The point man who led the Vantage team at Transitions Optical is Anil Kumar, Ph.D. Kumar arrived in the U.S. from New Delhi in 1991 to pursue studying organic chemistry/photochemistry. After earning his doctorate degree, he went to work developing photochromic lenses for PPG Industries, which owns Transitions Optical in partnership with Essilor.
In 2000, after working on several generations of Transitions lens products, Kumar was appointed as a group leader to work on long-term “high risk and high gain” projects. Photochromic polarized lenses became the focus of his group. The culmination of their work was Vantage, which Kumar proudly calls, “the most advanced and innovative technology I have had the opportunity to work on.”
Karp: It took seven years to develop Transitions Vantage. Why did it take so long?
Kumar: Research and development (R&D) projects usually require significant time, effort and man power to become successful. As you know, Transitions lenses provide the best balance of all photochromic performances, and there are many performance factors. In addition to photochromics, Transitions Vantage lenses also have polarization. The balance of both polarization and photochromic attributes which are also interdependent was extremely challenging. There were no existing materials that had the desired attributes so we invented new materials and processes to make the Transitions Vantage lens product. Like pharmaceutical industries that discover hundreds to thousands of drug molecules before selecting a few for trials and eventually commercializing one or two drugs, we also followed a similar process before selecting the best dye molecules that provide the best balance of all performances.
With a completely new product, we needed to define the chemistry, dyes, processes and manufacturing equipment. To get to market quickly, we threw the status-quo sequential processes for product development out of the window and quickly adapted to a parallel development approach where R&D, process development, equipment and operation worked in parallel. Considering the complexity and unavailability of materials, we accelerated the development time compared to what it could have been.
What were the biggest technical hurdles you and your team had to overcome?
There were several technical challenges but the biggest challenge of all was to darken and align the molecules, a requirement for polarization. You probably know that in a photochromic lens, for example in a Transitions VI lens, there are millions of photochromic dye molecules which are homogeneously but randomly dispersed in the lens material matrix in no particular order. In order to get polarization, photochromic molecules not only have to darken but also align. We designed and synthesized novel molecules to meet this challenge. All inventions on materials, processes and equipment were patented.
How did you come up with the idea of variable polarization?
Transitions lens products change from clear to dark, and in the sunglass lens category, we also have polarized lenses. Listening to customers and management, it was obvious that “The Next” for Transitions Optical was a lens that also has polarization. Due to the conventional understanding of polarization, everyone thought this would be impossible because a polarized lens is always dark and can never be clear. This paradigm of polarization and darkness had to be broken. We discerned that a lens does not need to go directly from clear to polarized but can go from clear to polarized via all the in-between stages of polarization (later named variable polarization). The concept was proved by demonstration of a prototype which showed clear to polarized with variable polarization.
How is variable polarization different than conventional polarization?
It is generally understood that polarization is either there or it is not there. It is also understood that if a lens is polarized, then it is always dark and cannot be clear or a clear lens cannot be polarized. Additionally, polarized lenses have always been associated with film. Variable polarization of the Transitions Vantage lens product is very different from a conventional polarized lens. Unlike conventional polarized lenses, Transitions Vantage lenses have polarization, no polarization and all in-between stages of polarization depending on the environment. The photochromic dyes in Transitions Vantage lenses not only darken, but they also align to create polarization. Both the darkness and polarization of Transitions Vantage lenses varies hand in hand and is interdependent. Variable polarization clearly breaks the paradigm of conventional polarization.
Transitions Vantage lenses also use Trans-Polarizing, a proprietary manufacturing process that is different from conventional photochromic and polarization technologies. This technology does not use film technology. The process is suitable for producing lenses of varying materials, shapes, diameter and designs.
Some R&D projects get commercialized, and other projects never make it out of the lab. At what point did you know you had a viable product?
Projects fail for many reasons: poor time, technical results, market need, scalability, etc. Initially, the Transitions Vantage lens project started just as an idea, and after some efforts on the side, a concept prototype was produced. The prototype only showed the concept properties—and was no way close to being a commercialized product—but was enough for us to see that molecules can darken and align. That was when we knew it was viable and would be possible to make this product.
What challenges does Transitions face in terms of educating eyecare professionals about variable polarization?
The understanding of conventional polarization among eyecare professionals is somewhat restricted to polarized or non-polarized lenses, and the parameter of percentage of polarization efficiency is rarely used. The concept of variable polarization is initially difficult to understand until Transitions Vantage lenses are demonstrated, and the varying degree of polarization is observed. The challenge for Transitions Optical is to overcome conventional understanding of polarization to explain what variable polarization is and its benefits.■