Paul Ponder, senior director of Rx manufacturing at Maui Jim, spoke to OLP about the ins and outs of building a lab. He should know: He’s had a large hand in overseeing the builds of two labs for Maui Jim, one in Peoria, IL, and the other in Braunschweig, Germany, which opened last June.

Q: You’ve had a long career in the optical lab industry. Where and how did it begin?

A: I started my career in the optical industry as a teenager in high school working part time in a lab. Once I was out of high school, I worked full-time in the lab while attending college, learning many of the production operations from finish, surfacing and thin film coatings.

Q: What was your first lab job?

A: My first lab job was in the finish department at Comar Optical, which later became Cole National Corp. I worked for Cole National for 36 years in various positions around the U.S: In Cleveland as lab manager of the first CR39 lab, then moved on to be the director of training for several years before being assigned the responsibility for two labs in Davenport, IA. After that, I went to Salt Lake City to build the Western region lab for Cole National as well as managing the cut and edge centers in Southern California. From there it was on to Memphis, where I was managing the largest of the Cole National labs and its distribution center for six years. After that I left for Dallas to build the Pearle Vision lab that is still in operation today. After leaving Cole National, I was able to take some time off and spend time enjoying other hobbies like riding my motorcycle with my friends and flying my plane. After that, I ended up in Northern California with Kaiser Permanente as lab director.

Q: How did the opportunity to work for Maui Jim come about?

A: I was working for Kaiser Permanente in California when I was contacted about a position for lab manager at Maui Jim. Once I interviewed with Michael Dalton (president of Maui Jim), I was convinced that I wanted to be part of the Maui Jim Ohana. Michael had a vision of a lab that would be state of the art, automated and able to meet and exceed customer expectations.

The great thing about our industry is that everyone is willing to help out, whether it’s providing feedback on equipment or systems to even letting you visit
their facilities for a tour.

Q: What were you tasked to do?

A: My first task was to build a new 25,000-square-foot lab and organize and automate it to become a state-of-the-art facility. I also had to develop a responsive, dedicated lab staff up to the challenges of being the best.

Q: When you designed and built Maui Jim’s lab in Peoria, what were your priorities? In other words, what were your “must haves”?

A: To automate, streamline processes and ensure consistency in quality and service.

Q: The lab is very environmentally conscious, not easy to accomplish in an optical lab. Is establishing a “green” lab really as difficult to do as some may think?

A: It is for sure a task to set up a process where lens waste is remotely managed away from the production floor and a system that takes little interaction from production employees. Recycling lens waste is also a challenge just due to the logistics. This is a topic that has been addressed by so many in the industry and solutions have yet to realized.

Q: What are some “easy” initiatives a lab can take to make it more environmentally friendly?

A: If you are an alloy-use lab, ensuring that you manage the process well; waste is controlled, regulations are complied with. Also, it’s a good idea to network with recyclers in paper products, plastics, etc.

Q: Maui Jim’s lab in Braunschweig, Germany, opened last June and you were instrumental in designing that lab as well. What challenges did you encounter building that lab?

A: Germany is quite different than the U.S. in that building codes, regulations and other requirements take more planning and resources and of course, time to accomplish. Working with contractors was quite challenging. But in the end all worked out well as it turned out to be a beautiful facility.

Q: After almost a year, how is that lab running?

A: We have a great team who after almost nine months, are doing well. Training and support was provided by team members out of Peoria and the Braunschweig staff are cross training and learning new tasks every day.

Q: Is there any particular piece equipment you consider a must-have, and if so, what and why?

A: I am not going to put in a plug for any vendor, as they all played an important role in helping build the Braunschweig lab and for that matter, the Peoria facility also. One piece of equipment does not stand out more than the other. What makes the lab is the team, the most important asset of any business; their willingness to be part of something great.

Q: What is different about building a lab today than say, 20 years ago? What needs to be considered now that didn’t back then? Is it “easier” to do or more difficult?

A: The challenges are greater today as the expectations are greater. Service and quality are a must. So keeping that in mind, you have to build a lab that is automated, digital, able to produce the latest products available, systems that can track and trend every aspect of the operation, and is employee friendly and efficient.

Q: The optical lab industry is a tight-knit community. In what ways have you benefitted from reaching out to others?

A: Great question. I have been so fortunate over the years to meet so many individuals in our industry, and in so many cases have been able to reach out to them to discuss a variety of issues, from product questions, vendor issues, environmental concerns and a host of others. The great thing about our industry is that everyone is willing to help out, whether it’s providing feedback on equipment or systems to even letting you visit their facilities for a tour.


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