L&T: Equipment Quarterly

Jan
2002

Tinting Trends

New equipment and dye technology





Tinting Trends

New equipment and dye technology continues to revolutionize the lens tinting procesS 

by Brian P. Dunleavy

Illustration by Jane Sanders
As the old saying goes, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” And nowhere in the in-office lens processing lab is that more true than in the tinting area. As any long-time optician will tell you, the art of tinting has become a science.

That’s because tinting units have evolved from a bank of heated tanks with dyes into computerized systems with automated mixing and temperature/time control functions. Now opticians and lab techs have fewer responsibilities on tinting jobs, which means better quality in tinted lenses overall.

Always the least time-consuming and most spoilage-free service of the in-office lab, modern efficiency has now made tinting a potential profit center. But just how has tinting changed?

MAN VS. MACHINE

The quality of a tint can be affected by a number of variables: the quality and consistency of the dye formula, the temperature of the solution, the tinting time and the lens material. Recent enhancements by tinting unit manufacturers have addressed all of these issues.

New tint machines are becoming so small that some can even fit in the palm of a hand (not including the tank, of course), making them even more compatible with smaller, in-office laboratories. The newest machines are digital, offering as many as 10 individual gradient settings and extreme accuracy for exact duplication on repeat or match tinting. Some also offer what one manufacturer calls the “set it and forget it,” feature. Audible signals mark when the process is complete and the automated dipping arm removes the lenses from the dye, allowing the technicians to spend more time on other tasks.

The new automated products also offer precise temperature control, including digital temperature setting, and maintenance of the fluid bath to within one-degree Fahrenheit of the temperature setting. Manufacturers claim these new products heat faster and more evenly. On some units, no heat transfer fluid is needed because the dye pots are heated directly from the bottom.

This type of control is essential as consistent heat is vital to an accurate tinting process. Lens coloring baths are heated to expand the lens surface, allowing the dye to penetrate and lock in. Variations in temperature can alter the physical characteristics of the lens material, causing it to draw different hues from the dye, increase or decrease tinting speed and possibly lessen the life of the dye.

The quality and consistency of the dye mixture (ratio of dye to water) is also a key to sound lens tinting. As a result, several tinting unit manufacturers have developed automated stirring systems to ensure the dye is adequately circulated throughout the tank. The systems work automatically and circulate the solution from the bottom of the tank.

Prices for these new automated heating units start at around $700 for smaller, single- or double-tank systems and increase in price to more than $4,000 for higher-volume systems.

DYE DEVELOPMENTS

As any dispenser who sells a lot of tinted lenses knows, certain colors are more popular than others (gray, green, brown, yellow, amber and rose, come to mind), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t patients with unique tastes. Today, tinting dye/solution manufacturers have ever-increasing color palettes available, with some having as many as 200 colors. Most of these solutions also have the UV protection component built in.

So where does an in-office lab store all these color options? Dye suppliers have addressed that as well. Several now have basic colors available in a condensed tablet or powdered form (usually in small tubes), meaning labs can keep them in a drawer or tabletop container. Each tablet equates to one bottle of solution and the tablets have a longer shelf life and are less expensive to ship. One less conventional option—available from one manufacturer—is a specially formulated tinting solution that allows dispensers to tint lenses in a conventional microwave.
Even without all of these lower-cost options, of course, the profit margins involved with tinting are significant. A typical bottle of tinting solution costs less than $50, and provides dispensers with enough dye to tint roughly 100 lens pairs. Given the average retail price of $15 for a cosmetic tint (according to the Jobson Optical Group Database), solutions pay for themselves very quickly.

INFORMATION, PLEASE

Tinting may be easier, but it’s still not a no-brainer, not with all the different lens designs and substrates that come through the typical in-office laboratory. High-index plastic and polycarbonate materials, for instance, each tint differently because of the different hard-coatings they are treated with at the manufacturer level. Also, certain anti-reflective (A-R) coatings complicate the tinting process.
At least one tint manufacturer is working on a group of dye products designed specifically for each of these hard-to-tint lens products. Still others have developed booklets offering tips on how to tint specific lens materials and brands and how to handle the different coatings—scratch-resistant, A-R, etc.—available today.

Often, these booklets also address other issues in the tinting lab such as environmental (i.e., disposal of used dyes, neutralizer, etc.) and occupational issues. Among other items these include the degree of ventilation necessary in an in-office tinting lab (a nearby window or exhaust fan should more than suffice) and the type of clothing and other protection lab techs should wear while tinting (lab coats and gloves aren’t necessary, but recommended, and protective eyewear is strongly suggested).

In all, tinting unit and supply manufacturers are doing more to ensure the aspect of lens processing they work with is easier and more efficient for the dispensers using their products. Dispensers still need to aggressively research the products to make sure they are right for their individual shops and practices. But, thanks to new technology, outfitting an in-office lab for efficient and effective tinting is easier than ever.

“We’re definitely seeing a resurgence in in-office tinting,” notes an executive with one manufacturer. “It goes in cycles and we are definitely in an upswing now. Dispensers see the profit possibilities there and they see the technology available to make the process easier. They’re getting back into it.”

Note: Special thanks to Action Services, BPI, Hilco, Nu-Chem and Phantom Research Laboratories for their assistance in the research of this story.

 

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