Inductees into The Vision Council’s Hall of Fame were asked how things have changed in the optical business since they started in the field and where they see it heading in the future, next year and beyond. Here is what some of them had to say:
Fifty years ago, the optical industry was comprised of hundreds of small labs located throughout the U.S. Many of these labs had multiple branches to service their customers because we relied solely on U.S. mail. Overnight shipping did not exist at that time. Consumers knew their glasses would take a week or more to be made. Each lab had skilled staff members who learned the industry, starting as an apprentice and eventually becoming a journeyman. That was 20 years ago.
Today, with our technology and product distribution, we have changed the way people perceive this industry. We tell them eyeglasses are made in an hour and that eyeglasses are two-for-$99.00 (with a free exam). Today, the lab manager sits behind a computer, relying upon technology to ensure the glasses are made correctly. The apprentice program is nonexistent. The optical lab staffs of today are primarily machine tenders not skilled optical craftsmen. Today, their mission is to keep production moving.
The consolidation in this industry is a gathering storm. Many large retail chains are moving in and displacing the local opticians and optometrists. We are on a path similar to that of the local pharmacy, with most people seeing them as interchangeable. The personal service will be gone and the entrepreneurial spirit will be lost.
As the industry continues its consolidation, independent laboratories will continue to disappear. ECPs will find more restrictions on how they can sell certain products. Maybe they’ll be told that if they distribute a specific brand of frame, that the entire job must be done by the frame manufacturer, or else. The available choices will continue to disappear. The future is up to us as an industry. If we want to stay relevant, we need to rekindle our independent spark and not let it be doused by the coming storm.
—William “Bill” Hefner, III, President, CEO, Founder, FEA Industries
There have been many, many changes since I started in the lab business 40-some years ago, but one thing has remained consistently true: Each year we are able to make a better pair of eyewear than the year before. An optical laboratory resembled more of a machine shop 40 years ago, and today it’s full of CNC, robotic and technologically superior equipment that can manufacture highly advanced lens designs with extreme precision.
The industry continues to evolve, with consolidation and technology playing key roles. All levels of the market are seeing consolidation, including the retail sector, as the players are aligning themselves with partners that they feel will best help them in the future.
Starting a new optical lab today is much more difficult than when Interstate Optical started back in 1977. The cost of machinery required to produce today’s lens designs and coatings combined with access to the insurance market and strong brands makes operating a small volume lab no longer practical.
Looking into the future, I’m sure we’ll see eyewear doing things we can’t even imagine today. The manufacturing process and delivery of eyewear will see huge changes as supply chain efficiencies change the model. Brands will continue to become more meaningful and important as consumers look for guidance with future technology-enabled eyewear.
—John Art, President, Interstate Optical
When I started working at Walman in 1974, there were three lens materials: crown glass, high-index glass and CR-39. Lens styles were few: single vision, straight top bifocals and trifocals, round segs, Ultex and cataract lenses. Life was so much simpler, but there were no computers, so we used a glorified adding machine for lens calculations, and we had to hand-price each invoice. Our first systems in 1977 were developed in Fortran IV and were used for rudimentary lens calculations and to automate pricing the Rx’s. At that time, I was the computer department. Then we progressed to COBOL and BASIC, adding stock invoicing and light reporting.
Finally, in 1987, we realized we’d hit our Peter Principle with our math and machine interface skills and started leasing lab software from DVI. We developed our own data warehouse to compile all of the branch sales information, create corporate reports and push data to Finance for customer statements. Over those 10 years we morphed into a staff of 14. Life was more complicated, but we could provide so much more to help the business make good decisions.
In optical yesteryears, to design a lens took time. A mold had to be created, and this was expensive, so the process to create a lens was slower. Today, with digital lenses, a simple tweak of the software and voila, you have a new lens. Marketing creates programs and promises; technology delivers. Today, we have 20-plus materials and hundreds of lens styles. I believe the company with the most effective advertising to the consumer, or the third party vendor with the most power to persuade, will win the digital lens market. Life is more complicated and technology promises ever more lens offerings. Unless there’s a new disrupter, such as robotic eyes or gene therapy to produce perfect vision, I see this trend continuing into next year and beyond!
