OLP interviews Robert Shanbaum, President, Ocuco Inc.
What specifically does Ocuco offer optical labs?
We want our lab software division to be a one-stop shop from lab management systems (LMS) to free-form lens designs to web ordering solutions.
Our full-featured Innovations LMS is very well established globally across the entire range from small labs in retail stores doing a few jobs per day to very large labs, both wholesale and retail, doing many thousands of jobs per day.
In 2014, Ocuco acquired CC Systems, which has offered its Labzilla LMS primarily to wholesale labs for many years and which used Innovations for “the hard stuff” (calculations, machine interfaces, etc.) Labzilla handled functionality not provided in Innovations, primarily, the production of invoices and management of Accounts Receivable. But Labzilla was developed in COBOL, a very old language that doesn’t play well with modern graphical computer interfaces like Windows. Innovations, on the other hand, was and continues to be developed using the most modern development tools available. So, we decided to concentrate on expanding Innovations’ feature set to include everything offered by Labzilla and more. The result is the product we call Innovations ULS (the Ultimate Lab System), our flagship lab management software product.
CC Systems was also an innovator, offering the first independent free-form lens design system in North America, from IOT, so we have a lot of know-how in helping labs transition from traditional to free-form processing. That’s not limited to software know-how, either; most of our support technicians had lab experience before joining us, and they now have significant experience in training customers to use their free-form machines.
We are going to make sure that our product continues to be modular and scalable so that it can be used to manage a very small lab as well as the largest labs on the planet.
Ocuco is also making a significant investment in e-commerce solutions. LabLink sends over one million orders annually. Its interface is highly configurable, and it links directly to both Innovations and Labzilla, allowing prescription data and remote trace files to flow directly into the lab. There is also an online job tracking facility, which can significantly reduce the numbers of phone calls. The latest version, offering an updated user experience, is currently in testing.
OLP: Other than software, what else does Ocuco provide labs?
SHANBAUM: We have a large and experienced team of lab experts. This led us to create the “Freeform Lab in a Box” concept, a turnkey free-form lab. It’s usually a small lab, because larger users tend to have more substantial capabilities to handle such a project on their own. But we could do big ones!
We frequently act as a centralized point of contact for all labs’ and suppliers’ issues and support, providing independent equipment advice, lens testing, technical support and staff training.
We’re here to advise, assist, train, install and integrate everything into a working solution. Lab in a Box is an independent, fully integrated free-form solution. We combine every element required to implement and support a small-scale free-form surfacing lab with the ability to scale as needed but without being chained to a particular design vendor.
OLP: What are the most recent updates to Ocuco’s LMS?
SHANBAUM: There are so many! We started work on the ULS back in 2012, and we’re still building on it. Our aim was to create a truly comprehensive LMS for labs of all sizes, capable of significantly reducing inefficiencies while enhancing management control and visibility.
The Innovations Workflow Monitor tracks the productivity of operators and equipment, giving managers an advanced real-time productivity-tracking dashboard showing the efficiency of each step in the process.
The Production Scheduler builds upon this, scheduling all orders through the lab, in effect, taking order tracking into the future by deciding where each order will be and at what time as it transits through the lab. This enables us to make a reasonably accurate estimate of delivery time that responds dynamically to changes in the lab. A conveyor systems interface allows Innovations to automatically route orders to their scheduled locations.
OLP: What updates are you currently working on?
SHANBAUM: We have some interesting things coming up that will improve the way orders get into production with a minimum of wasted effort. Also, LabLink is getting a facelift and will provide additional functionality to the ECP, such as a 3D view of the Rx that can be used for thickness comparisons across materials.
OLP: Ocuco has made some acquisitions recently. Can you describe the strategy behind them?
SHANBAUM: I need to give a little bit of background: Ocuco provides software solutions to retail chains, ECPs and optical labs. Our flagship products are the Acuitas Practice Management System and Innovations Lab Management System.
The companies we have acquired recently include CC Systems (North America 2014), Retail Planit (Scandanavia 2015) and B&F Groep (Netherlands 2017).
