From concert producer to sales rep to lab owner (and a native of the Czech Republic), Michael Walach of Quest Vision Care Specialty Lab in Largo, FL, has seen it all. In this interview, Walach tells OLP his reasons for opening a lab to produce specialty lenses and why he’s investing in 3D lens-printing technology.
Q: What is your industry background?
A: In 1971, after a concert that I produced in Toronto with jazz and classical pianist Keith Jarret, Keith and I went to dinner where I met Steve Cohen, president and founder of CC Systems. At that time, Steve was the sales manager at Monarch Optical, a lab and frame distributor in Toronto. Since I was producing only about eight to 10 concerts a year, Steve thought I had a lot of spare time during the day and suggested I work for him as a sales rep. After negotiations and the opportunity to lease a convertible sports car – at age 23 – it was hard to refuse! Steve and I consequently purchased an optical shop but sold it shortly after because we believed the emergence of plastic lenses was going to cause the industry to take a different direction. Soon after, I took over lab production at Plastic Plus in Toronto, and was faced with enormous technological challenges that plastic labs were dealing with at that time. It wasn’t easy, but we eventually succeeded, and most importantly, I learned a lot. I then moved on to become general manager of Coburn Canada, created the optical superstore The Rim & Eyeglass Company, and wrote computer lens layout software “SUPERFLOW,” now with more than 850 lab users in the U.S. and abroad. I designed and manufactured a line of lab process microprocessor-controlled instruments, received lens utility patents in the U.S. and abroad, and went public with the Walach Lens. In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe opened for business and I started a 600-jobs-per-day lab and frames distributorship in Poland called Spectrum. After eight years in Europe I was back in Florida and resumed production of microprocessor-controlled lab process instruments and other innovative products for the optical industry. I continued to consult for numerous U.S. and foreign labs and optical manufacturers, including Zeiss, DAC International and PixelOptics. In February 2004, tired of all the new air travel regulations, I decided to do something that didn’t require travel: I opened Quest Vision Care Specialty Lab in Largo, FL.
Q: Why did you decide to open a lab that produces specialty lenses?
A: After years of work with labs supporting my lab program, solving production problems, improving the lab production process and designing lenses, I felt I was professionally well-rounded and qualified to do the lab shtick once again, only much better. Coincidentally, at that time major changes started taking place in the lab industry: the free-form lens processing revolution was here, which caused a major change in how prescription lenses were processed. Most significantly, the new free-form technology was perfectly suited for automation. What that meant to me was that with automation, labs would be able to produce lenses with significantly better cost efficiency and rigidly defined production ranges. Also, with automation, the manual skills of lab technicians will no longer be necessary and with time it will become a scarce commodity or virtually extinct.
So I thought: ‘What will happen to that fraction of 1% of the out-of-range prescriptions that will be out of production range for the new automated free-form labs?’ Considering the daily lab production numbers, it appeared to me that a small specialty lab business would allow me to utilize my knowledge, skills and experience and live in perfect symbiosis with big and small labs around the world — like the Remora fish. I thought of seriously visually impaired people whose quality of life could benefit from custom crafted specialty lenses who would otherwise be left without help to struggle with their daily existence. And today, I am happy about it and professionally fulfilled.
Q: What specific services does Quest provide wholesale labs?
A: We are unique in that we offer 18 lens forms and any custom lens form that Rx or vocational needs might call for, plus more than a dozen of vocational lenses and any custom vocational lens based on the requirements, such as adds of +20 D or more, channel prisms, laser filters, Rx lenses for telescopes, custom bifocals, trifocals, quartofocals or quintofocals, negative addition lenses, meridional anisekonia corrective lenses, and many other that I don’t even know how to spell. The bottom line is, and we are proud of it, in over 14 years in the specialty lens business we have never refused a prescription order.
Q: How many jobs per day does Quest produce?
A: At this time we are doing an average of 80 to 100 prescription jobs per day.The challenge is that more than 50% of them have to be surfaced more than two times and generally we have to get pretty creative.
Q: Quest uses equipment from which companies? What Lab Management System do you use?
A: For organic lens production, we have four DAC International RXD generators (plus one on standby) and NSLP polishers, our own specialty lens LDS software, our own specialty lens circular curve layout software, two OPTEK generators for conventional surfacing and 20 fining and polishing heads. We use a combination of Coburn and OWC spherical and toric lapcutters with digital conversions, a LaserOp LensMark laser, the MEI EZ Fit with Shape Finder, Santinelli Me 1200 edgers with Ice 900 and LT 980 tracers, modified National Optronics edger and tracer, Ultra Optics coater, plus a large number of custom jigs, custom pads, custom gauges and, most important, a Coburn Hand Pan that is in use 12 hours a day.
For mineral lens production, we use Satisloh’s Toromatic – CNC and Coburn cylinder machines.
Whenever we can, we use Innovations software (from Ocuco), which I find to be the most reliable and versatile.
Q: Tell us about your partnership with Luxexcel. Why did you seek out this technology?
A: Luxexcel decided to partner with us because of the large varieties of extreme lenses that we daily produce to test, broaden and establish the production range and capabilities of their new 3D printing technology. To me, it was a no-brainer to embrace this revolutionary new technology when given the chance. I cannot even imagine what will come out of it; having the new electronics and data technologies and the freedom it gives lens designers to create and produce lenses that are beyond any lens production capabilities existing today.
Q: How have staff been trained and
how long did it take to train them?
A: Luxexcel is an amazing organization with a penchant for detail. The 3D printer weighs more than 5 tons so it had to be shipped by air in several parts. Everything was planned to the last detail and four Luxexcel experts were here prior to delivery to make sure the Quest space was perfectly suited and prepared for the installation, which went smoothly without a hitch. After the installation and shakedown, we designated three lab technicians to be trained in startup, operation, troubleshooting and emergency procedures. Upon completion of the course, they were tested and if passed, certified. No one without certification is allowed in the room, which has finger-ID access only and a 24/7 camera system that goes to my computer, my iPhone and to Luxexcel’s headquarters in Belgium, its Atlanta office and to designated Luxexcel personnel.
Q: When was it installed?
A: It was installed in the middle of February this year.
Q: Tell us about your new Pilot Quatro lens. Why make one for pilots?
A: Once a pilot becomes presbyopic and uses an addition of + 2D or stronger, they begin to experience difficulties with intermediate range vision, particularly with the upper and lower instrument panels. This happens because not only do they fall into the intermediate vision range but also because of dim cockpit lighting, which exacerbates the need for this correction. PAL, bifocals or even double D seg lenses do not accurately address the upper instrument panel, intermediate vision needs. Additionally, pilots fly above the clouds and experience uncomfortable glare from the sun through the front windshield. G15 sunglasses may relieve glare but at the same time, they can impair vision inside the dim cockpit and interfere with instrument panels intermediate vision and the near vision. We deal with the windshield glare by implementing a G15 Chemestrie clip. To address above-the-head panel intermediate vision, windshield distance vision, lower panel intermediate vision and near vision correction requirements, the Quatro focal lens is designed with custom power intermediate vision corrections based on the type of plane the pilot flies.
Q: How has the industry changed since you’ve been in the business?
A: Some things changed; some remain the same. Technologically, the industry has changed beyond my comprehension! On the other hand, a lab is a lab. Lab customer service still gets complaints from ECPs because a job was rejected three times and didn’t make it on time as promised. And yes, I still have the Coburn Hand Pan and couldn’t live without it!