No other segment of the eyecare industry is experiencing the type of breath-taking change that is now winding through the lens and surfacing laboratory business. The broad arrival of free-form, digital surfacing equipment has, seemingly overnight, resulted in some labs beginning to completely abandon the conventional fabrication tools, spindles, laps and calculations that have been employed essentially unchanged for more than 100 years.

Why is this class of lens so quickly invading the turf occupied by traditional lenses?
The numbers reveal all:
1. Surface precision improves a factor of six times, from 0.06D to 0.01D.
2. Fabrication times are cut by 50 percent.
3. Lens size and cut-out issues are almost non-existent since any design can be “de-centered” into the Single-vision lens blank of your choosing.
4. There are almost no refractive index or substrate restrictions. You can make the lens design of your choice on the material of your choice. For instance: No more searching for what lenses are available in Trivex Transitions. Inventory requirements are slashed. Processing free-form/digital progressive lenses requires that you only carry single-vision, semi-finished lens blanks. No more various progressive lens designs times base curves times near adds. And in the most sophisticated designs, corridor length and inset can be specified by the dispenser.
5. Increased variety and ever more sophisticated lens designs are and will be available as quickly and easily as the specific design algorithm can be downloaded to the lab’s computer.

With the latest and most sophisticated lens designs available for either single-vision, progressive or wrap (or combined), coupled with a “dealer’s choice” from the cornucopia of material index, curve and photochromic options, what could stop ECPs from immediately embracing this new technology?

Let’s take a look:
1. Increased cost—In the beginning, every new technology has an increased cost as compared to the traditional technology of the day. In the not-too-distant past, the start-up laboratory costs for free-form equipment had been very high. And the prices for free-form lenses also seemed expensive. But as production, acceptance and market penetration of free-form lenses has grown, we’re seeing the prices of these lenses decreasing to the level where many good free-form designs are priced in line with traditional lenses. And further reductions are sure to follow.
2. My current/main lab doesn’t offer these new lenses—If they don’t now, they soon will. But why wait? Why not try one of the newer, all-digital labs that specialize in only free-form, digital lenses. As mentioned above, these lens costs can be comparable to your favorite, traditional premium lenses.
3. The unknown frontier—For many ECPs, digital/free-form technology is just all too new, unfamiliar and risky. With an established tradition of questioning the benefits and increased cost of any new lens, frame and other related ophthalmic technology, who can blame an ECP for asking “What I’m using now isn’t broke. Why should I experiment and take the risk changing from what I work with now?” By being among the first to introduce new products to their clients, ECPs can continue to effectively compete with the lure of Internet eyewear.

Risks and Rewards
With progressive lenses, ECPs generally accept the traditional wisdom of not changing the brand of progressive that a client is wearing, particularly if they seem “satisfied.” We’ve all taken risks here and sometimes found failure. And when we’ve experienced failure, we often immediately run back to the lens we already know. But looked at realistically, we all realize that there is no single progressive that is good for everyone that walks into your office. Yet, the prospect of experiencing dissatisfaction should not be a sufficient enough reason to avoid taking the risk of introducing a new lens design.
It is said that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. But even the normal updating or changing of a patient’s Rx comes with risks. We need to understand the questions that help define the risks we face every day in dispensing eyewear:
1. Will they see well?
2. Will they experience an unwanted or altered perspective?
3. Will they feel their eyewear will let them accomplish their daily tasks?
4. Will they like the way they look?
5. Will others (family and friends) approve of the appearance of the new eyewear?
6. Will the eyewear fit comfortably?
7. Will it hold its adjustment in a satisfactory manner?
8. Will the eyewear purchase be perceived as a good value?
9. Will the eyewear prove to be inconvenient?
10. Will the total eyewear experience ensure your client will be a repeat customer?
It’s no wonder, considering how complexly these risks are juggled when dispensing eyewear that ECPs are innately and often subconsciously concerned with managing and reducing the prospect of creating an unhappy customer.

