Article Date: 3/1/2008

OPERATE A SUCCESSFUL Full-Service In-Office Lab
optical lab

OPERATE A SUCCESSFUL Full-Service In-Office Lab

Many full-service in-office optical labs don't thrive for four main reasons.

WHIT LORD, O.D.,
Statesboro, Ga.

A full-service in-office lab can cost upwards of $170,000. A conservative estimate for a more modest surfacing and finishing operation would be about $130,000. Lens inventory, depending on whether you simply want plastic ophthalmic lenses or a stock that includes polycarbonate, photochromic and/or high-index lenses, can range from $30,000 (modest) to $50,000 (top-of-the-line). Added to this cost-of-goods: lab salaries, which greatly vary from region to region.

I've had both surfacing and finishing equipment in my six offices for many years, as I've found that the benefits — an increase in practice revenue and patient loyalty — have been well worth the aforementioned investment. For instance, because a surfacing lab (layout and blocker [holds the lens in place for the correct angle], generator [grinds the curves on the lens to create prescription] and two-step polishing process [finer and polisher]) has the ability to fabricate a wide array of prescriptions in bifocal, single-vision or progressive lenses, I don't have to stock as many finished lenses in my practice. This enables me to save money on inventory.

I realize, however, that some optometrists who've invested in an in-office lab have been less enamored with it, as they haven't realized a return on their investment. Although every optometrist and his practice are different, through discussions with my colleagues, I've discovered four main reasons many full-service in-office labs don't thrive.

Here, I discuss these reasons, so you have an excellent chance of operating a successful full-service in-office lab. Something to keep in mind: If you don't currently have a full-service in-office lab, these reasons may help you decide whether investing in one is right for you.

THE LATEST IN LAB EQUIPMENT
AIT Industries' Maxima Speed Evolution Patternless Edger offers 4-D grooving, an external/internal safety bevel and a specialized roughing cycle specifically designed for slick-coated lenses, such as superhydrophobic lenses, the company says. Visit www.aitindustries.com for more information.
Briot USA's Alta XS finishing system features a touch-screen ► interface, a high-resolution optical system that quickly refreshes (25 frames per second), a zoom function — facilitating lens centering — and a new shape library, which organizes data through criteria such as "Sort," Search," and "Favorites." You can customize this library through an alphanumeric keypad. Finally, the device has a blue light that becomes brighter when in contact with tinted or polarized lenses to facilitate the centering and blocking process. Visit www.briotusa.com.
Gerber Coburn's Kappa CTD finishing system is comprised of Gerber Coburn's Kappa CTD Edger and Drill and the Kappa CT Tracer and Blocker. The device can complete a frame trace, which includes a distance-between-lenses (DBL) measurement and frame groove profile, in less than 20 seconds, the company says. Other features: tilted drilling, shape modification and automatic centering. Visit www.gerbercoburn.com.
National Optronics' 7E Patternless Edger features three-axis ► edging, so you can process trivex, high-index, CR-39 and polycarbonate lenses. In addition, the device can drill chatter-free, clean holes in the aforementioned lens materials without requiring you to change the drill bit, the company says. Other features: a 15-inch color, flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) that you can adjust for optimum viewing. Visit www.nationaloptronics.com.
Optical Dynamics' nanoCLEAR AR is an in-office anti-reflective (AR) coating machine that works exclusively with the company's Q-2100R Digital Lens System. The Q-2100R creates the patient's lens from a liquid plastic using an in-mold process. Prior to creating the lens, you lay the nanoCLEAR AR stack on the molds, ultimately creating a lens that is compromised of an AR coat in about an hour, the company says. Visit www.opticaldynamics.com.
Santinelli International's LEX-1000 edger features 3-D tracing ► technology and a finishing wheel as well as a patented process specifically designed for high base curve lenses, such as wrap-around style frames. In addition, the device can process small "B" dimension lenses and includes an advanced soft grind (ASG) mode, so you can accurately process super-hydrophobic coated lenses on axis, the company says. Visit www.santinelli.com.
Super Systems Optical Technologies' Fast Grind 2200 System surfacing device features a three-pad process that generates fine and polish prescription multifocal and single-vision lenses (ranging from +6.00D to –9.00D in up to a 3.00D cylinder) using tap water alone, in less than 12 minutes, the company says. The device does not employ chemicals, resins or slurries. Visit www.superoptical.com.
Topcon Medical Systems' Ultima 5100 Series is comprised of ► three different finishing systems: an entry-level model, the SG (safety beveling and grooving) model and the XP (express) model. All three models feature all-lens material edging (with individual settings/cycles for Trivex and super-thin high-index lenses), polishing and a 10.4-inch color LCD screen. Both the SG and XP model offer safety bevel polish. The XP offers roll and polish for high-power myopic lenses. Visit www.topconmedical.com.
Visionix's VL3000 Lensmeter/Mapper uses wavefront technology to objectively measure any frame and lens type, via the push of a button. Features include realtime power mapping of various types of lenses, such as single vision, the automatic measurement of addition and far vision of any progressive lens, a schematic representation of frame fitting and papillary distance measurement. Other features: right and left fitting heights, automatic progressive addition measurement and a diagram representation of the progressive addition channel. Visit www.visionix.com.

