Starting from Scratch

   Creating a safe, efficient finishing or bench lab in a practice does not have to be a difficult task. An in-office bench lab can be very cost effective and will pay for itself over time with some careful planning. A lab run by a capable optician can do financially well and provide quick turnaround time for your patients eyewear.
   When starting a lab from scratch, some factors that need to be considered are:
-  financial resources available
-  space available
-  available electrical service and plumbing
-  quantity of work done per day, week and month
-  types of finishing work that you want or need to do on-premises
-  skill of your lab personnel
   The budget for such a project could range from $10,000 to $50,000 depending on the type of equipment you want in your lab. When purchasing equipment, keep in mind the number and type of prescriptions your lab must produce in order to make it profitable.
   The space needed could range from a large back room to a small store room, provided these are well ventilated areas with sufficient electrical power. Whatever size room you use, its a good idea to have it first checked by an electrician. A bench lab typically has one or more machines running at a time. If the lab is going to be in a doctors office, the lab equipment might be competing for power with the doctors instruments. Youll need a big enough power supply to handle the larger equipment such as a patternless edger or tinter as well as enough outlets to plug in smaller equipment such as a rimless groover, frame warmer, drill, vacuum or lensometer. Surge protection is always a must in any lab today in order to accommodate computer and fax machines.
   The layout of a basic bench lab is normally a simple square or rectangle depending on room size. The work flow in the bench lab should be smooth so the lab technician wont have to jump from one station to another across the room.
The work enters the bench room beginning from a point where lenses are identified and sorted according to material. Most small labs have done away with processing glass as demand for it has waned. Separate poly from hard resin and higher-index orders because they cut differently at the edger. Put them in different color job trays for easy identification or mark them with different color highlighters.
A given for any bench lab is a supply of single-vision stock lenses. Most lens companies offer a modest range of lenses: plano to plus or minus four diopter spheres with sphero-cylinder lenses ranging from a quarter cylinder to a minus two cylinder is usually a good start in hard resin, polycarbonate and perhaps a photochromic or mid-index option, which is usually more expensive to stock. Stocking high-index of 1.60, 1.66 or 1.67 with or without AR coating is not necessary as these lenses can be ordered by vendors and are usually sent the next business day.
   Next the work moves to the lensometer, which is the one instrument a lab depends on from start to finish. Choose a good lensometer with prism functions; also a lens analyzer would be a plus for more accurate reading of higher-power lenses.
   The most expensive purchase is usually the edger. The choice of edger depends on how many jobs per day you expect your lab to do. Numerous options are available ranging from basic mechanical or automated units to the latest digital, multi-function patternless edgers. Keep in mind older systems that utilize a pattern maker and unit blocker are becoming less available and you might find it difficult to find replacement parts. Also finding an optician who is skilled at using this equipment may be a challenge.
   A used edger can be an affordable option. However, some of the new machines that combine a tracer and blocker are a good value, too, and are capable of producing 20 to 40 jobs a day. New or used, its important to see a demonstration of how the machine runs. Its usually worth purchasing a service agreement. Remember, if your machine will not function properly your lab will come to a standstill until its repaired. The edger is the heart of the lab, so it should be maintained and cleaned daily for proper operation.
   A hand stone or finishing wheel is necessary for finishing up the edges of the lenses as well as other needs such as fixing a bad bevel or rolling an edge on some thicker lenses. Some hand stones are offered with a groove at the edge to make it easy to fix a rough bevel. There are bigger units that have two wheels: one for heavy stock removal and another for fine work. Smaller units usually have one wheel that is half rough and half fine. This unit is more ideal for a smaller bench lab as it takes less counter space and is more cost effective. An assortment of other small machines will also be needed such as a rimless groover, frame warmer, salt pan and a drill with stand.

Locating the edger (left) next to the blocker (center) and tracer (right) creates an efficient workflow.

   Adjacent to the edger and the handstone, it is important to have a water supply. The sink should be deep enough to fill or empty the bucket for the edger re-circulating pump. It might be a good idea to install an eyewash station here as well. Most plumbing supply sources should have standard units available. Space above the sink can be used to store dyes and solvents, while the space below might be used for common cleaning supplies. Be sure to post Material Safety Data Sheets (M.S.D.S.) in the area of the lab where they are in use. Its important to check local safety and environmental regulations prior to designing this area.
The hand edging process occasionally requires the use of the sink for rinsing purposes and the hand stone itself might require a plumbing feed. Hand edging is essential for all edged lenses, even those coming out of a patternless edger.
From the hand stone work moves to the polisher. Like hand stones, some polishers can handle two wheels, sometimes on a single spindle. A hard felt wheel and soft cloth wheel can both go on one spindle of a polisher unit.
   Tinting units are an essential part of any in-office lab. The more dye pots the lab can accommodate the better. Although tints come in a variety of colors, a good basic selection might consist of two types of browns, grays, green, red, blue, yellow and pink, plus a neutralizer, UV400 solution and perhaps a red-out. Some labs have two pots for popular colors such as brown and gray. Dyes should be changed weekly to avoid the red hue from standing out, which often happens as dyes degrade.
   The next step after tinting is mounting. Your selection of hand tools should include an assortment of screwdrivers and nut drivers as well as a lens clock and rulers.
   Good maintenance is essential for all tools. Make sure especially to put proper pads on pliers and have extra blades on hand for screwdrivers.
   After the lens has been mounted it is ready to flow back to the lensometer for final inspection before the job leaves the bench lab.
   Along with furnishing your lab with the right equipment and creating a good work flow, it is just as important to provide your employees with a comfortable and safe workspace. This should include floor mats that reduce stress on back muscles, ergonomic chairs for the lensometry area, adequate lighting and a specific lab safety policy. Lab personnel should all be wearing A.N.S.I. approved safety eyewear, should seriously consider ear protection and consider wearing a dust or particle mask.
   When designing your lab, its essential employees eventually working in the lab have significant input into the design. That additional input will assist you in designing the best lab space for your individual needs. LT

Walter Parmley is an optician at the Southern California College of Optometry.