Article Date: 3/1/2006

optical lab
A Lab of One's Own
Today's lens finishing equipment is smarter and works harder — and it impresses patients. So why not do it yourself?
RENé LUTHE, Senior Associate Editor

Because optical bills can absorb a significant percentage of a practice's budget, in-office labs were originally a strategy for saving money. Recent advancements, however, provide other attractive features as well. While O.D.s still realize what a lab can do for their bottom line, there's also a wide-spread appreciation for how operating your own lab can improve your customer service.

"It's not just about lowering the bills anymore," says Brett Davis, president and chief executive officer of Briot-Weco. "Doctors see results and growth because they're offering the same quality or better than competition. And patients notice this. They're getting feedback from patients who appreciate an in-house lab."

Here's what you need to know to open a lab of your own.

Savings and speed

The savings of an in-office optical lab remain a powerful draw for optometrists. Dr. Tony Bacigalupo, of Dyersburg, Tenn., claims that his lab costs decreased by 10% per year since he bought his first edger back in 1983. "Given the costs of my four-office practice, 10% is a significant savings," he says.

Speedy service is another benefit you can offer patients. Dr. Bacigalupo's lab can edge a pair of lenses, start to finish, in approximately 10 minutes, with another 10 to 15 minutes for drill and mount frames. "We run two edgers simultaneously and of course you can block or verify the lenses while the edger cycle is running," he says.

Most in-office labs can provide same-day service for most spectacles. And while one-hour service is possible, there are some reasons to be careful about offering it. Arthur Purvin, O.D., of Valley Stream, N.Y., says that he will do one-hour service for emergencies, but not on a routine basis. "Quality suffers," he explains.

Get started

The minimum equipment you'll need to get started include a patternless edger, hand stone, tint unit (with UV-protective coating), polisher and groover, manual lensmeter and a stock of the single-vision lenses of your choice. Cedric Mitsui, O.D., of Hilo, Hawaii, adds that the edger should feature a good monitor screen to show the process.

However, there is also "beyond basic" — sophisticated new equipment that can greatly increase the efficiency and profitability of your lab. New features include automated functions and user-friendly touch screens, as well as the ability to handle all lens materials.

Reduce errors

New combination equipment reduce the amount of equipment previously necessary as well as the involvement of humans — and therefore, the chance of error.

Go automatic. Because much of the newer equipment offers automation, less staff is required. Dr. Bacigalupo has three employees for his lab that services four offices and produces 850 to 1,000 pairs of eyeglasses each month. Only one is a licensed optician. Dr. Mitsui uses only one employee to produce approximately 120 per month, or six pairs a day.

An increasing number of edging systems work automatically. Automatic safety beveling is a popular feature, which provides consistent lens retention and quality. Automatic centering and blocking features analyze the lens power, locate the blocking target, then orient the block on the lens and complete the job. Some edging systems also feature automatic lensmeter-blockers that combine lens neutralizing and blocking.

Automatic polishing eliminates the time a technician has to spend at the polishing wheel, as well as the risk of slipping and damaging the lens. And contemporary polishing systems work on all types of lens materials. Auto-polishing features are particularly helpful for rimless styles, supplying the required polished lens edge.

Automated drilling for rimless processing is also offered in many of the latest edging systems. Manufacturers report that this is a popular option among O.D.s. Some rimless capabilities include the ability to create six to 10 holes for each lens, identify and place slots and holes — even the ability to create stylized holes.

Touch screens guide the user. Even when human involvement is necessary, color touch screens on many new finishing systems make operation simple and nearly mistake-proof. Help screens and error messages mean even a novice technician can successfully make a pair of glasses, and training time is minimal.

No material left behind. An increasing number of modern edgers can also process all lens materials — this means poly, high-index, even Trivex. There's no need to purchase special equipment for a type of lens you're not yet producing in larger quantities.

Neil B. Gailmard, O.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.O., of Munster, Ind., recommends buying semi-finished blank lenses for the biggest savings. "They require surfacing equipment to grind the curves and process the lens," he says. "But even uncut lens blanks, which are edged to fit the frame, are much less expensive than a finished and inserted lens in a frame."

