strategically

One manager of a sizeable independent lab described a consumables program based on a variety of factors.

 “We have a lot of LOH machines in the surface room. Because we do many glass RX's, we buy the diamond fining pads from LOH because of the quality. However, most other consumables we buy from other sources for cost savings,” he said. “In the finish area, we run Kappa and AIT speed edgers. In doing glass we quickly wear out the diamond cutting wheels. Buying from alternative vendors saves approximately 50 percent.”

Because consumables are ordered over and over, shipping costs should be considered. Independent labs also may look to buying groups to save money on consumables.

“We offer free freight on most products if a certain dollar figure is met,” said Steve Brown, business development manager and owner of Salem Vision Group. “Joining certain buying groups can also help with group pricing and we will be glad to pass those group names along that really support the independently owned labs.”

A manager of a lab chain said his company has an annual review with each consumable vendor: “What we do is to annually have an audience with consumable vendors to ask them to give us the best price. Always keep your options open for discussion.”

Truly, the consumables program should always be in flux to ensure the best prices and the best products, including new and improved products that come on the market all the time.

“The way technology advances, products emerge that are proprietary, we must consider them,” said the manager of a large East coast lab. “A new item may work better than what you have been using.”

He added that new doesn’t automatically mean better: “Make sure you are allowed a trial and error period to test claims of new products. We tell them, ‘You have to give us time to test the accuracy of your claims.’ We have been disappointed when we just accepted the claims of the sales team.”

3. Don’t shortchange quality

Although the cost of consumables is significant—even an average-sized lab can spend $20,000 or more a month—lab managers and industry experts say quality is more important.

“Cheap supplies most often result in lower quality lenses,” said Brown. “The best solution is to use the best materials correctly. Quality vendors have the technical expertise to troubleshoot and help optimize both the surfacing and finishing departments if needed.”

Cross noted that OEMs recommend specific products because their quality is proven.

“Introducing non-OEM supplied process consumables can sound like a good, money saving idea until you realize how many lenses end up on the breakage shelf. If you truly want to save money on the process, it is always a good bet that using what the manufacturer recommends will work best over the long haul. And it’s a good bet the manufacturer is working constantly to continue to provide better and lower-cost consumables all with the goal of not sacrificing quality. Your process will be fully supported and easier to troubleshoot and maintain,” Cross said.

The quality of your consumables can have repercussions throughout your operations and affect overall profitability.  It’s best to take a “bird’s eye” view of total operations.

“Labs should look at the overall cost of equipment support, process support, and preventative maintenance in addition to consumable costs. All of these areas are needed to achieve quality surface production. The true way to save on consumables is to produce the job correctly the first time through the lab,” Schneider said.

Gillen said the lab should be looking not just at the cost of the consumables but the lowest cost per lens.

“For instance, our polishing tools for digital processing have been proven to last longer, provide a better lens geometry and produce clearer lenses so the tool polishes more lenses and there are less lens redos leading to reduced costs,” Gillen noted.

Machine operator training and experience will also affect your consumable consumption, a lab manager said: “One thing we do is to really work hard keeping the breakage and reruns down because we use more consumables if we don't.”

4.  Stay in control

Although input from machine operators and department heads is important, lab managers need to personally oversee the consumables program.

“Lab managers, along with machine operators, play a very important role in monitoring and overseeing consumable usage and ordering,” Selley noted.

A multi-location lab operation puts branch managers in charge of consumables, and even their orders are kicked up another level to their supervisor.

“Consumable use and ordering are critical to overall profitability. Any organization would be remiss to place this responsibility any lower than the lab manager or branch manager. Even if you have the department head on top of it, you have to turn your focused attention to it every month,” that supervisor said.

Brown confirmed that senior management oversight is an industry best practice.

“The manager in each department should be able to explain why each product is specified. The general manager usually reviews the monthly purchases to make sure the expenses are within the budget versus the volume of work through the lab,” Brown said.

Cross reminded lab managers to keep the lines of communication open.

“Communication among the stake holders here is important and if your lab team and the person who controls the checkbook are in sync, then you should be okay.  You can also invite your supplier to these type of meetings. The supplier can offer you historical data on your purchasing history and how you might be able to maximize both your spending and your usage,” Cross said.

The manager of a large independent lab said he regards consumable monitoring as a continuous improvement program: “Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to save. I like to listen to the salesperson, read optical publications, and do research on the internet about new products or processes to save on costs.”

5 Smart Ordering

Your ordering protocol can have a big impact on your success with consumables. The lab managers we interviewed all conduct ordering on a monthly basis, and do not allow as-needed ordering.

“If you allow as-needed ordering, you will have purchasing deviations that will add up to some unpleasant surprises,” noted one lab manager.

Another lab manager said his operation has refined ordering down to knowing the day the consumable shipment will arrive: “When ordering is consistent, delivery is consistent. There is little room for error.”

Brown confirmed that monthly ordering is generally the accepted practice but a few customers do negotiate for an annual or biannual purchase.

Cross noted that consumable suppliers can help you hone your ordering strategy: “The supplier may offer consignment programs that allow you to have large quantities on your shelf but pay on a usage basis. These programs are typically for larger customers but if you have the space to hold larger quantities, ask you supplier what options might be available.”

Increasingly, labs are embracing technology for more convenient ordering. Gillen said PSI began offering online ordering a little more than a year ago, and reports that usage has doubled in just the past month. New technology built into your machines may also transform your ordering protocol.

“Systems like Satisloh’s online ordering tool and their MES system will streamline the ordering process, allowing the operator or even the machine to order consumables from the production floor,” Schneider said.

“Access to real time data from your machines will change how you order and the frequency.  For instance, the Schneider Modulo installations allow the lab team to view their consumables usage in real time,” Cross said. “Soon, with the click of a button the labs will be able to order exactly what they have used. This will allow the lab to keep costs down while ensuring they have the necessary supplies to run the lab.”


Labtalk June 2020