NEW YORK—Faced with stiff competition from supplier-owned labs as well as from each other, most independent wholesale labs have learned to adeptly navigate a complex, fast changing market. To get a reading on the current business outlook for independents, VM posed the following questions to three executives from this year’s group of Top Independent Labs:

What are the biggest challenges you face as an independent lab owner or manager?

Adam Cherry
Cherry Optical, Inc

“The biggest challenge we face at Cherry Optical, Inc is keeping up with educating our customers on all the new products available. Lens manufacturers continue to develop new materials, coatings and designs that improve quality and performance; we just need time to get our customers up to speed. The never-ending pipeline of new products is certainly beneficial, but it does create a bit of “new product” fatigue.

We challenge ourselves a lot, too. Sometimes that’s reflected in my desire to invest in technologies that are sometimes on the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology or, more commonly, challenging our production team to be as efficient as possible without sacrificing quality. Producing lenses is easy. Producing high quality lenses is the challenge.”

Bill Heffner
FEA Industries

“In today’s environment, the need for people has emerged as the greatest challenge for FEA. Despite the huge investment in the last few years in robotic equipment, skilled people are still needed to keep the work flowing. As the U.S. economy is finally growing after a decade, the available educated work force is now shrinking.

Recently, we opened a training center in our newest facility where we teach the basics of our industry. Our ‘Optics 101’ class discusses the basics of optics and what the different terms mean. More advanced levels include: freeform designs, surfacing process, and coatings and anti-reflective technology. We find that the more our staff knows about and understands the process, the better the process and the quality will be.”

Greg Novak
Chief Operating Officer
Rochester Optical

“We see three main challenges:

1. The growth of ‘virtual labs’ through outsourcing to low cost offshore facilities that are competing in the domestic ECP market.

2. Operating and growing an independent lab has become a capital intensive exercise. Sufficient capital expenditure is necessary to maintain a competitive edge.

3. Communicating to customers, our brand, our commitment to their success, our product and service portfolio amid all of the competing noise in the marketplace, and integrating that communication in everything that we do every day.”

In what parts of your business are you making significant investments, and why?

Adam Cherry

“Capital expense-wise, automation has been our biggest investment area. We’re looking to produce as much as possible, as quality as possible, without sacrificing quality. Our goal is never to eliminate current employees with automation. It is to limit the need to be constantly adding employees as we grow.

Redundancy is another area we are investing in, be it for increased throughput or to maintain uptime. Downtime must be avoided as much as possible. Our customers depend upon our service levels and we have made investments to ensure we can deliver.

Sales, marketing and education is another big investment area at Cherry Optical, Inc. I see all of them as one. We’ve added positions within sales and marketing to better serve our customers and expand our operations into new territories. By hiring professionals with experience in our industry, especially those that have been opticians, we feel we are better able to educate and work with our customers because we all speak the same language.

With marketing, we’ve invested a lot into our website, video, photography and communication to our customers. We don’t want to be known as just an independent lab. The technologies and capabilities we have are the very best available in the world. We need to be able to show current and potential customers that when they work with Cherry Optical, Inc they are working with an extremely capable and enabled optical laboratory.”

Bill Heffner

“Over the last two years, FEA has invested $3.7 million in various areas. In 2016, we completed construction on our third facility, which is dedicated for stock lenses and finishing. At this time, we also more than doubled our finishing production output by installing additional equipment from MEI.

By March of 2017, we had doubled the output of our surfacing laboratory. This investment brought us up to a total of seven robotic freeform production lines. This helped to streamline our processes, giving us robotic machinery in almost every aspect of surfacing—such as blocking, cutting, polishing, lasering, cleaning, coating, inspection and progressive ink marking.

The most impressive machine that we added this year is the Schneider LCU 300, a 25-foot-long automated lens cleaning system. This machine takes the lenses out of the tray, cleans them, removes the factory ink markings, then puts the lenses back into the tray at a rate of 300 lenses per hour. This system has eliminated lens scratches from manual cleaning, but also dramatically improved our spin coating yields since the lenses are perfectly clean. This machine has removed the need for pre-cleaning lenses, and also saves time and minimizes the need for manually cleaning lenses and removing ink.”

Greg Novak

“We’re investing in technology to improve quality, accelerate turnaround time and produce industry leading products, specifically premium AR and hard coatings. Because providing our customers with expansive product selection, at a range of price and quality options that meet our customer’s needs is one driving force at Rochester Optical.

We’re also investing in customer interface technology. From telephone, EDI and learning management systems to improve daily customer interactions, to call center technology, quality information management and service systems to corrective action processing which are all designed with one simple thought in mind: make every touch point with every customer more effective, efficient and, ultimately, enjoyable.

Finally, we’re investing in wearable technology, because wearable technology needs optical expertise. Soon our customers will need our help with the optical expertise required to truly make use of this explosive technology.”

What growth opportunities do you see for independent labs?

Adam Cherry

“It starts with being a great laboratory. But being independent is not enough.

When the news of Essilor acquiring Luxottica first broke, there was a wave of optimism among independents. We didn’t get caught up in that. I knew that the emotion of the news would quickly fade.

At the end of the day, growth opportunities are achieved through constant improvement and market positioning. Independent laboratories need to better. Much better. If they can do that, they’ll be dramatically successful.”

Bill Heffner

“The market is currently in upheaval. Consolidations will continue which will eliminate choice. Insurance providers are going direct to the consumer. Other manufactures are purchasing their customer base by offering large cash incentives if they sign a five-year purchase agreement.

Despite these factors, independents have the opportunity to build personal relationships with their customers. They can react more quickly to their customer’s needs. They offer more choice since they represent many lens manufacturers, not just one.

Many independents have developed and exploited niches that make them unique. For example, at FEA Industries, we are the only laboratory manufacturing glass freeform lenses in the U.S. I believe there is a bright future for the independent.”

Greg Novak

“In a stable market, growth opportunity comes from either taking market share or new product innovation. Our commitment to improving products and services are key initiatives toward that end. Our new tag line is, ‘Better Together—You And Rochester Optical.’ It reflects our sincere belief that if we help to make our clients successful, they will in turn make us successful.”