—Lorinda Fraboni, IS Development and Operations Manager for Walman
It’s very humbling and exciting to be recognized by your peers, customers and industry veterans to be inducted into the Optical Hall of Fame, and especially to be inducted with such a great group of people. It’s quite an honor, and I extend a sincere thank you to all. Since 1983, this industry has been exciting from my perspective; it has always been under change, which I suspect will continue in dramatic fashion for the next five years. My hopes are the changes are good for the customer, measured by quality, service and cost. If so, the changes are good!
—James Goerges, Owner, Precision Tool Technologies, Inc.
I’m honored to be a nominee to the Hall of Fame of the Vision Council’s Lab Division. When I started as an optician/tech/teacher (almost 50 years ago), I fit, edged, drilled and dispensed only glass lenses into a pretty limited number of frame styles and materials. Lenses were corrected curve only, visible multifocals came in 10 or more varieties (ever hear of ribbon segs, RedeRite, Ultex?) and I actually cut out glass lenses with a glass cutter before beveling them by hand or on ceramic wheels. As part of SOLA Optical, I participated in creating options to help ECPs provide a variety of thinner, lighter, highly impact resistant, photochromic and polarized AR lens designs digitally prepared (surfaced and edged) to deliver the best vision everywhere on the lens. That’s nothing like when I started.
Next year, 2018 will showcase new frame material combinations that allow new designs and styles. While digital will continue to make complex lenses easier and frames more exciting, it will drive a closer relationship, directly with the consumer. Digital will also make the optician more skilled in fitting lenses. I see this accelerating because of computing power, better vision science and a direct relationship with the end consumer. Manufacturers will deliver more sophisticated lenses into the frames that hold them. However, I also see a need for the doctor and optician to get much more lens and frame savvy to ensure these many opportunities don’t go unexplained or misunderstood. Change is guaranteed, and I’m proud to have been an optician that participated in so many changes.
—Mark Mattison-Shupnick, Director, Education, 20/20
Lawrence has been in the business for over 60 years, first at Lantz optical for a couple of years and then the rest of the time at Eye-Kraft. When he came into the business, everything was done by hand with generators, finers and polishers. All of the optical calculations were done with pencil and paper, too. There were no progressive lenses, and everything was glass. They made their own surface tools by hand back then as well.
He vividly remembers using a paintbrush to paint the emery onto the tools because nothing was self-feeding or automated. Cylinder machines and automatic edgers were technological breakthroughs at the time. The differences in products available from then to now in materials, designs and treatments are just amazing. He remembers having to cut a millimeter at a time on the glass generator to get the thickness down to keep the glass from breaking, and now he can watch the digital generator cut two lenses in a little over a minute.
The main thing Lawrence sees in the future of this industry is continuing change. And that change seems to get faster and more complicated every year.
—Jason Sharpe, Vice President of Operations, Eye-Kraft Optical, on behalf of Lawrence Lahr, President of Operations, Eye-Kraft Optical
Lab Division Hall of Fame Inductees This year’s Hall of Fame Inductees are: • John Art, Interstate Optical • Lorinda Fraboni, Walman Optical • James Goerges, Precision Tool Technologies, Inc. • William H. Heffner, III, FEA Industries, Inc. • Lawrence Lahr, Eye-Kraft Optical, Inc. • Mark Mattison-Shupnick, Sola, Jobson, MMS Consulting • Drake McLean, Dietz-McLean Optical • Joe Vitale, Essilor of America, Inc. The Lab Division has also named Marty Bassett, president & CEO of Walman Optical Co., as the 2017 recipient of the Directors’ Choice Award due to both his professional efforts and for giving back to the industry. He was inducted into the Lab Division Hall of Fame in 2012, and he will be recognized alongside this year’s Lab Division Hall of Fame honorees.