VM’s 25th annual Top Labs Report wouldn’t be complete without the perspective of wholesale lab executives who have experienced the changes that have reshaped the “labscape” over the past quarter century. So we asked some lab veterans what changes they think have been most significant, and why. Here’s what they told us.

Brian Lynch
Winchester Optical

“The consolidation of individual practices into much larger groups is very significant. We used to help eight to ten new optometrists set up their practices as soon as they had graduated. Today, almost no new graduates set up a private practice. They generally have a very large debt to pay off and need to work for someone until they build up enough resources to buy their own practice. Most end up in commercial settings or large group practices. This means the labs are dealing with business managers instead of the ECPs when trying to get business.

The tremendous sophistication in lab equipment is also significant. Twenty-five years ago a complete lab could be set up for less money than it now costs for some of the individual generators or edgers. It is more difficult for individual owners to finance all this equipment, and this has helped contribute to a consolidation of the lab business into a very few major companies.”

Greg Ruden
Expert Optics

“I believe the most significant changes have come within the past five to seven years. In particular, the level of involvement that lens manufacturers have with optometric buying group networks has increased to unprecedented levels. As a result, the cost of doing business with these groups has gone up for independents, and that limits our access to them. Also, these groups are now relying more on the lens manufacturers’ labs and products.

Another issue is that closed insurance networks have led to the reduction in value of many laboratories. In several cases, it has forced independent lab owners to sell their business. For the eyecare professional, this had led to a reduction in choice when it comes to where and by whom their patients’ eyewear prescriptions are processed.

There has also been a resurgence of consumers wanting to buy local. Some eyecare professionals have rolled out marketing campaigns or joined forces with other merchants who have embraced this concept. However, this has not trickled down to the independent wholesale labs, since many ECPs are not buying local themselves. In some cases, their prescription laboratory is actually having their orders produced outside the U.S.”

Joe Cherry
Cherry Optical
Manufacturers Purchasing Wholesale Labs
“This topic has changed its perspective to me personally since I was involved in one of the first lab acquisitions. The concept made total sense, as I believed this would create the leadership for our profession to unite and build a public relations campaign that would increase awareness to the professional value to consumers. That didn’t happen.

Then there was the fear of the manufacturers taking over the industry, but that hasn’t happened, either. Just look at all the startup independent laboratories. Now I wonder what our profession would look like without the manufacturers’ investment that has improved lens optics with digital designs and improved AR?”

Trained Lab Personnel Becoming Scarce
Even though we have great technologies for processing lenses, basic optics skills seem to be slipping away. As a great football coach from Brooklyn would say to his Green Bay Packers at the beginning of each training camp, ‘Gentleman, this is a football.’ Optics professionals remained a valued necessity in solving vision challenges for the patient in relationship to their eyewear.

Advances in Laboratory Equipment and Lens Management Systems
The progress made in this area by so many companies around the world allow us to create lenses we could hardly dream of. Today’s laboratory opticians are machinists with unique CNC skills and not afraid of computer technologies.

Many thought this was going to be a huge effect, but the body still changes, and we welcome back those patients who now need reading powers.

The Growth of Retail Optical
Everyone expected this would replace personal, professional care of the independent clinics, but it has improved consumer awareness to eyewear.

New and Better Lens Materials

The introduction of polycarbonate, Trivex, 1.60, 1.67, 1.70, 1.74 and improved Transitions lenses have transformed the industry, although Rx sunwear has lagged behind. For those that believed we were going to use one blank that makes everything, they have not been to Global Optics recently, which stocks over 185,000 SKUs and is increasing each year.

The www Factor

Communications around the world of optics, and the ability to communicate a common language of optics has also been transformative. I never thought so many people would want to follow a laboratory on Facebook. Could you imagine thinking of something like Facebook for your laboratory or your clinic 25 years ago?

Future Outlook
Our profession is still a great one for the young folks that want a trade that isn’t boring, ever changing, with challenges.”

Ralph Cotran
US Optical

“AR quality has improved dramatically. The quality and durability of the high end AR coatings like Zeiss PureCoat Plus and Crizal Avance have allowed ECPs to sell these enhancements with confidence. This has helped sales overall at both the ECP and wholesale lab level.

Optical Equipment has improved substantially, allowing for better cosmetics, ease of manufacturing thanks to the advanced edgers, such as the MEI Bisphera, and has allowed for faster turnaround and less rejections. Freeform technology has revolutionized the optical industry, creating improved vision in our lenses. An incredible amount of materials are now available with endless freeform designs.”

Stuart Kosh
VSP Optics Group

“Just as new technology has forced huge change on many industries, the optical lab business is no different. From new lens materials, to the transition from conventional surfacing to the more precise digital surfacing, we have gone through an amazing amount of change over the last 25 years.

Despite that change, what has remained constant dates back all the way to 1926 when my family founded their first optical manufacturing lab: It’s all about having a passion for the customer. Whether you’re an independent or part of a larger lab network, you can be successful if you keep the voice of the customer top of mind. In the end, the lab is an extension of the doctor’s office, and we play a critical role in helping make sure their patients can see it all from the moment their new eyewear arrives.”