This is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with engineers, inventors, designers and other technical experts who influence the creation and production of spectacle lenses, coatings, lens processing equipment and related technologies.

After earning an engineering degree from MIT, Alex Incera began his professional career as a design engineer for the aerospace and automotive industries. In 1995 he was recruited as a project manager to lead several new lens processing initiatives for Gerber Optical and later Gerber Coburn. Since then, he has been surrounded by a creative and talented team of innovators and industry professionals, all of whom are now part of Coburn Technologies, headquartered in South Windsor, Conn.

As president of Coburn Technologies, Incera is responsible for leading his team to achieve his company’s vision—being the leading global business partner that serves the evolving needs of the ophthalmic industry. In doing so, he works with the Coburn Technologies’ senior management team in setting the company’s strategic direction, and supporting and upholding the values that make it successful.   
—Andrew Karp

Karp: How did you become involved in designing lens processing equipment for labs?

Incera: When I joined Gerber Optical in 1995, I was the project manager for a product called the Step One Blocking System. It became one of the most innovative products in the industry as it combined multiple blocking steps into one (hence the name). But more significant was the material that we developed to serve as the lens blocking media; a wax-like product called Freebond. It replaced alloy, which was the only choice at the time and is still widely used in many labs and retailers.

What are the most important skills required in your job?
Listening, leading and being creative.

My technical background is in the area of control systems and theory, and the fundamental criteria for a good control system is feedback. In our non-technical world, that feedback comes to us by listening to customers, colleagues and employees. We all have blind spots, and without the 360-degree perspective that we get from hearing the feedback from our constituents, we can not know what we need to do to improve ourselves or our organizations. Once we know what needs to be done, it takes leadership to execute on those changes that are required to improve the current situation. Oftentimes, that requires a creative mind to think outside the box and to be willing to do things differently.

Describe the creative process involved in designing a new piece of lens processing equipment.

The creative process starts by listening to our customer, the lens makers and identifying areas of the lens-making process that need improvement. This sounds easier than it really is. The biggest challenge is overcoming “blind acceptance,” our inability to see past the current reality into the world of what is possible. Once we’ve identified the needs, the fun begins with the brainstorming filtering ideas through the concept development process, and lastly through the feasibility phase to see if we can do it. And whenever we’re fortunate to move past these highly creative and inventive phases, the commercialization of the technology can begin in a product development process. 

You’ve spoken about the importance of incorporating “the voice of the customer” in the design process. How exactly does this work?

The “voice of the customer,” in its simplest definition, is customer-directed development. This isn’t always an actual “voice” but observational research, like visiting labs and looking for clues indicating areas of opportunities, work-arounds, extra steps, sticky notes, re-work. It is most powerful when it is used throughout the concept and product development process. Early on, it is used to identify unmet needs in a lab and then again, once concepts have been developed, to refine requirements. 

How has the availability of new tools and technology (i.e., new software, new manufacturing processes) changed your approach to designing lens processing equipment?

During my time in the industry, there has been as much advancement in the tools and technology used to develop new ways to process lenses as there has been in new products for the optical industry. New tools and technology allow us to mechanically achieve processes in fewer and fewer steps, which means we can move from concept to prototype much more quickly, with fewer design iterations. So our approach has changed accordingly—fewer design phases and faster times to market, with launched products more closely matching the original design intent.

How does Coburn Technologies keep pace with the rapid and continual evolution of ophthalmic lens materials, coatings and designs?
This is a significant challenge as Coburn Technologies is not just an equipment company, but a total lens processing provider. The secret is to leverage the resources you have that cross into each of these industry areas. For example, we have a considerable consumables business in addition to our equipment development. This variety of products help us stay in touch with a broad range of technologies that our applications and process engineers interact with on a daily basis, and ultimately lead to our acquiring of the intellectual property behind two of our latest hard coating products, which offer some of the best results in the industry.

Which products are you most proud of developing, or having a hand in developing?
I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by a talented team of creative thinkers throughout my career in the optical industry, and they deserve every bit of the credit for those, but I am most proud to have been part of the teams that have developed products such as the Step One blocker, and the SGX generator. Most recently, while my contributions are of a different nature than earlier in my career, I am proudest of the developments behind our new True-Form digital system and new coating products. 

What inspires and motivates you to develop new products and processes?
I am most inspired by seeing a product successfully deployed in commercial use and creating value for our customer. That’s what it’s all about—creating value for our customers.