Today’s increasingly versatile in-office lab equipment can perform more steps in the finishing process automatically and with less operator skill than ever before. This is great news for the independent practitioner looking for ways to provide patients with high-quality eyewear within the space, staffing and budget constraints of a retail operation.
The typical lab set-up once needed separate machines for tracing, centering, blocking, edging, grooving, safety beveling and polishing, requiring a sizeable lab area and trained lab technicians with the time and expertise to perform each function separately. But sophisticated digital electronics and computer-based technologies changed all that, enabling manufacturers to integrate all these functions into “finishing systems” comprised of one, two or three linked machines that communicate seamlessly through built-in, easy-to-use software.
The first generation of integrated systems introduced a decade ago could handle basic steps like tracing the frame, blocking the lens, beveling and polishing automatically. Systems with a limited range of functions are now categorized as entry level units that are priced economically and suited to practices with at least one skilled operator on staff.
At the upper end of the technology spectrum, advanced multifunctional systems now perform virtually every step of the finishing process automatically with a high degree of precision and require minimal operator training to use. The latest automated technology has deskilled the process of making eyewear of all sizes, shapes and materials, from small B frames to premium lens materials to once challenging rimless jobs.
If your office finishing equipment is more than three years old and you haven’t looked at equipment recently, you’ll discover that a significant number of processing upgrades have been introduced. In addition to executing all the basic finishing steps automatically like tracing, blocking, beveling, autogrooving, safety beveling and polishing, the newest systems can also:
analyze lens powers without a lensmeter
||center single-vision, bifocal and progressive lenses automatically for blocking |
||edge premium lens materials, such as Trivex and anti-reflective lenses, easily and accurately|
||identify drill hole coordinates automatically|
||drill rimless lenses inside the edger|
||create customized rimless lens shapes|
Whether you are setting up a new lab or replacing older equipment, it’s worth spending time upfront to understand the features and differences in the technology available. This will enable you to select the equipment that best meets the needs of your practice based on your volume, staffing and, importantly, your business goals. In your planning, remember an in-office lab is a marketing tool that can help grow your practice by improving patient service, so plan for future growth as well.
Following is an overview of some of the latest technological innovations found on the latest advanced finishing systems.
TRACING: Equipment manufacturers have refined the frame tracing process to deliver highly accurate reproducibility and frame fit. With multifunctional systems, the tracer may be a separate unit, integrated with an edger or combined with a blocker. Top-of-the-line systems that combine tracing and blocking in one machine include AIT’s Combimax, Briot’s Axcell tracer-blocker, Gerber Coburn’s Kappa CT and Santinelli’s ICE-9000. Some combination units have camera-assisted imaging technology that can capture rimless shapes automatically using demo lenses or patterns, a feature that saves time and effort. Most offer memory software to store jobs and shapes for quick recall, helping to speed up processing time.
While all are easy to use, some units require the operator to orient the frames in the tracer before initializing the trace while others orient the frame automatically, a feature that can reduce errors due to operator inattentiveness. Once the frame is engaged, automatic clamping applies just the right amount of pressure while tracing to get an accurate read and a stylus maps the frame’s dimensions.
Each manufacturer has its own unique processing technology to optimize the reliability of the frame measurements. All record three dimensions (3D tracing) that include a frame’s length, height and curvature. Gerber Coburn also measures the angle of the frame bevel. Briot’s 5D tracing adds both the frame bevel angle and thickness, using a double stylus system to capture the additional data. Santinelli measures 32,000 reference points per eye around the eyewire. AIT and Gerber Coburn provide options for tracing one eye only or both eyes simultaneously.
What to Look For:
Rimless Shape Modification Software
Advanced tracing systems with imaging technology offer special software that enables you to modify the shape of rimless lenses, providing your patients with customized rimless frames. You can change the A or B measurements and other parameters based on patients’ aesthetic or lifestyle needs. This is a neat selling feature designed to help you market profitable rimless lenses. Another feature to check is a system’s ability to trace and edge small “B” measurements, i.e. 18mm or smaller.
CENTERING AND BLOCKING: In-office finishing systems have taken a giant leap forward in the technology related to centering and blocking functions. Like tracers, a blocker can be a separate machine or an integrated device built into an edger or combined with a tracer. Most blockers have an LCD set-up screen that displays an image of the uncut lens against the traced frame shape to verify cut-out before edging. The best units eliminate parallax error to assist with accurate block placement.
But the big news is their layout and centering capabilities. In addition to applying finish blocks automatically and accurately, the new “intelligent” blocking systems can also automatically execute the layout and centering steps that are the most complicated lab functions to perform.
What to Look For:
Automatic Layout and Centering
Advanced tracer/blocker units now have sophisticated imaging technology that can read the power for single-vision lenses without a lensmeter and identify the optical center automatically. These blockings systems can also detect the bifocal segment and progressive markings automatically. Layout is verified using the LCD screen, which displays the lens on the prescribed axis. A manual override feature allows adjustments if needed before the finish block is applied.
The big advantage of automatic layout and blocking is employees with no formal optical training can learn to process jobs easily and quickly. While the upfront equipment costs may be higher, this machine capability saves time and helps reduce spoilage due to common layout and blocking errors, lowering your operating overhead and increasing productivity.
You’ll want to compare systems carefully for differences in how layout and centering is accomplished. The centering function is totally automatic with some units while others require more operator input. Ask each equipment manufacturer you are considering to do a demo and have your operators participate to help evaluate the machine’s ease of use versus your staff’s level of experience.