How Well Do ECPs Manage Risks
When faced with recommending new eyewear, most dispensers tend to be a little chicken. This is a direct outgrowth of using a need-based approach to new eyewear. How many of the following, need –based, risk-reducing phrases do you or your staff use in an average work week?
1. “There’s so little change in your Rx, you don’t really need to get new glasses.”
2. “Don’t bother purchasing [expensive] prescription glasses, when over-the-counter    readers will work out just as well.”
3. “This frame style will go with everything you wear, so you’ll need only one pair.”
4. “Progressive lenses will let you see all ranges. There’s no need for separate pairs of glasses for work, hobbies or play.”
5. “Congratulations! Your eyes are perfectly healthy and you do not need to get (or change your) prescription glasses.”
6. “You only need to wear glasses to drive.”
7. “Choosing photochromic lenses means you won’t have to deal with the inconvenience and expense of separate sunglasses.”
If you don’t think these phrases connote reduced risk, then imagine communicating just the opposite thought for any one of them. Immediately you’ll discover the risks you’re avoiding by not suggesting your clients actually spend more money (and in some people’s opinion, more than they have to) for new, different or supplemental eyewear technology and/or fashion.
It’s important for ECPs to realize that our habitual approach to reducing risk has been rationalized and codified into being afraid to “guinea-pig” the latest products on our clients. Continuing to follow this modality would be a major mistake.
Instead, try taking a more proactive approach with recommending new technology. But always keep a back-up plan defining how you will handle the recommendations that don’t deliver on the promised benefit.

Recommending New Technology
There really are almost no risks to recommending this latest lens technology. Why? Because almost any type of quality free-form lens has a promise of better vision. And this benefit is consistent with every eyecare practitioner’s job to deliver the best vision possible. Using these better products, combined with a new, preventative approach to maintaining eye health is a win-win situation for patient and practitioner.

But, always lurking behind every recommendation is the doubt that either the client won’t find the new product superior to their previous, lower-cost eyewear or suffers an experience that is actually inferior to what they had before. Every ECP wants to avoid situations like these because they set precedents in the patient’s mind that some future product recommendations, especially those requiring paying more, may be met with increased doubt or skepticism. We’ve all heard clients say, “We’ve tried that (more-expensive) product before and it didn’t make any difference.”

Let’s look at an example that, in the recent past, truly didn’t work out as hoped. Every ECP will agree that earlier anti-reflective coatings for plastic lenses, from about 1998 to about 2002, could fall into this category. The approach I use to respond to client’s dissatisfaction with older AR (cleaning and/or adhesion failure that often appeared to clients as a propensity to scratch more easily) is simply honesty is the best policy. “Yes, these older AR coatings were substantially inferior in their cleaning and ability to stay adhered to your lenses. But today’s, premium AR finishes are in fact I believe, much better than they would have been if this crisis never occurred.” In keeping with the old saying, you learn more from your mistakes.

Taking Baby Steps in Free-form
Even with all the cheerleading for ECPs to try out these newer, free-form progressive lenses, some will simply not want to take a chance with either the increased cost or the prospect of problems that moving tried-and-true lenses can bring.
One of the best ways to begin experiencing the benefits of free-form technology is with single-vision. Especially if the Rx you’re dealing with has more than a 0.50D of cylinder power, consider suggesting one of the current free-form, single-vision designs, such as Essilor 360 SV or Shamir Autograph II SV. When packaged with a quality anti-reflective coating, these lenses will produce “wows” at your dispensing desk. In my store I heard the following exclamations when delivering free-form, single-visions lenses to mild to moderate astigmats:
1. “This is unbelievably clear!”
2. “It’s almost like HD vision!”
3. “Wow! This lens is like freaky clear!”
4. “It’s like a picture window made with my prescription.”
And single-vision, free-form costs only pennies more than some similar quality, stock finished lenses. The cost to the client and practitioner is not at all intimidating, while the accompanying optical compromises in progressive lenses are removed from the equation all together.

Free-form lenses represent the pinnacle of optical technology. Lens manufacturers and labs are continually improving the way they are designed and manufactured. If you’re not yet dispensing free-form lenses, or have had concerns about them, now is the time to fully embrace them. Your clients deserve nothing less than the best vision products you can deliver.

Barry Santini is a New York State-licensed optician based in Seaford, N.Y.