Article Date: 6/1/2001

Lens and Lab
Lens and Lab Update
The new world of lens products and lab relationships.
By Sara Shapiro, Contributing Editor

Times are changing. After a decade of dramatic technological advances and several news-making lab acquisitions, optometrists are dealing with a new world of lens products and lab relationships. The lens and lab scene keeps evolving, but as we go to press, here are some of the major trends you should know about.

Lab ownership

One of the most surprising developments has been the sale of labs to several lens manufacturers. Although lab ownership is a nontraditional direction for lens manufacturers in the United States, that's not the case in Europe and Asia, where lens companies have a history in the laboratory industry.

"The biggest change," acknowledges John Carrier, senior vice president of marketing for Essilor of America, "is the integration of manufacturers into the lab business here in the United States." It's a direction, he notes, which Essilor has taken, as have Hoya, Optima and SOLA.

Essilor and Hoya both aggressively scooped up wholesale laboratories within the last few years. Essilor's acquired labs are now part of the Essilor Laboratories of America (ELOA) network. Hoya's newly purchased labs make up the Hoya Optical Laboratories Group (HOLA).

Company labs

Lens manufacturers achieved lab ownership not only through lab purchases, but also through development of company labs. Essilor's Avisia lab in Texas is an automated, robotic wholesale laboratory for Essilor products. Hoya's Connecticut facility, Hoya Lens of America (HLOA), uses sophisticated equipment geared specifically to producing and processing Hoya products.

Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc.'s Spectacle Lens Group has a facility in Virginia dedicated to developing, manufacturing and distributing technologically advanced spectacle lenses. And SOLA Optical USA just introduced SOLA Technologies, a Kentucky-based facility that will offer proprietary products unavailable through the traditional SOLA laboratory chan-
nels. Claude Labeeuw, president of SOLA Technologies, calls SOLA's unit an "incubator of new technology."

Entrée into the lab market was an important step, according to the lens companies. "One reason we purchased labs was to enable us to bring new technology into the lab," Carrier explains. Bob Colucci, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Essilor Laboratories of America adds, "By having lens and lab groups, we can introduce technologies to market because we've put a lot of dedicated effort behind them. That dedication to a product is much more difficult for manufacturers who can't control at the wholesale level."

William H. Norwood, executive vice president of Hoya Vision Care, North American Headquarters, explains another advantage. "Consolidation through vertical integration provides centralized quality control and the ability to control lenses and coatings as parts of an integrated system. The result is a superior finished product."

Product trends

Dramatic lens advances fall into these categories:

The role of wholesale labs

"We want our independent lab partners to stay strong, and we support them with new technology and advanced products," states Essilor's Carrier. "It's amazing how well independent labs have adapted to the market," he reflects. "Twenty years ago, everybody predicted that labs would disappear -- first because of contact lenses, then because of chains. Now, with Essilor and Hoya in the picture, people say we're the newest threat to labs, but independent labs adjust quickly to market situations. They're close to their customers, have numerous technology choices, and a range of lens suppliers to work with."

Both Essilor and Hoya still work with a network of independent labs. For Essilor, the combined total of ELOA labs and authorized Varilux/Crizal distribution outlets now approaches 300. They all sell both Essilor and non-Essilor products. Hoya's combination of HOLA labs and its coalition of independent labs has topped more than 100. This group sells other brand products in addition to Hoya's selections.

Ties with lens suppliers

As they pursue their own high-tech routes, independent labs find it's important to establish ties with lens suppliers. According to Renato Cappuccitti, professional services manager for Rodenstock North America, Rodenstock aligns itself with independent labs to build a mutually beneficial relationship.

Zeiss offers help to its independent lab "partners" too. "We may put in an AR coating facility to use with our products or help them market Zeiss products," explains Culbreth.

And although SOLA plans to sell its proprietary SOLA Technologies' products directly to practitioners, most SOLA products are still distributed through wholesale labs.

"The independent laboratory channel is very important for SOLA and will continue to be," states Labeeuw.

Remote tracing systems

Both independent and corporate laboratories are jumping on another technology bandwagon -- remote tracing systems.

"We've worked with this technology for over 10 years worldwide," says Hoya's Norwood, "so we have plenty of experience with it." The Hoya Electronic Lens Processing (HELP) system, which is now up and running in the Connecticut HLOA facility, will appear in Hoya's HOLA labs as well. Hoya is offering to link practitioners to the system.

"Optometrists are used to sending the frame to the lab, but that presents problems. We have to take the frame, put it in the tray and run it through the entire job, making sure it doesn't get broken or chipped or dropped or stolen or lost along the way. With an electronic system, the doctor's office just drops the frame in the slot and the pattern is automatically scanned or traced, then the data is digitized and sent to our lab. It's an accurate, time-saving process."

Essilor's Trace and Transmit system is another advanced remote tracing system. "Remote tracing isn't new to our industry, but it's also not a 'plug and play' system like my son's PlayStation 2, for example," explains Essilor's Colucci. "It takes a lot of support to work well, which is why we've invested heavily in the support mechanism behind our system."

Practitioners who use the Trace and Transmit system are currently linked to Essilor's ELOA labs. In the future, they'll be connected to authorized Varilux/Crizal outlets as well.

"Although Rodenstock doesn't offer such a service," notes Cappuccitti, "the majority of our lens products are promoted and sold through laboratories that offer remote tracing and have done so successfully for quite some time." Cappuccitti observes that the systems "increase service levels, reduce shipping costs and time, and provide accurate frame information."

Joseph L. Bruneni, optical consultant and member of the faculty of Southern California College of Optometry, cautions you to proceed slowly, however. "During a panel discussion at a lab seminar at Vision Expo West, the consensus was that we're far from remote tracing being routine in the average practitioner's office," he says.

Bruneni also believes that doctors should avoid systems that lock them into one lab.

"There isn't an optometrist in the country who hasn't learned the hard way that he or she had better have two reliable labs to call on," he states.

Looking ahead

Will you install a lens casting system in your office? Will lens brands play an increasingly large role in determining which labs you use? Will more labs consolidate or be purchased by lens companies? It's hard to know.

And it's hard to guess what lens innovations will come next.

"Everyone's looking for alternative ways to make lenses," Bruneni notes. "It could be that in 5 to 10 years, lenses will be made in a much different way than they are today." The dilemma, he adds, is deciding which way to go. "Labs have to ask, 'which will be the Beta Max and which will be the VHS of the future?'"

What seems certain is that complex, proprietary lens innovations will continue to drive the industry, giving you ever-growing choices and consumers ever-better products.


Optometric Management, Issue: June 2001