1. Lack of interest

I knew I wanted to operate a full-service in-office lab in my own practice shortly after I graduated from optometry school. My first job was with an optometric practice that was optically ahead of its time, in that it contained a full-service lab (most optometrists at this time only employed edgers). I'd always been interested in technology, so the lab immediately fascinated me. In fact, any time I wasn't conducting an exam, I was aggravating the lab's optician with constant probing questions regarding how the lab equipment functioned.

After I sang the praises of the full-service in-office lab to my O.D. buddies, several of them made lab-equipment purchases only to sell these devices at a financial loss a couple years later. The reason: They weren't as passionate with the whole process as I was, preferring, instead, to stay within the confines of their optometric education.

The lesson: If you're not interested or willing to learn how fullservice in-office lab equipment works and the decisions regarding its operation, you'll also most likely take a financial hit. This is because the success of any endeavor is based on one's level of interest and education in the endeavor.

2. Purchasing overly used equipment

When in-office lab equipment breaks or ceases to work, repair can be complex and expensive, regardless of whether you have new or pre-owned equipment. (See "The Latest in Lab Equipment") Keeping that in mind, some optometrists' full-service in-office labs lose money because the optometrist chooses to purchase pre-owned equipment that appears almost new, due to its year of distribution, though is actually overly used. This occurs when the optometrist fails to examine the equipment's job counters. The result: Within weeks or months of the purchase, the device breaks or ceases to work. In some cases, the device is beyond repair, requiring the optometrist to replace it.

Pre-owned devices can save you money without compromising quality, but always have a "buyer beware" mentality when exploring this route.

The bottom line: Pre-owned devices can save you money without compromising quality, but always have a "buyer beware" mentality when exploring this route. Based on personal experience, I would be very careful when considering purchasing equipment that has a job counter that exceeds 30,000. (Through my own experience, I've found that pre-owned equipment with less than 30,000 jobs still have a lot of life in them.)

3. Discomfort in negotiating purchase prices

Purchasing ophthalmic lenses from ophthalmic lens manufacturers so your full-service in-office lab can create the eye wear, rather than purchasing the completed eye wear from wholesale labs, takes some getting use to, as it changes your buying style. This is because purchasing options continue to increase, requiring the full-service in-office lab optometrist to research the options and educate himself on the quality and price of the various lens blanks available.

Some optometrists who've invested in a full-service in-office lab soon realize they aren't comfortable with or don't have the time required to negotiate purchasing prices for ophthalmic lenses.

The result: They end up sabotaging their investment by spending more money than they may need on lenses, and/or they unknowingly purchase low-quality ophthalmic lenses, whose inadequacies soon reveal themselves to patients, prompting them to purchase their spectacles elsewhere.

4. No one-hour service

Some optometrists who choose to operate a full-service in-office lab assume that because they've built it, patients will come. The truth is unless you have some sort of competitive advantage, patients won't necessarily purchase their eye wear from you. Keep in mind that retail optical billboards, print ads and television and radio commercials are constantly bombarding patients with deals on eye wear.

I've found that the best way to compete with retail opticals (and some other eye-care practitioners who have full-service in-office labs) is to offer one-hour service. Patients, as consumers, value quick, quality service. In other words, they love the convenience of being able to leave with their eye wear on the same day as their exam, particularly those patients who travel great distances to receive your eye-care services. Upon receiving their high-quality eye wear fast, many of my patients have referred their spectacle-wearing friends and family to my practice, which has increased my practice revenue. The bottom line is that one-hour service enables you to fabricate lenses as cost effectively as large wholesale labs.

Patients love the convenience of leaving with their eye wear on the same day as their exam. So, offer one-hour service.

In addition, consider this: One-hour service enables your staff to focus on patient care, as your employees no longer have to take the time to order eye wear from an outside lab, mail the frame to the lab, call the patient to schedule a spectacle pickup, etc. Each of these steps presents opportunities for miscues. For instance, patients aren't happy when their spectacles are lost or a staff member hasn't notified them in a timely manner about the arrival of their spectacles from the outside lab.

One caveat, however: If a high percentage of your patients wear specialty lenses, such as anti-reflective coated lenses, you're not going to be able to provide them with these lenses in an hour or less.

The reason: Many specialized lenses often require equipment that only outside labs have.

Running an in-office lab can be challenging, but the rewards can be plenty if you:
• have a genuine affinity for it.
• carefully research preowned equipment.
• are comfortable negotiating purchase prices.
• offer a competitive edge, such as one-hour service. OM

Dr. Lord opened a private practice in 1978 in Statesboro, Ga. and expanded to six locations along the Georgia coast. All locations have full service optical labs. He has served on the Georgia Board of Optometry since 1992. E-mail him at lordadmn@frontiernet.net.


Optometric Management, Issue: March 2008