BEVELING: The latest generation of edgers can process standard plastic, high-index plastic, glass and polycarbonate with a high degree of precision. A menu of processing options appears on the edger’s control panel (usually a high resolution color LCD touch screen) and the operator selects the lens type or material and the desired bevel placement mode. Most edgers have several programmed bevel placement options as well as flat, automatic and manual beveling modes. The AIT Maxima has a unique mini-bevel option to enhance aesthetics with metal frames. Based on the selections entered, the edgers automatically adjust cutting parameters such as clamping pressure on the rotating lens, speed and wet/dry cycling.
Wet edging systems (the majority) grind lenses using a water spray to remove chamber debris and use a combination of wet/dry processing to edge polycarbonate and Trivex lenses. Dry edgers from National Optronics utilize a vacuum system instead of water to clean debris and have blades that cut rather than grind the lenses. Also, many top-of-the-line systems have high-speed edger models with durable motors designed for high-volume production.
What to Look For:
Premium Lens Bevel Selections.
The latest edgers provide special bevel selections for processing popular premium lenses like Trivex, AR-coated and slippery surface hydrophobic lenses, and for beveling fragile lenses like those with thin edges. The edger will automatically set the optimum process controls for the lens type selected, which helps to avoid costly operator trial-and-error. Another valuable feature is the automatic bevel selection, which automatically identifies and executes the optimum bevel placement based on the job data provided. This saves time for novices and experienced operators alike.
GROOVING, SAFETY BEVELING, POLISHING: Three finishing machines that are fast disappearing from the retail in-office lab are the groover, the hand edger and the polisher. These functions are integrated into most multifunctional edgers. Executing these functions automatically in one machine eliminates lens handling between steps, lowers the incidence of spoilage and speeds up processing time.
Advanced edging systems integrate an automatic grooving function with a choice of two or three different groove widths. Most units automatically safety bevel either the front or rear of the lens or both sides, to provide a smooth finished product. The Gerber Coburn Kappa CTD has a patented soft pin bevel. Automatic polishing is a popular feature and each manufacturer boasts it own technology to deliver a fine polish on the finished lens.
What to Look For:
Automatic Groove Placement
Advanced finishing systems will automatically calculate the optimum groove placement based on the lens and frame data provided through 3D processing. This saves time and reduces errors. The Santinelli ME-1000 utilizes its 3D tilt function for grooving as well as beveling and drilling to provide the optimum execution of each function.
DRILLING: Drilling rimless lenses, once a challenging art form executed by only the most experienced lab technicians, is now totally automated for easy execution in the retail lab. Briot’s Axcell CL-D, Santinelli’s ME-1000, Gerber Coburn’s Kappa CTD and National Optronics 7E all integrate the drilling function inside the edger. This eliminates handling the lens between steps and speeds up processing time. Edging and drilling can be completed in as little as 10 minutes, a huge time reduction versus older drilling methods.
AIT’s Opera Drill is a separate machine linked by cable to the Combimax tracer-blocker and Maxima edger. Other top-of-the-line edging systems without a built-in drill, like ODI-Topcon’s Xpress System and Lab-Tech’s E900 package, can be linked with manual or computer-controlled drills to provide this function. Modular systems allow the flexibility to add this equipment feature later as your business grows.
Drilling systems from Santinelli, Gerber Coburn, AIT and National Optronics provide an automatic tilt feature that adjusts the angle of drill entry so that it drills perpendicular to the front surface of the lens. Drill bit sizes of 1.0mm and 0.8mm are available on automated drill systems, with the capability to rout out larger hole sizes as needed. Most automated drills can execute anywhere from six to 10 or more holes, notches or slots in each lens. The most advanced provide options for customization, allowing straight or angled notches, non-through holes and other combinations.
What to Look For:
Drill Hole Placement
Identifying the drill hole coordinates accurately is key to ensuring the correct placement of holes, notches or slots. Setting up the drill holes is automatic with Briot’s Axcell CL-D and Gerber Coburn’s Kappa CTD, which have camera imaging technology to display an image of the rimless demo lens or pattern on screen to position holes, slots and notches. Manual adjustments can be made if desired and the data is communicated to the edger where drilling is executed.
With National Optronics’ 7E Edger, Santinelli’s ME-1000 and AIT’s Opera Drill, the operator inputs numeric coordinate data to display the drill coordinates on screen and uses the internal memory function for repeat jobs. Some systems also enable you to create a drill database using a feature like National Optronics’s Drill Editor or you can link to third-party software to access the drill data.
Benefits vs. Cost
To determine if one of the new, versatile finishing systems is right for your practice, you’ll want to evaluate the potential benefits vs. the cost. Feature-loaded multifunctional systems come with a higher price tag, but they may be worth the upfront cost if they can help grow your practice.
The new finishing systems are faster and easier to use, which means that your staff operators can spend less time edging and more time with customers helping to explain the benefits of high-end lenses and frames, which you can edge easily in-house.
And don’t forget to look at your competition. Success in the optical marketplace draws heavily on providing superior patient service. Versatile finishing systems enable retail operations to compete more successfully by offering customers fast turnaround on a broad selection of eyewear choices.
The latest finishing systems will also reduce your lab bills and increase job output at a lower cost per job. The bottom line: Upgrading your in-office lab can pay out big dividends in terms of building your gross revenue and your patient base.
Arlene Krupinski is a freelance writer and marketing consultant working with optical industry manufacturers and distributors for over 15 years.