When approached to write this article, I was asked to discuss common problems or mistakes that occur with in-office labs and how to avoid them. Well, part of that answer depends on the type and scope of practice you are in. For the purpose of this article, I will assume we are talking about a one- or two-office practice selling less than 50 pairs of glasses per day. In a practice this size, typically only finishing is done in-house.

Typical, however, is not always best. I have a friend with an outstanding practice in Georgia who would argue that any practice with a lab should also make the investment in surfacing equipment. Why? Because most of the problems in lens fabrication occur in the finishing process. By adding surfacing capabilities, you can control turnaround time and reduce your costs. Whats more: Todays automated surfacing equipment and computer calculation software make surfacing far easier for the novice to learn than finishing.

But lets return to the typical lab scenario and discuss some of the challenges, a well as strategies for dealing with them.


Staffing Challenges

If your volume is significantly below the 50 pairs per-day level, you may find it difficult to justify a dedicated person for your finishing lab. In most cases, one or more of your opticians will share this responsibilityoften in between seeing new patients and dispensing glasses to existing patients.

Of the entire lenses fabrication process, problems will most likely occur in the finishing segment, even with todays more technologically capable edgers and blockers. The process is even more prone to mistakes if the operator is distracted. And, if you break a progressive lens in the edger, not only do you eat the cost of the lens, but now you have to re-order it from an outside surfacing lab, which typically adds one to three days (minimum) to the job delivery date for the patient.  

For these reasons, it is best to have someone who is mechanically inclined and comfortable running machinery in charge of the lab. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find someone with the necessary sales personality and skills of an optician as well as the aptitude to run precision machinery. It is difficult enough to find an employee that can fill one function well, let alone two.  

This is not as big an issue if you only intend to edge single vision lenses. However, if you intend to have your lab technician edge progressive, photochromic and polarized lenses from outside surfacing labs, you are putting some very expensive lenses into the hands of your part-time lab/optician employee. If that is the case, be certain this person has enough experience and knows the cost of these lenses. The average person may not know the difference in cost between a single vision stock lens and a high index progressive photochromic lens. If you eat up too many of the latter, youre likely to be eating a lot more tuna fish in your office instead of going out to lunch.

I speak from experience. We have a large central lab and small finishing labs in several of our offices. The finishing labs were designed solely to cut single vision lenses for patients who need quick turnaround. About two years ago, our central lab was experiencing delays, so the staff in the office-based finishing labs began ordering progressive, photochromic and polarized lenses to be cut in their offices. I soon noticed that our cost of goods was risingand so were complaints about quality. We immediately stopped the office finishing labs from cutting anything but single vision stock lenses and, not so surprisingly, our quality complaints and cost of goods declined.

Ideally, you should have a dedicated lab technician who can focus on lab tasks and provide high-quality work without damaging lenses very often. At lower volume levels, this individual might be bored and cost-prohibitive if they are only doing finishing. However, if you add in surfacing of the majority of lenses, that specialist will be busy, with greater job satisfaction. 

The challenge then becomes finding a suitably experienced lab technician. Depending on your geographic location, there may be few experienced people to draw from; or if you are near a large wholesale lab, they may be absorbing all the available talent. If you don"t know lens fabrication yourself, you may have to pay more to lure someone away from a wholesale lab, or you may have to relocate an experienced technician. Either way, true lab people may require a different management approach than the rest of your employees.


Equipment Challenges

Whether you are surfacing or only finishing, all the major manufacturers produce precise, dependable equipment for all levels of volume and use. Of course, each has certain features or components that will appeal to different operators, or perform better in various environments. And, like car owners, most lab technicians tend to favor a particular manufacturer.

Surfacing and Edging Tips

   Plastic lenses are generally very easy to edge with todays equipment, and can be run with a high RPM for rapid job turnaround.

   Poly lenses will take quite a bit longer than plastic to surface if you are using a dry bench generator. With the new wet generators, average surfacing time for these lenses should be only about 60 to 90 seconds. It also takes a little longer to edge poly lenses because the edger usually will be operating at lower RPMs. This is especially true with a thick lens; at higher speeds, you risk gouging the lens.

   Higher-powered high index lenses also require slower RPMs in the edger to avoid chipping or cracking the lenses.

   In recent years, hydrophobic-coated lenses have created significant problems for in-house labs as the coatings get more and more slick, causing lenses to slip in the edger. Some manufacturers have begun to apply a top coating to help the edging pad adhere to the lens. 3M Corp. also developed a pad specifically for use with hydrophobic coatings. In our lab, these pads are placed on both sides of the lens. Resist the temptation to increase the chuck pressure on the lens to hold it in place because this will cause problems when edging other lenses if the pressure is not reduced. Instead, we reduce the edger RPMs. Slower RPMs, in conjunction with the newer 3M pads on both sides, have substantially reduced our breakage rates with hydrophobic lenses.

   Finally, with polarized, photochromic or other expensive specialty lenses, we suggest adjusting the edger settings to cut the lens a little large. This gives you options in the event of an error. If you accidentally cut the lens too small, you throw away $50 to $80.

Depending on how it is used by operators, whether or not the volume is appropriate for its design and the environmental conditions in which it is used (heat, dust, etc.), optical lab machinery will be subject to wear and will break down occasionally. More importantly, these machines will need calibrating. 

Yes, all major manufacturers offer warranties and extended warranties (these can get expensive), as well as service technicians who will make field calls. Out-of-warranty field technician visits can get very expensive, and it may take weeks for the technician to get to your location. Usually the manufacturer service center will try to diagnose and/or fix the problem over the phone by walking your lab technician through several steps.

However, this assumes you have a mechanically inclined lab technician. 

The point is that equipment challenges are really about staffing as well. Someone will need to service this equipment, recalibrate it, and periodically change parts. If you don"t have a lab technician who can perform these tasks comfortably, it is critical to identify a local maintenance person who can familiarize himself with your equipment and service it regularly.


There are certainly many other nuances to surfacing and finishing labs. The information contained here will hopefully improve your processes if you already have an in-house lab, or help you better understand the challenges you may encounter if you are contemplating adding a lab.

 Art Geary is President & COO of Halpern Eye Associates and 1st State Optical Lab, both located in Delaware. Halpern Eye is a large multi-site group optometric practice. 1st State Optical Lab was formerly Halperns in-house lab for surfacing and finishing. In 2005 the lab was spun off into a separate entity as the first wholesale lab in the history of Delaware.

Vol. No: 144:03Issue: 3/15/2007