By Timothy Herrick
Photography by Ned Matura; Edger wheels courtesy of AIT Industries.
When operated effectively, an in-office finishing lab can improve a dispensary’s profitability. But no matter how low the spoilage rate or rapid the output, not all vision care offices have a volume that will justify spending upwards of $30,000 for the latest generation of edgers.
There has long been a market for lower-cost edging options and with the evolution of technology, edging in the $10,000-to-$15,000 range now offers dispensers a wider array of choices. Low-cost edging used to consist of manual pattern machines as well as pre-owned pattern and older, free-float patternless edgers, usually sold without such perks as warranties or technological support. That is no longer the case. Edger manufacturers report there is a robust reconditioned market that has become increasingly competitive.
“The resale market has been very consistent and there may be some modest growth,” says David Steinbach, vice president of Lab-Tech, a supplier of new and reconditioned edgers and other equipment. “In today’s market, everyone is looking at price, so buying reconditioned equipment is a way to get them into edging. We do have some older pattern edgers, but those are mainly sold overseas. With the refurbished market, dispensers can now get 3D edgers, which are a drastic improvement over the free-float systems of a few years ago.”
Dispensers may have to do an extra layer of investigation with reconditioned machinery. For example, edgers often have a counter—the optical equipment equivalent of an odometer—indicating how many jobs that specific unit produced, which is one gauge of usage level. There is always a concern that the edger is a “lemon” or has too many “city miles” instead of “country miles.” However, with the extensive refurbishing conducted on the machines as well as the warranties now offered, much dispenser wariness has been alleviated. “You’re always worried you’re buying somebody else’s problem,” says Tom MacMillan, OD, of Spartanburg Vision in Spartanburg, S.C. Dr. MacMillan has four locations, three of which have their own in-office labs with reconditioned edgers. “But when you get the support for the equipment, you can see [the manufacturer is] willing to stand behind it.”
The reconditioned market has a few obvious drawbacks: interface capability with other software and equipment may be more limited than with the newer technology; sizing for smaller eye-sizes especially can be problematic; and older edgers lack drilling functions. In addition, more handwork is required on the lens so techs require a higher skill level. But, thanks to a lower investment and comparable service, reconditioned edgers, particularly patternless edgers, have become popular with many dispensers.
“A real cross section of eyecare professionals get reconditioned edgers,” says Jeff Wheaton, president of Vision Systems, Inc., a distributor of reconditioned equipment. “They want to provide the service, but they want a lower cost option. With the proliferation of patternless edging, and the improvement in that technology, patternless is now the standard. The fact is, the older machines are very substantial. A machine that is three or four years old is pretty comparable to what is now on the market and with the top-to-bottom refurbishing, the machines are producing at the same output level as when they were new.”
“The older machines don’t drill and you may have to touch up the lenses more with the handstone,” Dr. MacMillan notes. “But my staff is used to doing more handwork and the machines that are three or four years old are a lot better than the ones we replaced, which were more than 10 years old.”
The reconditioned market for edging is comprised of equipment distributors who specialize in refurbished models and equipment manufacturers who offer used equipment as a secondary business. “Sales are steady, maybe even increasing slightly,” says Matt Vulich, vice president of marketing at AIT Industries, which sells both new and used edging equipment. “It has become more competitive too. We’re offering comparative service in terms of technological support, maintenance contracts, warranties and even leasing arrangements like those we’re offering on our new models.”
Steve Gibson, owner/optician of Gibson Optical in Laurel, Miss., has four locations, each of which features a full-service lab—surfacing and finishing. Throughout the past 10 years, he has exclusively purchased pre-owned equipment.
“The main reason has been cost, because you can add these services at about half the price point when you go reconditioned,” says Gibson. “Edging equipment is a lot easier than surfacing equipment because it is just one unit as opposed to several units, like the generator and polisher so there’s less to go wrong. With surfacing, there are more belts and other components that may need replacing.”
Calculating the return on investment of any in-office finishing lab must take into account the lab tech’s time. Even though operators can multi-task during the cutting cycles, those cycles will take more time—about 10 minutes compared to three-to-seven minutes—and there will be more handwork afterwards. Jobs per-tech-hours will not be at the same output level with reconditioned units as it can be with brand new equipment. “That’s the trade off,” says Jake Goodwin, owner/optician of 20/20 Optical, a closed-loop retailer based in Bessemer, Ala. “But with the volume we do in-house, the extra operator time is more cost efficient than the investment needed for the newest edgers.”
These lower-cost options in many scenarios allow a mid-to-low volume dispenser to increase the profitability per job. “I don’t accept any insurance plans that won’t allow me to do the lab work,” says Gibson. “But reimbursement amounts to about half of what I make on private pay, so I have to make the third-party work as profitable as I can.”
Similar motivations are at work for Dr. MacMillan. While some of his third party work has to be done by an outside lab, he has contracts as part of optometric panels where his in-office lab will be reimbursed for providing those services. “But you don’t make that much on those jobs,” Dr. MacMillan explains. “So that puts some pressure on the bottom line to improve the profitability of those jobs as well as the private pay jobs. Being able to crank the single-vision jobs out of your lens stock and be able to compete with the one-hour stores on that basis makes a big difference.”
As an eyecare professional with satellite offices, who averages 30-to-40 jobs per week per office—as well as being affected by rising costs and declining insurance reimbursements—the difference between $30,000-to-$50,000 for top-of-the-line new vs. $10,000-to-$15,000 for top-of-the-line used was more dramatic. “I couldn’t justify the higher amount and the used machines are very adequate for my needs,” Dr. MacMillan adds.
One of the benefits of the highly computerized patternless edgers—that in addition to a complete reconditioning—is manufacturers and distributors claim they bring the edgers up to factory specs, which includes replacing parts, especially wheels, plus the company will update the software. “Since the older machines still use our basic software, we can update that software to the latest version,” says Bret Davis, president of Briot USA/Weco USA. “This can be an improvement in accuracy, especially with the b-measurements on the smaller frame sizes and speed of the machines.”
Many dispensers want to reduce lab costs by bringing edging in-house, so demand is certainly maintaining a market for second-hand equipment. But factors within the supply infrastructure are also keeping the reconditioned business robust. Most dispensers currently lease equipment and manufacturers also accept trade-ins of existing equipment as an incentive to dispensers to get the latest technology. So as lease agreements reach their conclusions and dispensers renew the agreements by replacing their edgers, manufacturers often find they have a growing number of trade-ins. Of course, these suppliers put the majority of their efforts in developing and marketing new (and better) edgers. “We do have more trade-ins because we’re selling more or our newest edgers,” says Davis, recounting a scenario common with equipment manufacturers. “We have the expertise to recondition and service them. The fact that there is a market shows how important in-office edging is to the dispenser and how good the technology is.”
Throughout his 31-year career as an optician, Goodwin has never shied away from used equipment. “It’s always been part of the optical industry. The difference now though is that the equipment is better and the companies are offering better service.”