OLP: Tell us a little bit about IFB Solutions.
KELLY: IFB Solutions is a nonprofit corporation based in Winston-Salem, NC, that provides employment, training and services for people who are blind or visually impaired. In 2000, IFB Solutions began producing eyeglasses for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a customer partnership that remains today with IFB supplying eyeglasses to nearly 40 VA locations. As the largest employer of people who are blind or visually impaired in the U.S., IFB Solutions operates the optical lab and a large-scale manufacturing facility in our Winston-Salem location along with manufacturing facilities in Asheville, NC, and Little Rock, AR. Through our operations and community support, we also fund community programs for adults and children who are blind or visually impaired such as our Community Low Vision Centers, SEE Summer Camps for school-age children and Focus on Literacy, which puts assistive technology in the homes of children who are visually impaired to build their reading skills.
OLP: How do people react when you tell them that your workforce is primarily individuals who are blind?
KELLY: When I speak with people in the optical industry, they are often very surprised to learn that we run an optical lab staffed primarily by individuals who are blind. For us, it’s what we know, and we’ve been extremely successful with delivering quality products on time to our customers for more than 16 years. Sometimes, I need to be reminded that our organization and our mission are unique in this marketplace. I do think, however, that our mission represents an important point of differentiation because of how jobs at IFB change lives.
For customers who want more than a transaction, working with IFB Solutions is an opportunity to change lives. Every new order or contract we secure with a customer generates additional jobs for people who are blind or visually impaired. This matters when you consider that the unemployment rate for working-age adults who are blind is a daunting 70%. When I shake someone’s hand and tell them their order is making a huge difference in the lives of people like me who are blind, I say that with 100% certainty.
OLP: What are the capabilities of the IFB Solutions optical lab?
KELLY: The IFB optical lab is one of the largest independent labs in the country. We were designated an Essilor IDD lab two years ago, and our customer base includes the federal government and major retailers. We also have a local dispensary here in Winston-Salem and work with a number of eyecare providers.
Our optical contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs that began 16 years ago have helped shape our organization to what we are today. Our turnaround time is excellent, we have exceptionally high quality standards, and I would stack our IFB customer service team against any in the industry. Our employees have an incredible work ethic, and we have deep experience in the industry. We’ve continued to invest in equipment so that our lab remains modern and efficient. I’m biased, but I think we’re one of the best at what we do.
OLP: IFB Solutions is the first U.S. lab to install Luxexcel’s 3D printing technology. How did this come about?
KELLY: We’ve been following news coverage and industry developments within the 3D printing arena for more than two years. It’s the wave of the future in manufacturing, and I don’t see a different outcome in the optical industry. As a company, we need to focus on the future because 3D printing is where the industry is going to go. We found Luxexcel while looking at new 3D printing technology and ordered a series of test lenses. The team then traveled to our facility to give us a more in-depth demonstration of the Luxexcel technology.
OLP: When was Luxexcel’s equipment installed?
KELLY: We’ve been working closely with the team from Luxexcel on the installation of the 3D printer. The equipment was delivered earlier this fall, and we are now in the process of validating and testing the 3D lens printer. In this early phase, our focus has been producing test lenses for in-house purposes. We’re looking forward to using the 3D lens printer for commercial use in early 2018.
The 3D printer at IFB Solutions is the only 3D lens printer in the U.S., and outside of the printer used in Belgium by Luxexcel itself, our printer is the only one in the world on the cusp of commercial use. [After this interview, Luxexcel’s 3D lens printing technology was launched at IFB on Nov. 13, see page 6.]
OLP: How was the staff trained?
KELLY: The IFB optical lab has an in-depth training process that is used whenever we install new equipment. We are using this same training process with the 3D lens printer. We first assess both the employees who will be operating the machine and the equipment to determine if any machine modifications are needed to make the equipment user friendly for our employees who are blind. After the assessment and any updated modifications to the equipment or process are put in place, the employees work alongside a sighted trainer until they are comfortable to operate the equipment. One of the benefits of the Luxexcel technology and equipment is the ease of use, so we are very confident that our employees will be trained and operating the equipment in very short order.
OLP: What kinds of lenses will be produced with Luxexcel equipment?
KELLY: We will be focused on producing lenses for those individuals with more complex vision challenges. Some examples are instances where there is a significant difference in prescription for each eye, which will require a lens with “slab off prism,” and situations where the patient has a large amount of “prescribed prism,” such as 10 diopters and above in one or both eyes.
OLP: How many jobs does IFB process a day?
KELLY: IFB Solutions operates a comprehensive, full-service, wholesale optical lab. We process lenses from all manufacturers in all lens styles and designs. We produce about 1,000 to 1,200 pairs per day and have free-form equipment. Luxexcel’s equipment will yield about 50 additional pairs of lenses a day. Although the volume of the 3D printed lenses is low, we are focusing our development efforts with this new technology on specialty lenses.
OLP: How will 3D printing benefit both IFB and its customers?
KELLY: The ability to print specialty lenses with this technology will reduce the delivery time from weeks to hours. For the customer, this means IFB Solutions will be able to produce very complicated prescription lenses in a much shorter time with better prescription accuracy. For the end user, the 3D printing process can also reduce the thickness of the lenses which will reduce weight and make them cosmetically more appealing.
OLP: How does IFB plan to promote this new capability to customers?
KELLY: Once the new technology is integrated into our operations, we will be sharing the news with our customers, but we have not made any specific marketing plans. I think we will have much more to share at the beginning of 2018.