The acquisition of CC Systems was instrumental in strengthening our position in the North American lab software market and improving our global reach. Our Lab Division staff increased to 45, with over 600 years of combined optical lab experience. This expertise helped us accelerate development of the next generation system, Innovations ULS.
Retail Planit and B&F Groep are both leading suppliers of software solutions to retail chains and ECPs in their respective regions. Both gave us an expertise in each region and strengthened our business in the European market, where our flagship Practice Management System is number one among retail chains.
All of these acquisitions bring Ocuco closer to realizing its vision of creating an independent software company of sufficient scale to service the optical industry globally.
It is also worth noting that Ocuco has recently received a $25 million senior debt facility from Wells Fargo’s Technology Finance Unit. This will provide financing for Ocuco’s further acquisitions and funding for R&D investment in next-generation technologies.
OLP: Please describe your relationships with other companies in the field.
SHANBAUM: It was just a stroke of luck that I started connecting my software up to other software, back when I started with RxCalc in the 1980s, and our experience with that kind of connectivity figured significantly in our success. One of the other systems to which I connected early on was CC Systems, so Stephen Cohen (owner of CC Systems) and I had been collaborating for over 25 years when Ocuco finally purchased his business in 2014. That put an end to the confusion that surrounded our prior relationship. People used to ask me about that often, becauseRxCalc, and later, Innovations, provided a significant part of the functionality in CC’s software, namely, calculations and machine connectivity. Stephen was instrumental in effectuating Ocuco’s purchase of Innovations from Gerber Coburn in 2007.
Bringing IOT free-form designs to North America was also Stephen’s brainchild. We are their largest distributor, and we even support some IOT installations that use other lab management systems.
OLP: What is your personal background in the optical field and how have things changed since you’ve been in the business?
SHANBAUM: It wasn’t planned, but I have been working in the optical industry since I was 15, when I had a summer job picking lenses in my father’s wholesale laboratory in Dallas. The family business allowed me to become familiar with a broad array of industry sectors including retail, frame and lens manufacturing, and wholesale laboratory operations. In the 1970s I founded my own chain of optical boutiques in Dallas (Peepers), which I later sold to my partner Larry Berk (who, I’m happy to say, went on to take that business to an even higher level).
In the 1980s I started another business setting up optical labs for ECPs before expanding into lab software. I developed the RxCalc LMS, which I sold to Gerber Optical in 1993. At Gerber, I led the design and development of the Innovations LMS in the late 1990s. During this period, I also worked extensively on the development of the now-ubiquitous OMA Data Communication Standard for communication between lab software and lab machines. In 2007, the Innovations software business was acquired by Ocuco, and I became president of Ocuco Inc.
When I started in the lab business in the 1960s, the technology hadn’t changed much since the 1930s. I have to say that the entry of Joe Gerber’s company into the industry in the mid-1980s has triggered decades of disruptive change.
OLP: Where do you see the optical industry headed?
SHANBAUM: We are all dealing with the ramifications of what appears to be accelerating consolidation in our industry. In the near term, that may mean fewer, larger labs (which is maybe not a great thing for us), where there’s likely to be a demand for a greater degree of software-facilitated automation of manufacturing processes (which probably is a great thing for us). The Germans have taken to calling this “Industry 4.0,” but I’m not convinced that it deserves a major revision number. In any case, I think we’ll see the production of eyewear continue to catch up technologically to the rest of manufacturing, as it has done over the last couple of decades, after many decades of lagging behind.
The longer term is harder to predict. I like to reflect on the fact that when I first got into the business a frightening 50 years ago, the industry was dominated by Bausch & Lomb, American Optical, Benson’s, House of Vision… I have to wonder if there’s some kid out there who is just getting into the business and who, 50 years from now, will be recounting a list of forgotten names, which may to us look like they’re on the verge of owning the whole thing forever. As far as the software of the distant future is concerned, I really expect that to be written by computers, or something like them.