The benefits add up

The result of all these technological advances means you can deliver many premium lenses to your patients that would be comparable in quality to those from a wholesale lab, according to lab equipment manufacturers. Photochromic lenses and even anti-reflective coatings are within your reach. "These lenses are as clear as a bell, and the surfaces are perfect," says Dr. Bacigalupo of the spectacles his lab produces. He says that his lab equipment allows him to process 80% of his lenses in house.

"Patients are still delighted when their new eyewear is ready fast," says Dr. Gailmard. "Anything that gets patients talking about your practice is a plus, and when my optician tells a patient that the glasses she just ordered will be ready this afternoon, she's delighted. The patient's bill is also paid that afternoon."

So, an in-office lab can improve your image as well. Patients judge you by the quality of the glasses you dispense — even when "you" means a large, wholesale lab. Having your own equipment and trusted staffers mean you're not at the mercy of someone else's turnaround time or errors.

Not for everyone

As good as today's lab equipment is, however, there are some jobs you may not want to tackle yourself. Some O.D.s won't do rimless drill mount jobs in-house due to the special skill and equipment they require.

"The doctor may not want to finish very difficult prescriptions because a mistake is too costly — or very high prescriptions might be too difficult or impossible to do a good job" with the equipment he has, says Dr. Gailmard.

Dr. Purvin doesn't do AR coatings in his lab because his equipment won't provide a sufficiently high-quality coating.

Of course, some vision insurance plans, such as VSP, require that an approved lab fabricate lenses for their patients, so check your patients' coverage.

What will it cost you?

Equipment costs are significant, but even so, the O.D.s who have opened labs claim that the benefits soon bring a return on your investment. "Only eight to 10 pairs of glasses a day should more than justify the investment," says Dr. Bacigalupo.

Jim Davis, O.D., of Batesville, Ark., bought a surfacing system in December and reported a significant savings on his lab bill from January — approximately 30%. The drop in business at the optical lab was so pronounced that the representative took him to lunch and asked, "What are we doing wrong?"

More commonly, O.D.s lease their equipment, and manufacturers have shown themselves to be flexible in meeting a variety of budgets. Leasing plans range from $400 to $1,000 per month, depending on the system and components. Company representatives will provide cost analysis for your current lab expenses versus what they would be with their equipment.

To find out if operating your own lab would be financially worthwhile for your practice, Dr. Gailmard recommends you review all lab invoices for a given month and write the cost of uncut lenses next to the lab price, then total them up. "Gather uncut price lists from a few sources, including the usual lab, direct from large lens manufacturers and buying groups," Dr. Gailmard says. "Add the payroll cost of one full-time lab tech, but remember that this employee may be able to help outside of the lab at times. Price the basic lab equipment and assume it will be leased." Total all the monthly costs both ways, then compare your expenses.

In-house labs deliver

The ability to better meet patients' needs means that any number of O.D.s could benefit from an investment in an in-office lab.

"It's so nice to be able to give the great service," says Dr. Davis. "We're a rural community — two hours from Little Rock and Memphis, so this is very convenient to my patients. Most don't have a back up pair of glasses, but now I can give them glasses in an hour, AR in two."

The Latest in Lab Equipment

AIT's Maxima Supreme offers a tracer/blocker, edger, drill.
Footprint: 16.14" x 17"; 24.1" x 17.3"; 21" x 16", respectively

Super Optical's Fastgrind offers lens surfacing for the small- to medium-size dispensary.
Footprint: 28" x 27"

Gerber Coburn's Kappa SPX Edger features a special cycle for fragile or AR-coated jobs.
Footprint: 21" x 16'

Optical Dynamics' nanoCLEAR AR System works in concert with the Q-2100R system.
Footpint: 21" x 22"

National Optronics' 7EA Patternless Edger features drilling capability.
Footprint: 41" x 43.2"

Topcon's Ultima 5000 Lens Finishing Systems features a Windows-format operating system.
Footprint: 19.7" x 20.9"


Briot-Weco's Axcell CL-D has software that identifies drill holes.
Footprint: 13" x 24"; 26" x 19"

Santinelli's ME-1000 Multi-Function Edger offers drilling, grooving, safety polish beveling.
Footprint: 24.5" x 23.5"


Optometric Management, Issue: March 2006